On November 8th the Democrats lost the election to President-Elect Donald Trump. There is a lot of hand-wringing going on. People are asking the question, “How could this happen?” I will tell you how this happened. Party leadership ran a 2008 style campaign in 2016. The political landscape has fundamentally changed since 2008. It is true that the economy has done much better under Barack Obama than it did under George W. Bush. The problem is that during the economic recovery the vast majority of the good paying jobs went to college graduates. People are fearful for their economic futures. Those who do go to college are burdened with crushing student loan debt in order to finance their educations. It’s not uncommon for new graduates to be unable to find work in their fields. Fifty-one percent of college graduates are employed in jobs that do not require a degree. For a person without a college degree, the prospects are even worse. Both yearly and lifetime earnings for college graduates are significantly higher than non-college graduates.
The DNC put out too many flawed candidates. Corporate candidate Katie McGinty was preferred over a strong progressive like John Fetterman. Former Republican Pat Murphy was another corporatist preferred by the DNC. In the year of the outsider, the DNC put out the most establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. I’m not disputing her qualifications. I’m not disputing her experience. I also think it would be intellectually dishonest to dispute that a large portion of the vitriol towards her was due to sexism. That said, she was the most disliked candidate in party history, but the DNC believed her negatives could be explained away. Progressives and working class people were not comfortable with her ties to Wall Street. Progressives were not comfortable with her position on fracking or her refusal to take a stance on Standing Rock. Her decision to pick Tim Kaine as her Vice Presidential candidate, a man who is anti-union and pro-pipeline, felt like a slap in the face to the progressive wing of the party. The choice of adding Ken Salazar to the transition team, a man who has pushed for projects like fracking, the TPP, and the Keystone Pipeline, was one of the most tone deaf choices she could have possibly made. These choices basically told progressives that she felt she didn’t need them to win. She could not have been more wrong. Hillary Clinton received four million fewer votes than Obama. Nearly half of the registered voters stayed home. Independents did not vote for Hillary Clinton in very large numbers. This is a group that largely supported Bernie Sanders. She was unable to shore up the base that Obama built, and never had any excitement behind her.
Third party voters are not to blame for this loss. Jill Stein received 0.98% of the vote. The Green Party vote was irrelevant to the outcome of the election. As much as Jill Stein tried to latch on to the energy of Bernie Sanders, it just didn’t happen. Gary Johnson did much better than Jill Stein. He received 3.25% of the vote. He did not hurt Clinton either. Most of his voters would not have voted for Hillary.
In Iowa, we were out hustled by the Republicans. I live in the third district and divide my time between Adams and Montgomery County. Republican Congressman David Young is extremely present in the district. He has visited me at my office in Corning, IA twice during 2016. Democrats in Iowa don’t do this. This has been a problem for many years. Far too often Democratic candidates will visit towns at 1 pm on a Wednesday afternoon. The few times I’ve been available to attend these meet and greets it’s been me and 8 or 9 retired people. That is not how you get your message out. If you’re running for office you need to do things at the convenience of the voters, not yourself. The Republicans beat us on messaging as well. Their candidates resonated with their base. With the exception of Kim Weaver, ours did not. Kim was the only candidate who actually inspired me. The others were mainly centrists who refused to take a stand on tough issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline. One was even a former Republican who has donated thousands of dollars to Republican candidates.
As a party, we need to ask ourselves tough questions. We need to have our “come to Jesus” moment and admit that running Hillary Clinton was a mistake. As a state party, we need to admit that we need entirely new leadership. Over the past 3 election cycles, Iowa was gone from blue to purple to red. We are in danger of turning into Kansas or Wisconsin. We can never allow the DNC to interfere in a primary election again. By running Patty Judge we lost the opportunity to introduce a fresh new candidate to our electorate. A lot of progressives and other state activists were never sold on Judge. Former State Senator Jack Hatch said, “The Washington oligarchy has chosen Lt. Gov. Judge to go after this seat, to go after Grassley. But that’s a political oligarchy that oftentimes interferes with the natural flow of politics in a state.”
What we are doing isn’t working. If we continue to ignore the rural counties and treat rural Iowans like the punchline to a joke, we are done as a state party. Who we pick as chair will determine whether we become a stronger party or continue the slide into irrelevance. If we choose someone who supports a DNC Chair candidate like Howard Dean or Tom Vilsack, we are in trouble. What that would tell me is that this person isn’t prepared to go in the necessary direction to move the party forward. The way forward is progressive populism. We must fight for issues like a $15/hour minimum wage that is tied to the cost of living index. Nearly 60% of Americans support raising the minimum wage. The majority of Americans (58%) agree that a single-payer, “Medicare for All”, health care system should replace the Affordable Care Act. We must completely reject Neoliberalism and the “win at all costs” mentality because that mentality is causing us to lose elections. Playing it safe doesn’t work. Running Republican-light candidates does not work. We must stand for something or we won’t stand for anything
Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Progressive Caucus