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Iowa is a Red State Now
Despite Huge Wins for Democrats Nationwide, Democrats In Iowa Have Lost Big Time
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter that looks at personalities and politics in the middle of America.
Iowa, once famously a purple state, and the first-in-the-nation for presidential caucuses, has been leaking blue for a while.
While a couple of key races are still too close to call, it’s clear that in Iowa, Democrats have lost nearly every single national office and lost ground state-wide. Even the state auditor, Rob Sand, a Democratic party favorite, is barely holding onto his seat, in a race where ballots are still being counted.
This is in contrast to what is happening nationally. Traditionally, a midterm is devastating for the party in power. But Democrats made gains and held on in tight races. While the results are still tabulating, the results are clear, there was no national red wave.
The headline on POLITICO declares “The Red Wave That Wasn’t” it’s worth adding in parenthesis (except in Iowa.)
It’s a devastating blow to a party in a famously once-purple state, during a mid-term cycle where Democrats outperformed expectations. In that context, it’s hard not to see the results then as an indictment of the Iowa Democratic Party and the candidates, rather than the issues at stake.
In response to the aggressive Republican campaigns, Democrats mounted what can be best expressed as the defense of 18th-century Poland – roll over and get conquered. This year, Iowa Democrats nominated a candidate who was 64 to run against a candidate who was 88. 64 is the average age of the US Senate and the race, amounted to two old men, arguing for the future of Iowa politics.
Many Democratic candidates went above and beyond not to attack their opponents, even when doing so would have highlighted issues essential to Democracy.
In Iowa’s second congressional district, incumbent Republican Marrianette Miller-Meeks was up against Christina Bohannan. In 2020, Miller-Meeks actually appeared at a campaign event with a white nationalist and January 6 insurrectionist Nick Fuentes. While Miller Meeks disavowed his anti-Semitic and racist viewpoints, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch for an opponent to use that association as a basis to draw a line in the sand for constituents. Instead, Bohannan’s messaging emphasized her blue-collar roots, talking about how she grew up in a trailer park and later went to Harvard. A message that felt coded more toward making a donor class think she was appealing to her base, rather than actually appealing to her base.
In the race for secretary of state, incumbent Democrat Tom Miller ran against Republican Brenna Bird, who was Steve King’s chief of staff and who ran ads about how excited she was to give Biden “the Bird.” In this race, hardly anyone mentioned the Steve King connection. (If you’ve forgotten, King was a Republican congressman deemed too racist to be part of the party that eventually nominated Donald Trump.)
State Auditor Rob Sand went out of his way to prove he was above the political fray. Democratic candidate for Senate, Michael Franken emphasized people above party and spoke to me about his appeal to Republicans. It was as if Democratic candidates in Iowa were running more as Republicans than actual Democrats.
It’s understandable to try to go high when the candidate goes low, but in a state sapped of media outlets, putting it all on the line for votes, and getting scrappy, as John Fetterman did in Pennsylvania, doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Also, sanctimony has never polled well or got good headlines.
Iowa didn’t become red by accident.
There has been a slow erosion of intellectual capital from the state, which also suffers from the hollowed-out politics of white grievance and a severe lack of organization in rural counties. There has also been an erosion of the news media.
It’s not just Gannett’s consolidation, shrinking newsrooms, and the loss of local outlets. But even the supposed heroes of local news have put competitors out of business. And other outlets have played access games, platforming voices that spread misinformation about abortion and reproductive healthcare. In 2020, I published an interview with a former local newspaper reporter. In that interview, we talked about how local journalism is losing and not just to corporations, but through its own ineptitude— from bad websites, shoddy distribution, and to poor pay for journalists.
In sum, it not just large corporations killing the news. It’s the news killing itself.
Within that dustbowl of a media landscape, talk radio and biased websites posing as legitimate news outlets have set up shop. They are the media equivalents of chain stores, offering a desirable product at a cheap price but ultimately sapping the life from the communities they say they serve. This year, a conservative-backed website was the first to report that Kimberley Strope-Boggus, the former campaign manager for Michael Franken, the Democratic challenger for Grassley’s senate seat, accused Franken of forcibly kissing her. While I was reporting on that story for POLITICO, I found that many people who are deeply engaged in Iowa politics were surprised to learn about the blatant political leanings of the site. It’s hard to know if you aren’t paying attention to who is funding what outlets and why.
