The Democrats’ Iowa problem



Steve King won. Fred Hubbell lost. The legislature stays under Republican control. But two Republican incumbent congressmen, David Young and Rod Blum, lost their jobs on Tuesday. Iowans rendered a split verdict, casting a purple ballot that hued a touch red in the final consideration. So it was a mixed message with a clear message underlying it: Democrats have a big problem in Rural America.

Everybody in the Fourth District knew that Rep. King, a Kiron Republican, consorts with white nationalists from Austria to Holland to Toronto. And JD Scholten gave it the gas in his used Winnebago Sioux City Sue, visiting each of the 39 counties three times. He showed up but lost by three points. The “what-ifs” are many: What if the DC Democrats gave a damn? What if there would have been a populist at the top of the ticket running for governor? What if the Democratic Party invested in a working rural infrastructure as the Republicans have?

But in the end, voters who knew about every outrageous thing King has said over the past 16 years — he said repeatedly that brown babies are harmful to our culture, and then amplified it all over social media — voted for him anyhow. We should think about that. We knew King took common cause with white nationalists, and the voters endorsed it by a narrow margin.

At least King will return to the back bench where nobody will listen to his racist blubber and he can do little harm. There might be a sliver of hope, just a tiny ray of light, that we could approach immigration reform with King firmly in the minority. But we dream.

Scholten sounded tired Tuesday night when asked if he would run again. He gave it everything he had and still couldn’t get that third out. He said he was a 38-year-old unemployed man. He should run again because Scholten can win. He can close that gap because he actually gets rural Iowa. He noted that it took Berkley Bedell and Tom Harkin two tries before Watergate waved each of them in to Congress. The same could happen with Trump. Somebody ought to buy Scholten some more gas for Sue and get him back on the road with a message that we can do better.

Because we are better than this.

FRED HUBBELL got clobbered in rural Iowa. He didn’t work it hard enough, which meant that he never really got a feel for places like Pocahontas. He lost Buena Vista County by 17 points. He lost Webster County (Fort Dodge) by 15. Hubbell was outperformed across the state by congressional Democrats by two to three percentage points at least — in Buena Vista, Scholten was within one point of King while Hubbell drowned here.

Urban areas and special interests dominate Democratic primary elections. They don’t understand what motivates rural voters. You don’t run a slew of Planned Parenthood ads in the Sioux City TV market, for example, and you engage in a rural communications strategy. Hubbell simply didn’t have the same ear for it as Cindy Axne or JD Scholten or Abby Finkenauer. But Hubbell sucked up all the progressive money before rural Democratic candidates had a chance to get to the Rolodex, much like Clinton in 2016, and urban primary voters went with it strong.

Hubbell had a sound argument: Kim Reynolds and Terry Branstad before her made a mess of Medicaid and the state budget. He was a corporate executive who understands insurance and finances. Good enough for us. But he did not exactly inspire anyone to want to pick up a pitchfork like Harold Hughes did. It’s hard to get a frustrated man working for Bruce Rastetter fired up to vote for a corporate executive.

Medicaid will remain run for insurance company profit. There will be no resolution of the tension between agriculture and a clean environment. Iowa State University will go farther into debt to the Koch Brothers and the chemical companies. Kiss the school sales tax for construction goodbye; Storm Lake will have to beg the property tax base in December to put a roof over kindergartners, and that is a dicey proposition.

Branstad was the longest-serving governor in US history. Tom Vilsack could have been. Reynolds will be almost impossible to shake loose. That has implications for everything, from hoghouse oversight to social worker caseloads to teacher pay.

Reynolds’s victory also is ominous for Democrats in the 2020 president cycle. Iowa is a swing state. The governor plays a big role in statewide elections, and it will be especially big with all-GOP control of the state government and political apparatus.

Democrats need to figure out their rural problem quickly, or they had better get used to four more years of Trump (or worse, Mike Pence).

HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS to Kelly Snyder, a Marathon Republican, with his victory for Buena Vista County Supervisor. He easily defeated Democrat Steve O’Bannon and independent Dale Arends. Snyder is a nice guy. He is a good listener. He is not excitable. He will make a good supervisor.