Developing blueprints. Election losses driving democratic assessments and retooling. Insights from three democratic activists on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa PBS.


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, December 2 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Republicans won big in last month's elections and democrats are scrambling for answers. Identity politics are being blamed, that is the party identifying too closely with specific demographic groups. But experienced democratic leaders aren't settling for a single answer in rebuilding the party. And that’s why we're convening three of them at the Iowa Press table for an Iowa perspective. Pella native, Jessica Vanden Berg, is a partner in a Des Moines political consulting firm, experience as a congressional staffer and advising political campaigns for James Webb and Christie Vilsack among others. Brad Anderson also does political consulting and is co-founder of an Iowa research and polling firm. He directed Barack Obama's successful 2012 Iowa campaign and two years ago ran unsuccessfully for Iowa Secretary of State. State Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids will now be leading the Senate's democratic minority during the next legislative session. He was a candidate for the U.S. Senate democratic nomination this past year. Well, welcome back to Iowa Press. And for you, Rob Hogg, it's a first time.

Hogg: Yes it is, I'm excited to be here.

Borg: It's nice to have you here. And I want to introduce people that you know across the table, our viewers need the introduction, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines Register Columnist Kathie Obradovich.

Obradovich: And thanks for being here. Senator Hogg, since this is your first time I'll start with you. Dean mentioned some issues that came up during the election, things that democrats are identifying that the party needs to fix. What do you think is the priority that the party needs to fix and focus on first?

Hogg: Well, the biggest thing I'm going to work on as the new democratic leader in the Iowa Senate, and by the way that's the first new leader we've had in the Iowa Senate for 20 years, that's how long Mike Gronstal led the democratic caucus. I'm going to be doing a lot of outreach and listening to a lot of people across our state. I think we've got to be present, we've got to compete in all 99 counties and to me that's a real priority. We're also in a different situation now where since we're in the minority party we don't have as much of the burden on the governing. We're going to be very reactive to things and we are going to do that. We're going to stand up for Iowans who need state government to help Iowans and we're going to stand up for those people who help provide the help that Iowans need.

Obradovich: We're going to get to that. But I know you were involved in helping some of your fellow senators during the election. What went wrong in your mind that republicans were able to pick up six seats?

Hogg: Yeah, look, the biggest problem we had this year was that we faced what I consider an unprecedented onslaught of faults and misleading negative advertisements. And some of our candidates responded better and more quickly. Jeff Danielson and Liz Mathis I thought did a really good job responding to the onslaught that was against them. The other candidates I don't think we had as good of response. We need to be prepared, we need to raise the money and be prepared for better rapid response. That's one of the big takeaways for me. I know that's not the only lesson but that's a big one.

Obradovich: And Jessica, you've been on the ground, you've seen these things from various perspective. What do you think is the number one job for democrats to get ready for the next election?

Vanden Berg: Well, I think as we look forward there's a lot of things that we can do. But the number one thing we have to do is get back those Trump/Obama voters. We can't win statewide without them. We have to find the message that brings back working class people and we have to sort of dig deep and be very reflective on who we are and not becoming bitter but trying to look towards the future.

Borg: You said get back those voters. But that insinuates or suggests that you had them in the first place.

Vanden Berg: Well, there are people who voted for Obama who voted for Trump. So they voted for a democratic president, they likely voted for a democratic senator or a democratic governor at some point. So what was wrong with our message and why did we lose those people? Why did some of the Senate races and a lot of those congressional races track with Hillary Clinton? You see a lot of that in the numbers so was it national? Were the headwinds too difficult when the responses weren't there? So there's a lot of reflection we're doing right now.

Obradovich: Brad, you and I have talked a little bit about message. What was wrong with the message that Obama voters did not stick with Hillary Clinton?

