DES MOINES, Iowa — After a bruising midterm election where they lost a competitive U.S. Senate race and emerged with just one of four congressional seats, Iowa Democrats are trying to regroup and look forward.
The recent results mean Iowa will no longer have a congressional delegation evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The retirement of longtime Sen. Tom Harkin creates a leadership void at the top of the party. And despite a significant voter outreach effort, many Democrats stayed home this year, suggesting the party’s message was lacking.
“I don’t think people were fired up about our ticket,” said state Sen. Janet Peterson, a Democrat from Des Moines, who added that the millions of dollars spent on negative advertising didn’t help either. “It depressed turnout so badly that people that could have voted at their kitchen table didn’t fill out the ballot.”
Democrats did maintain a control by a narrow margin in the Iowa Senate, while Republicans increased their majority in the Iowa House. The legislative victory was the main bright spot for the party on an otherwise grim night.
“Having looked at the wave that swept Democratic parties across the country, we didn’t do as badly as a lot of places,” said Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan.
The party is now focused on rebuilding. Brennan is nearing the end of his term and a new leader will be elected in early 2015. That person will be expected to lead through the 2016 caucuses and presidential election. Democrats said the organizing required during the year before the caucuses will be good for party morale.
“That will help rebuild our precinct by precinct organization,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Link, an adviser to failed Senate candidate Bruce Braley. “It will energize Democrats and the nice thing is that it gets started after the first of the year.”
Former party executive director Norm Sterzenbach said Democrats would rally behind former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, if she runs.
“I think she can do quite a bit to inspire the base. There’s a section of the base that would be interested in a fresh face, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be interested in her,” Sterzenbach said.
In addition to preparing for the caucuses, the party must start finding candidates who could run in 2016 for Congress and in 2018 for governor.
“The next step is going out and recruiting candidates,” said Sterzenbach. “There’s been a lot of talk that Democrats in Iowa don’t have a bench and I don’t believe that.”
Among the names cited as possible future candidates are Peterson, Tyler Olson — who dropped out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year for personal reasons— and Brad Anderson, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state this year.
If there is a lesson to take away from 2014, most Democrats said it’s that they didn’t offer a message that inspired people to vote. Despite a massive voter outreach effort, turnout was slightly less than in 2010.
“I truly believe the future of our party is bright. But I think we need to make some changes,” said Anderson. “In my mind it starts with message. Our party needs to put forth some bold ideas and do it with a smile on our face.”