Aside from ousting Donald Trump from the White House, the story of the 2020 election has an unhappy ending for Democrats. They failed to win back the Senate, nearly lost the House and fell short in statehouses all across the country.
But from the botched caucuses in February to the party’s wipeout on Election Day, nowhere was more miserable this year for Democrats than in Iowa. Long a focal point of the party’s political universe, Democrats there are now on the brink — their losses up and down the ballot in November have made the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus status more precarious than ever.
“There’s a lot of soul searching going on in Iowa right now,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats. “It looks pretty dire for the next couple of years.”
The hits started early, with the caucuses, and are still coming a month after the election. Earlier this week, state officials certified Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks’ six-vote victory over Democrat Rita Hart in the state’s open 2nd Congressional District — making it one of two House seats that flipped to GOP control this year. If that excruciatingly narrow result withstands a challenge from Hart, it will leave Democrats with just one of Iowa’s four House seats.
That’s on top of Trump trouncing Joe Biden in the state, Democrats failing to dislodge GOP Sen. Joni Ernst and Republicans expanding their majority in the legislature. This month, the party is expected to release an audit of the caucus fiasco, just as Democrats begin to look ahead to the midterms and the presidential nominating calendar for 2024.
If it was only that Democrats in Iowa had a difficult caucus or suffered down-ballot losses, it might not have been so bad. The party did poorly in congressional and legislative races everywhere. But Iowa, because of its coveted place ahead of all other states in the presidential nominating process, had more on the line than any other state. And expectations in Iowa were unusually high after Democrats flipped two House seats in 2018 and Democratic voter registration shot up ahead of the caucuses, briefly surpassing Republicans for the first time in years. Biden appeared competitive enough there early this summer that Trump aired defensive ads in the state.
It would have been easier to forget the handling of the caucuses — where an app failed, results were delayed and initial reports appeared to contain errors — had Democrats taken out Ernst or had Biden turned Iowa blue.
Instead, Biden lost the state by more than 8 percentage points, with Trump carrying all but six of the state’s 99 counties — just as he did in 2016. Ernst clobbered Theresa Greenfield by nearly 7 percentage points, freshman Democrat Rep. Abby Finkenauer lost her bid for a second term and Rep. Cindy Axne, the only successful Democratic House candidate, barely held onto her seat.
“I’m tired of being a Democrat,” said Chris Adcock, chairwoman of Democratic Party in southwest Iowa’s Page County. “It’s just exhausting.”
Adcock, who ran unsuccessfully for a legislative seat, said she has “eternal hope.” But “six [votes] for Miller-Meeks? Oh, that’s harsh. And then Abby [Finkenauer] losing? Oh, my gosh, it’s heartbreaking.”
Even Republicans could hardly believe their good fortune. Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said, “I never anticipated — I truly didn’t — I never anticipated that we were going to have the night that we did.”
Democrats placed blame for their failures in Iowa on a similar confluence of factors that dragged them down in other states Trump won. The president overwhelmed Biden in rural areas, where Republican turnout surpassed expectations — and where Democrats failed to make inroads. Democrats were hampered by their lack of door-knocking amid the coronavirus pandemic and by ineffectual messaging on the economy.
The toll of the coronavirus and the impact of Trump’s trade policies on Iowa’s agricultural economy didn’t hurt Republicans as much as Democrats had hoped. Exit polls suggest Biden not only lost the rural vote in Iowa, but also the suburbs. Because Iowa was never a core swing state, Biden did not campaign heavily there.
“Our campaign with Biden was like we were playing a football game without a quarterback,” said Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa Democratic Party chairman. “We were running without air cover, we were running a poor Senate campaign … It was the perfect storm for the kind of disaster that we got.”
Democrats might have expected it. Even before the caucus debacle, there were signs that all was not right in Iowa. Trump’s impeachment hearings pulled three of the top five presidential candidates out of the state in the final run-up to the caucuses. The highly anticipated Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll was canceled at the last minute due a surveying error. And once Biden won the nomination — thanks to later-voting South Carolina and Super Tuesday — his anemic fourth-place finish in Iowa made the state seem less significant than ever and shined a spotlight on its lack of diversity.
The road back to relevance is going to be a slog, with deep ramifications for a national party that is laboring to regain a durable foothold in the Midwest. Following the election, Mark Smith, the current state party chairman — who stepped in after his predecessor, Troy Price, resigned following the caucuses — announced he will not seek re-election. Though a handful of Democrats have already signaled their intent to run for the post, some of the most high-profile Democrats in the state, including J.D. Scholten and Deidre DeJear, had been recruited for the position but told colleagues they will not run — something both Scholten and DeJear confirmed.
It’s a thankless job. Few Democrats expect the state’s fortunes to improve in the midterm elections, when the president’s party traditionally faces headwinds. And as in other states, the party is riven with internal conflict — what one prominent Democrat called a “psychiatric ward right now in terms of the battle between progressives … and the moderates.”
The audit report that the party plans to release on the caucuses isn’t likely to help, instead tearing open old wounds — and presenting a new platform for out-of-state critics of Iowa’s prominent role. The report is expected to cast a wide net of blame for the vote-counting meltdown, according to multiple Democrats, likely heightening tension between Iowa Democrats and Democratic National Committee officials who feuded over the caucuses earlier this year.
William Owen, a DNC member from Tennessee, said this week that Iowa Democrats “have lost their credibility and should no longer be taken seriously,” calling for the party to move from a caucus to a primary system.
“I would imagine it’s going to generate a wave of bad stories about the caucuses,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa. “Iowa’s not in a great spot.”
It is possible that if Biden seeks re-election in 2024, the likely lack of a competitive primary will reduce pressure on Democrats to remake the calendar. In addition, the expected departure of DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who has been highly critical of caucuses, is viewed by Iowa Democrats as an opening to maintaining them in some form.
Kaufmann, an ally of Democrats in the parties’ effort to keep the state’s caucuses, said, “Do I think we’re going to keep [the caucuses]? Yes, I do. Do I think it’s going to be a bigger battle than I hoped? Yes, I do.”
Kaufmann said he still considers Iowa a swing state — an important political center for both parties. But for Democrats, that’s a harder argument to make than it was even a month ago.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a former secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration, said in an email that “it is always darkest before the dawn.” DeJear said she’s seen diverse groups of Democrats in the state “coming together” more after the election than ever before — with a “huge task ahead,” but one she said is “very possible to accomplish.”
Scott Brennan, an Iowa DNC member and a former state party chairman, said that while the November results were “depressing here,” it was similar to “so many places nationally, where we thought we were going to pick up all these seats, and none of it rang true.”
Still, Brennan said, “2020 is forgettable for a lot of reasons. Politics didn’t make it any better.”