Anderson: Well, in my view, we definitely need to focus on the message. And we have been spoiled as a party really going back to 2008 because the best messenger, the best communicator and the best writer in our party happened to be the President of the United States. He wrote his own speeches, he was able to take very complicated things and boil it down to the person in Clinton County who really is struggling at a time that they needed to be inspired. And so to Jessica's point about those Obama voters that went to Trump, look at what happened in Clinton County. I think that's remarkable. We had 61%, we won that county with 61% in 2012 and lost it with 46% of the vote in 2016. So it's a remarkable turnaround. And if you were to ask I think the folks in Clinton County, national message matters, it matters because it affects all the races. If you were asked what were the three reasons that, why were the three reasons that Donald Trump was running and then what were the three things which Hillary Clinton was running on they could easily tell you the three things why Donald Trump was running but it was really tough I think to figure out what were those three things that detailed why Hillary Clinton was running.

Obradovich: I think someone said 50 things.

Anderson: There were 50 things. I mean at one point she -- to me there are a lot of things, we could talk about the Clinton campaign and I like and respect Hillary Clinton, but there at one point her campaign was given a list of 46 different potential slogans and the campaign was supposed to pick one. If you were to hand that list to David Axelrod or President Obama you'd probably get fired. So it's just, we have to figure out our message and a way to communicate it to those voters --

Borg: You're concentrating on message though and not candidate. You're saying it was all the improper message.

Anderson: No, I'm not saying it was all the improper message but I'm saying that our national candidate wasn't able to, I believe, communicate an effective message. And you could say, look there was James Comey, there were a bunch of other things that happened, but we should have beat Donald Trump. Every day Donald Trump is proving that he is not qualified to be President of the United States. We should have beat Donald Trump. But the problem was, I believe, that we didn't speak to the real problems people are facing. People are facing Obamacare premium increases, they're facing lower wages and the things that we were talking about during the campaign did not discuss those real challenges that real people were facing.

Borg: Jim Lynch?

Lynch: Jessica, let's start with you now that we've identified what went wrong I guess. How do you fix it? Do you blow up everything after a couple sort of disastrous election cycles for democrats? Or does it just take a few tweaks to fix the Democratic Party? And specifically in Iowa.

Vanden Berg: Somewhere in between. You can't blow everything up. People have been doing this for a really long time.  But I think people have to really become smarter and understand that there's new and inventive ways to do it. We have to do it as well or better as the republicans are doing it. They beat us in some instances. They had good messaging and they had good ads especially with the Senate --

Lynch: So it's about the process?

Vanden Berg: I think it's both about the process and what Dean said, it's about finding good candidates to run. The only way I think you truly rebuild the Iowa Democratic Party is start at school boards, start on the county level, start at the city level and all the way up to the height of what we're looking for which is 2018 to the Governor's race and getting back the Senate. So what are the mechanisms to get there? And I believe it is message and it is the right candidate but I do think we can get some very good candidates to run.

Borg: Were you sounding the alarm during the campaigns though? Did you say wrong message, wrong message? Or were you surprised along with everybody else?

Vanden Berg: I think it's both. I think that there were a lot of people attracted to the populist message.

Borg: But did you see it during the campaign?

Vanden Berg: You see things structurally that you would say oh there must be something going on but not understanding the full gamut of what's actually happening. I think for sure they took working class white men and women for granted. I think that they didn't even have a discussion with them and assumed that they were Obama voters, they were Hillary voters, I think that was the wrong assumption. And I think that we can't take any of those people for granted and they were taken for granted. Did I know that coming in? There's anecdotal things. I didn't work on the campaign. I could tell you what I saw but there's some handwringing, as they say, right, victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. Right now it's like defeat has a thousand family members for sure and everybody is getting blamed. So it's hard to nail what it is. But I think in Iowa specifically and everybody sitting here we really care about what happens to our state and in a way democrats have been, we think we're right and we were a little righteous about that and we need to stop and sort of figure out what did go wrong and I think we have a lot of good candidates who are -- I've had a lot of calls, I don’t know if everybody else has, who are like everything is -- everybody thought they'd wake up and it would be Hillary Clinton and this was a game and it's completely different and there are a lot of opportunities now for democrats.