Additionally, on Tuesday, KCRG, a major news outlet, learned it was banned from attending the Republican election night party. I was also denied access. KCRG pointed out that their refusal of access comes just days after they reported on a Republican candidate not actually living in the apartment where he said he lived. KCRG’s news director called the move unprecedented. But it’s very precedented and well-documented.
Right now, several news outlets are party to a lawsuit suing the governor for not complying with open-records laws. Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Iowa senate passed a new rule denying journalists access to the Senate chambers.
The message is clear: Write stories our way or we’ll keep you from writing them. And while some news sites stand up, others often capitulate. Far too afraid of power to stand up to it.
The result is a feedback loop with a lack of critical information and ever-fewer checks on power.
When early voting began in Iowa, people reached out to me via Twitter DMs to ask for voter guides. They’d checked with local party offices and had been told there were no voter guides. People then were confused about who was on their ballot and where candidates stood on the issues. In some cases, there was local reporting on candidates, but these stories were locked behind paywalls or on otherwise unmanageable websites with survey requirements, pop-up ads, or auto-play videos.
Iowa didn’t become red by accident. There has been a slow erosion of intellectual capital from the state, which also suffers from the hollowed-out politics of white grievance and a severe lack of organization in rural counties. There has also been an erosion of the news media.
I sent voter guides from Iowa Public Radio and a few links from another local political website, Bleeding Heartland, whose left-leaning writer and editor, Laura Belin, had done deep dives into the judges on the ballots. The Des Moines Register also did a deep dive, but the story is harder to access without a subscription. But you shouldn’t need to live, breathe and eat Iowa politics or pay for a subscription just to make an informed vote. And this problem isn’t just a problem for the overworked, underpaid journalists who have little control over their websites or their paywalls. This is a problem for the Democratic party.
But there are other problems as well, including disinvestment in rural organizing and alienation younger voices in the party. Former state senator Ras Smith, who for a brief moment, ran in the Democratic primary for governor, told me in September that he quit politics in Iowa because he was frustrated with the party because he hadn’t felt supported in his run. And, he argued that the eventual Democratic nominee Diedre DeJear wasn’t supported either.
The candidates who were supported were the ones clinging to a swiftly crumbling center. Now, it’s clear that the center has disintegrated.
Additionally, as Iowa reddens, it’s at risk of losing it’s political relevancy and with it, it’s first-in-the-nation status. Right now the national Democratic Party is reviewing applications for states vying to leap-frog over Iowa for first in the nation. One of the criticisms against Iowa maintaining it’s role in the presidential nominating process, is that it’s demographics and politics are out of step with America. Famously, Julian Castro, as he made his presidential bid in the 2020 primaries, called Iowa a “mess.” He wasn’t wrong.
All of these problems didn’t happen overnight. And they won’t be fixed overnight as well. But as states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Minnesota celebrate huge democratic wins for bold candidates, it’s worth reflecting on how Iowa became so red.
I recently saw Broadcast News, the excellent 1987 movie, which remains prescient. And in thinking about this problem, I thought of the line that Albert Brooks shouts at Holly Hunter about another news anchor. He’s the devil, Brooks’ character argues, because, “He will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit.”
Until one day we wake up and wonder what happened.
Correction: The first edition of this newsletter said Ras Smith ran in the presidential race. I realize that’s wrong. It’s fixed. I’m tired.
If you are wondering how we go here, well, here is a round-up of all my reporting for the last year.
I wrote a profile of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.
And I also did an interview with Reynold’s challenger, Diedre DeJear.
And for Vanity Fair, I did a deep dive on Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. And for POLITICO, I wrote about Grassley’s challenger, Michael Franken. That article, I think, also really highlights some of the glaring problems with Iowa Democrats.
Also, in August, I wrote about Tom Bonier and the national trends in data and polling that indicated that this year, would not be a typical political year.