Since the election of President Donald Trump Iowa has seen an increase in activism by Democrats and progressives but will that make a difference come 2018?
If you’re looking for the new energy and activism animating the Democratic Party in Iowa, you might look past the eight candidates running for governor and consider instead Vanessa Phelan.
Last September, the 37-year-old stay-at-home mom from Des Moines dropped by a Beaverdale neighborhood meeting to hear from Republican U.S. Rep. David Young. By this May, she was guiding an effort to raise a billboard imploring Iowans to vote him out of office in 2018.
Upset with Young’s vote for the House bill scaling back the Affordable Care Act and disappointed by what she sees as his tacit support for President Donald Trump, Phelan raised $1,500 in four days, established a federal campaign committee, crafted the message, designed the graphics and placed the order making the billboard a reality.
The sign went up on June 5 along Court Avenue in the East Village, near Young’s district office.
“If you had told me in November that I would be calling the Federal Election Commission hotline in May about establishing a PAC, I probably would have laughed at you,” she said.
Phelan’s efforts underscore an outpouring of Democratic and progressive activism in the months since Trump was sworn in as president. Anguish over the 2016 election that initially sparked marches and protests is now evolving into a concerted political endeavor.
“What I found myself doing immediately after the election was constantly reading and getting angry and scared and worried and losing a lot of sleep,” Phelan said. “I didn’t have a good place to put that energy. So just getting involved with my little neighborhood group has given me a positive avenue for that nervous energy.”
How the efforts of Phelan and others like her will influence the next election in Iowa, though, is uncertain.
For all their enthusiasm, Democrats remain divided on several fronts, the wounds from a blistering presidential primary still evident at the grassroots, according to party activists and leaders interviewed over the last several months. The central challenge now is channeling grassroots energy into a productive political organization, while avoiding ideological battles and crafting a message that balances the demands of an engaged base with the interests of a broader electorate.
“Democrats have to begin giving voters a reason to vote Democratic,” then-party chairman Derek Eadon said in an interview last month.
This is what activism looks like
The Trump presidency began in Iowa much like it did elsewhere in the country, with marches drawing thousands of Democrats and progressives toting pithy signs to demonstrate their opposition to the new Republican regime.
In the months since, many progressives have channeled their concern and frustration into new local political organizations.
Branches of the national “Indivisible” movement have cropped up across the state, with volunteer-run chapters organized on Facebook and focused on cities and legislative districts.
These groups sent activists to the Statehouse during this year’s legislative session to lobby lawmakers against various conservative legislation. They flooded congressional offices with phone calls and emails ahead of key votes and crowded town meetings waving green “agree” and red “disagree” signs.
“Since January 21, I have put Sen. Grassley and Sen. Ernst on speed dial,” Cedar Rapids activist Claudia Hamlett said. “I call them on a weekly basis, and their aides know it’s Claudia from Cedar Rapids.”
In suburban Dallas County — a traditionally Republican area that Democrats see as critical to reinvigorating the party — newly engaged activist Alex Smith is leading the Southeast Dallas County Democrats. The group formed in January and is already holding two meetings a month to organize supporters and plot strategy.
Smith, a physician, showed up at a recent meeting of the countywide Democratic Party organization with a detailed map of Waukee, Urbandale and West Des Moines and plans to start organizing canvassers to talk politics with voters on their doorsteps.
“I’ve always been politically aware, but up until 2016 I was comfortable enough because Barack Obama was president and he was doing a good job of staving off Congress,” Smith said. “But after the 2016 election, like everybody else, when I saw what happened I knew it was time to get involved and do something.”
Memberships in existing party organizations have been swelling as well, activists around the state said. In Woodbury County, which includes Sioux City, party Chairman Jeremy Dumkrieger recalled a couple stopping him on the street to talk politics when they saw him wearing a Raygun T-shirt critical of GOP U.S. Rep. Steve King.
“We’ve never seen as many people volunteer and be ready to roll as we have been seeing now,” he said. “We have more people working with us now than we did during the caucuses.”
The activism is even inspiring new political candidacies.
Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley, a teacher librarian from Des Moines, emerged in January as one of the organizers behind the Iowa Women’s March in Des Moines, which drew thousands of demonstrators on the day after Trump’s inauguration. Now, she’s running for the Des Moines School Board.
Cathy Glasson, a union leader from Coralville, is one of those eight Democrats in the gubernatorial field, prodded at least in part by a national effort by the SEIU labor union to run its members for office on an unapologetically progressive platform.