Lynch: Brad, you talked about the message. Should the next message come from the next candidate? Or is that something the party has to develop, a message?

Anderson: I think both. I think now because we don't have a lot of leadership left on the democratic side, we don't have Tom Harkin, we don't have Tom Vilsack, we don't have a Mike Gronstal, so we don't have that leadership so it is going to be -- we have Senator Hogg, but we don't have the majority leader who is essentially controlling the State Senate. So I think my point is the party chair is going to have to play a role in figuring out what that message is. And there are other things to do too, it's not just message. I think the other thing we have to be willing to do is take some risks and have some courage because if you look at 2002 it was a remarkable time because we had Tom Harkin and Jeff Link who invented this completely new way of doing organizing. They were going to take Palm Pilots, they were going to go door-to-door and they were going to sign people up to vote early and it revolutionized democratic politics and it revolutionized organizing. So we've got to figure out what is that next tactic that we have.

Borg: Let me build on what you have said here, Rob Hogg, get you into the conversation here. Brad is suggesting leadership and the Iowa Democratic Party is looking for it right now. Comment on is that the place that Iowa's democrats have to rebuild and that is choosing the right leader to lead the Iowa Democratic Party? Is that the key?

Hogg: Look, having a good strong chair who helps us rebuild the party and helps us win elections and helps us raise money, that's important. But I think what we really need is we need the democrats across our state to step up and help take ownership right now and do it in a way that is smart and helps us win elections. We've got great democrats across the state, we had great candidates this time and we need to keep people engaged, keep them involved and build that community of people who really get after it right. That's my biggest concern.

Obradovich: Brad just said we don't have Senator Gronstal anymore, but in fact he has announced that he wants to run for state party chair. Is he the right person for that job?

Hogg: Look, I'm neutral in the chair race. I'm not, I don't think it's my job as the leader of the Senate democrats to pick the next party chair. I want to make sure we have a good party chair. I think Senator Gronstal would be a good party chair. I will also say I'm not sure any of the candidates bring everything we need and as long as that chair is aware of that and we can work with the person to make sure that we're filling in the full range of what we need I think we'll be fine.

Obradovich: What do you think, Jessica? There's like a half a dozen people now who have said they want to run for state party chair. Is it now Mike Gronstal's to lose?

Vanden Berg: Oh I don't know. I think there's a lot of people with a lot of good ideas who are coming forward and from the whole gamut, young, old, men, women, outside of Des Moines, inside of Des Moines. So it's sort of exciting like maybe they'll have an exchange of ideas and then they have all these ideas and have to figure out there how to fund those ideas and that's an important part of this. So I don't really know. It has been fun to kind of -- I'm not in the constituency that votes for the party chair so it has been kind of nice to watch to see what happens and I have friends who are involved.

Obradovich: Do you have a preference though?

Vanden Berg: I don't, I don't. I have good friends involved so I like to just encourage everyone which I think is good. But I also think to be honest with you there's a lot of people who have been meeting and have separate ideas outside of the party, to get people engaged and get people excited and do things statewide outside of the actual party structure. So there are a lot of other things happening than just the party and I think that's important too.

Obradovich: And Brad, you considered possibly running, did you not?

Anderson:  I did for about 12 minutes, yeah.

Obradovich: About 12 minutes and then you came to your senses. So why not you? And do you have somebody in mind in the field at this point?

Anderson: Well, I personally, it wasn't the right time for me because I believe it is an enormous commitment and there's a lot of work. Because of the new basically needs for leadership that are going to be put on the next chair and the need to reach out to rural counties and the travel involved and the fundraising. And I'll say this, I think there are a lot of great people running, I agree with everyone. I'm not one of these folks though that think you need to blow the whole thing up. And there are a lot of people, and I know it feels really bad right now to be a democrat in a lot of ways, just looking at the elections, but at the end of the day Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.5 million votes. 80,000 votes and a handful of battleground states and she'd be President. Let's keep the perspective. Less than 10 years ago democrats in Iowa controlled everything, right? So I think I am incredibly optimistic about going into this midterm just if history is any guide and it's going to be up to that next chair and Jessica is right, these candidates, to basically make sure that we capitalize on that and have a good outcome.

