Iowa losses underscore Democrats’ struggles with attracting rural voters

Greg Nash

Losses by Democrats up and down the ballot in Iowa in November laid bare a trend for the party that’s been cycles in the making: Rural voters who were once part of their base’s core are leaving them at an alarming pace.

Rural voters across the nation broke hard for President Trump and other Republicans, something that was on full display in the Hawkeye State, where strong GOP support in rural counties helped swing hotly contested races up and down the ballot.

President-elect Joe Biden lost by more than 8 points in a state former President Obama won twice, while Sen. Joni Ernst (R) fended off Democrat Theresa Greenfield by a comfortable 7-point margin and Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D) lost her reelection bid for a second term. Democrats had also hoped to flip the state House but ultimately won back just one Republican seat while losing seven of their own districts.

GOP victories in those races were largely fueled by disproportionate support in Iowa’s rural counties, which are sparsely populated but numerous enough that, with big enough margins, they can more than offset Democrats’ support in the state’s more liberal enclaves.

“It’s a red state right now,” said J.D. Scholten, the Democratic candidate who lost by 24 points in Iowa’s rural 4th Congressional District. “It breaks my heart to say it, but it’s true.”

Iowa was already drifting away from Democrats. The Hawkeye State is home to 31 Obama-Trump counties, which went for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but flipped for President Trump in 2016. No other state has more of those areas than Iowa.

Trump won all of them again this year, many by expanded margins. For instance, Obama won rural Allamakee County by 14 points in 2008 and 4 points in 2012 before Trump won there by 24 points in 2016 and 29 points this year — a 43-point swing in 12 years.

More than a half-dozen political operatives in the state who spoke with The Hill highlighted an array of factors that contributed to the GOP’s overwhelming success in rural Iowa, with some Democrats fearing that a chunk of those voters could be gone for good.

Among the top factors was Trump, who boosted turnout by white working-class voters beyond expectations and shattered assumptions he’d maxed out with that demographic in 2016.

“The Trump wave was just too much to overcome,” said one Iowa Democrat who worked on a down-ballot race and requested anonymity to speak candidly about the elections.

Trump lost just six counties in Iowa, four of which he fell short in by double digits. The surge in turnout was undoubtedly a boon to down-ballot candidates who otherwise may not have enjoyed such loyal support from rural voters.

“I believe a lot of what I see right now is very much attached to him, it’s very much almost cultish with Trump,” added Patty Judge, Iowa’s former lieutenant governor and the co-founder of the Democratic group Focus on Rural America.

But even with Trump at the top of the ticket, Democrats concede that their struggles extended far beyond the president’s appeal.

Strategists in the state said rural voters have been straying from the party’s broader messages for years, and a concerted effort by the GOP to nationalize down-ballot races drove an even deeper wedge between them and Democratic candidates.

In particular, Democrats who spoke with The Hill said messages around the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to “defund the police” were poorly received in rural parts of the state that are reluctant to back such systemic changes and often see close ties between residents and local law enforcement.

“It works in Democratic-leaning districts, but in places like Iowa, where the conversations we’re having are trying to convince independents and Republicans to vote Democrat, we’re now being perceived as us trying to convince independents and Republicans that we don’t support defunding the police,” said a second Democratic strategist who worked on down-ballot races. “So we’re naturally put on the defensive with the deck stacked against us.”

“What I think it is is candidates who are simply gravitating toward a Twitter trend for a pretty far-left progressive movement who don’t recognize or appreciate the impact that that has in places that aren’t in such far-left-leaning districts,” the source added.

Democrats argued that those messages created a perception that the party was primarily concentrated in urban and suburban areas, a trend that was only exacerbated by a lack of physical campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Iowa Democrats, like their national counterparts, drastically cut down on their events to adhere to social distancing guidelines, a move several in the party have defended as necessary given the health crisis. However, in a state that values retail politics as much as Iowa, the lack of face time is also believed to be a prime suspect in the disconnect with rural voters.

“It’s a dilemma, because you sure want to respect the fact that we are living in a pandemic and you don’t want to do anything politically that’s going to make it worse, that is going to make anybody sick, or for God’s sakes, die, so trying to balance the circumstances we find ourselves in with the need for retail politics in Iowa, I think we came up short,” Judge said.

Republicans acknowledge that strength in rural communities alone is not a long-term strategy, but the perfect storm of Trump’s effect on turnout and Democrats’ messaging disputes gave them a prime opportunity this cycle to boost their support.

“Whether it’s talk about socialism, defund the police, it’s just language that doesn’t play well in rural parts of the country,” said David Kochel, an adviser to Ernst and Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson, who unseated Finkenauer. “Ultimately there is a date with destiny, but as it stands now, these counties, these exurban counties just get more and more red each cycle even as they might be a slightly smaller share of the population.”

Democrats did have one key victory in Iowa in the 3rd Congressional District, where first-term Rep. Cindy Axne (D) ran up the score in Polk County, home of Des Moines, and kept the margins tight enough in the remaining rural areas to win reelection.

Lawmakers and strategists said the key to reflecting Axne’s success at the statewide level is refocusing down-ballot races on local issues to avoid getting caught up in disadvantageous messaging wars. One way to do that, according to state Sen. Kevin Kinney (D), is to put a premium on recruiting candidates who are closely aligned with their constituents.

“I believe I’m the only farmer in the state legislature that’s a Democrat. And in Iowa, to me, that’s kind of sad. I don’t think we do a real good job of recruiting for the district, myself,” said Kinney, who worked for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years and, besides serving in the state Senate, also farms corn, soybeans and other products.

“I think you have to go out and try to find people that’ll match the district. In my district, it’s a rural district — I farm, and I was a cop for 30 years, and the people know me. I hold a seat that leans Republican,” he said.

Without those efforts, however, Democrats argue they could find themselves increasingly on the defensive on the national level given the outsized influence more rural states have in the Senate and presidential races.

When asked about the political consequences of failing to close the margins in rural areas, Scholten replied bluntly: “If you ever want to get the majority in the Senate, if you want to do well in the Electoral College, you have to do better in rural areas.”

Tags Abby Finkenauer Cindy Axne Donald Trump Iowa Joe Biden Joni Ernst

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