Translating activism into electoral success
One big question for the party, however, is how to turn abundant but diffuse energy in the summer of 2017 into focused power for electing candidates in the fall of 2018. And there, opinions diverge.
Lingering divides and the difficulty in unifying them were evident in a series of testy exchanges at a meeting hosted by the Linn County Democratic Party last month. The mid-afternoon gathering at the Cedar Rapids public library came on the same day Trump held a campaign-style rally in the city, and a day after the party’s demoralizing loss in a Georgia special congressional election.
“You’re from the Iowa Democratic Party, right?” activist Robin Kash pointedly asked Eadon during the meeting. “At least in the neck of the woods where I hang out, the Iowa Democratic Party is part of the problem.”
Activists and party officials alike concede that the 2016 caucus-era split between Bernie Sanders supporters and Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton endures, complicating efforts to devise and disseminate a coherent agenda.
The party, Kash told Eadon, “did us in during the presidential caucuses” and then ignored liberal activists’ policy ideas in the general-election campaign that followed.
“I’m thinking that some of us are probably going to organize and we’re going to start running candidates in primaries against Democrats if they don’t show a little more progressive backbone,” Kash warned.
Eadon accepted Kash’s contention.
“It really is a problem,” he said. “The divide from that caucus cycle is absolutely still there.”
He went on, “I don’t think the IDP did right by Sen. Sanders and Sen. Sanders’ supporters last time. … That’s something we need to keep working on. … We have to keep working at that to build that relationship.”
Eadon, who last week stepped down as chairman due to health issues, had been speaking to groups around the state, imploring Democrats and progressive activists to work together even if they remain organizationally separate.
The Sanders-Clinton split is symptomatic of deeper divides between progressive and moderate policy views and between competing commitments to ideological purity and political pragmatism.
That conflict played out in Cedar Rapids between activist Alice Dahle and Eric Gjerde, a special education teacher and volunteer sheriff’s deputy who’s challenging a Republican incumbent in a suburban Iowa House district.
“I need to make sure that nonaffiliated voters and some Republicans will vote for me or I will not win,” Gjerde said at the meeting. “I think we need to be careful about going too far to the left and alienating the people we need.”
“I understand that, but then you risk losing some of us,” replied Dahle, who wore an Amnesty International T-shirt and declared human rights as her top political concern.
Gjerde replied with the hope that even a “very, very progressive liberal Democrat” would choose a fellow Democrat over a Republican on Election Day.
“Most likely,” Dahle countered. “But if you’re not talking about my issues at all, I’m really not very motivated to do anything to help on the campaign.”
Needed: An agenda and a message
All that conflict points to a challenge for Democrats in crafting an agenda and selling it to voters. Liberal activists want to see the party championing big-picture progressive priorities like universal health care. Aspiring candidates would probably be happier talking about issues with middle-of-the-road appeal like economic growth and state education funding.
At the Cedar Rapids meeting, Eadon grasped for a message that could split the difference by emphasizing the party’s essential promise rather than any one policy or another.
“There’s a lot of shared values that we have,” he said. “We believe in rewarding hard work. … Rewarding and respecting that hard work to me is a message that also goes with our values.”
Kash replied with a paraphrase of a verse from Revelations.
“One of the old Bible writers said, ‘You’re neither hot nor cold. You’re lukewarm. I want to spit you out of my mouth,’ ” he said. “That’s what’s happened to the Democrats. We’ve gotten lukewarm, and people just spit us out.”
Resolving that tension — between being too hot to win moderate votes and too mild to appeal to anyone — will be the Democratic Party project for the next year and a half.
Party leaders and activists are hopeful nurturing and welcoming new activists and organizations as partners rather than competitors will help in that process. They hope competitive primaries in the governor’s race, the 3rd District and elsewhere will, too.
“We all have to learn to compromise together and work toward a common goal instead of being branched off on separate issues,” Jeremy Dumkrieger, the Woodbury County chairman, said. “That’s the key.”
This progressive wave of engagement may bear some resemblance to the tea party movement that energized Republican politics in the years after Democrat Barack Obama became president, University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer said. The GOP in 2010 and 2014 was ideologically divided but unified by the various factions’ desire to win.
“They would have the arguments on policy but would come together around elections,” Larimer said. “They always put aside their differences and focused on winning elections.”
Hamlett, one of the activists at the meeting in Cedar Rapids, foresees Democrats behaving similarly. Intraparty differences can be overcome, she said, if only out of fear of botching another campaign.
“What I want to do now is just make sure we don’t screw up again,” Hamlett said. “I have a whole bunch of issues, but that’s the most important one.”