Lynch: Rob, you said you're going to remain neutral in the decision on party chair. But as minority leader, what are you looking for from the chair? What do you need to get the message out to help rebuild your caucus?

Hogg: What I'd like out of the party chair is, number one, help us raise the money so we can have the party operation that we need. Two, help us rebuild the party across the state. By the way, there are some places we did very well this year. Scott County, we won Scott County, that was a positive. That can be a battleground county.

Borg: But don't you have some headwinds in the factions, the divisions that erupted in this past election? Clinton/Sanders?

Hogg: That was a problem that I thought we never did address as well as we needed to because there's so much, there was so much enthusiasm on both sides and we really needed to harness both sides of that in order to have successful elections. And to me I don't know if it's, the party chair has a role to play in all that, it's also incumbent on people like me in the legislature, Mark Smith, and we've got a lot of great young legislators in our democratic caucuses on both sides. And I think there's, I think we're ready to really recover, to rebound well. Part of it is going to depend on what republicans choose to do. But I feel very confident and optimistic about our future.

Borg: On what republicans choose to do, elaborate on that. What do you mean?

Hogg: Well, they've got a choice to make. Do they govern wisely, which is what I hope they do, or do they decide to do some what I call right wing ideological experimentation on our state and turn us in to the next Kansas? And if they govern wisely it makes it harder for us to get back to the majority but it's a lot better for the state. So I'm hoping that's the decision they make and we'll see what happens.

Obradovich: You mentioned the Sanders and Clinton divide and in fact that's probably going to play out even in the election for the new party chair. People are I think running and letting people know how they voted. Is that healthy, Jessica?

Vanden Berg: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I think Bernie Sanders brought a huge level of enthusiasm, new people into the party during the caucus season, new people who are looking to make change in different ways but also maybe potentially running for office. And then they have a whole organization to help them in a way. So I don't see it as a negative, I see it as a positive because if we didn't have those 30% of people who went out to the caucus we wouldn't have any piece of that pie.

Obradovich: Does the party have amends to make to the Bernie Sanders supporters? Is there any -- I think some of them feel like they were done wrong by the party. Does the party have any amends to make?

Anderson: I don't think we have amends to make to the Sanders people but I think we would be crazy not to embrace them and welcome them into our party because keep in mind, you look at the caucuses, remember back to the caucuses, everybody was talking about lowest turnout ever, 60,000 people, democrats might show up, and it was Sanders that drove almost a near record turnout and the enthusiasm from his message going back to that. So we're talking about what are the republicans potentially going to do at the state level, well what are the democrats going to say that they want to do or what is our message on jobs? What kind of jobs do we want to bring? What is our message on education? Do we want to be number one in the nation? And so let's figure out a way to speak to those issues that address those working people in Clinton County who are still struggling to this day.

Borg: Brad, we're well along, excuse me, I need to move onto the legislative agenda. You in the minority now, you have lost your bully platform in the legislature. But how important is the legislative agenda and what you do in the legislature to rebuilding the Iowa Democratic Party?

Hogg: I actually think it's really important. I think we need to do --

Borg: How will you conduct yourself?

Hogg: We need to do two things. We need to do two things simultaneously. One is we're going to have to play defense and we're going to have to choose which issues that republicans are going on and I hope there are very few. What will they choose to do? But we're going to have to choose some issues to distinguish ourselves on. They're doing this and we think that's wrong. Right? We're going to have to do that At the same time we have to put forward this very positive vision of a prosperous, healthy, sustainable future for our state where we have growing population across the state, not just in the few urban centers, rural revitalization, broad prosperity, those are the types of issues we're going to have to say this is what we want to do if you put us back in charge, Iowans.

Obradovich: What is the wise way for democrats to use what leverage they do have? In particular republicans cannot confirm Terry Branstad's appointments and at the national level republicans cannot confirm Donald Trump's appointments without some democrats. What is the best way to use that leverage?

Hogg: Well, I think we're going to see. Obviously if Governor Branstad's nominees for appointments are highly qualified and not pursuing a right wing ideological experimentation agenda for our state I think we'll be able to work with that. But if there are people who are unqualified I'm not somebody who believes we need to link all this stuff and use this as leverage over something else. I don't like tying issues together like that to the extent we can avoid it. I know it's a legislative process, it's like making sausage, stuff happens. But I think we really need to take those nominees on a case-by-case basis.

Obradovich: Jessica, do you want to see democrats on the national level be aggressive in trying to block parts of Donald Trump's agenda? Or are you looking for ways that the party can cooperate with republicans?

Vanden Berg: That's a great question. I would say that they would probably use their ability to block some of these nominations because he has both the House and the Senate and we're in a very difficult situation nationally. So we have to make sure that we have a check and balance on his governing, which is really important, so of course I would say yes.

Hogg: I have to add something there. It gets to the substance of the policy. We can -- I don't want us to get hung up on the personalities of who has been nominated, all of that, it is the substance of the policy. I would hope nationally democrats would fight tooth and nail to avoid proposals that gut Medicare, for example, especially when the President-elect promised he was not going to do that. So let's hold him to that promise and let's fight on the policy grounds.

Lynch: When you look at the Iowa Democratic Party, has it become a regional party? When the legislatures convenes, Rob, you won't have any Senators west of Highway 35 I think it is --

Hogg: That's not true, I've got Herman Quirmbach and that's a little bit west.

Lynch: Thank goodness, one Senator in northern Iowa, one in southeast Iowa and other than the urban counties those are the only Senate democrats. So Jessica, how do you rebuild the party out in Woodbury County or Adams County?

Vanden Berg: Well I think Tom Vilsack has been talking about this a lot about how we have to look at the margins and we have to go to those place and find democrats because there are democrats, there's a lot of people concerned about rural organizing and the fact that we aren't talking about specific issues, economic issues or women's economic security issues in those counties that affect them. We aren't talking about how we want you to stay in your small town because we like your values and we like your lifestyle and all those sorts of things. So I think we actually have to go back and have real conversations with them. And I come from Pella, Iowa so I understand how it is to have to knit through finding democrats in different places but there are and there are people who will go back to splitting tickets again.

Obradovich: We don't have much time left and I just wanted to ask one question about the caucuses, the caucus review committee of the Iowa democrats is going to have their recommendations in a week. Brad Anderson, what is the top thing they should do to fix the caucuses?

Anderson: Well, I think we need to simplify the math and be more transparent. I've said that before. I know there are people I'm friends with that disagree with that. But when you only have five people in the state that can explain the democratic caucus math I think that's a problem. So I think we need to simplify it and make it more transparent. But I feel confident we'll be able to keep first-in-the-nation status.

Obradovich: Do you think, Rob, that democrats will keep Iowa first?

Hogg: I think we will. And I also think we need to use caucuses as an organizing tool. We get so many people engaged that way and then I don't think we follow up enough with them. I have to go back to something James said. We have people across this state in rural areas who are democratic elected officials, we do, Todd Pritchard, Chris Hall in Sioux City, we've got people across this state, Kevin Kinney, Rita Hart, Todd Bowman in our caucus. So I think we are a party that can compete in rural areas as well as urban areas, we just need to be present.

Borg: Jessica, in 10 seconds, can you tell me what Tom Vilsack's role in rebuilding Iowa should be?

Vanden Berg: He would be great doing anything that he'd be willing to do so we hope he comes back and gives us his great advice and counsel.

Borg: Thank you for your comments today and your insights. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press. You'll see it 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg, and for everyone around the table, thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa PBS.

More from this show

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa