Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rep. Ross Wilburn, newly elected chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, discusses the path forward for Iowa Democrats after some setbacks in 2020. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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Iowa democrats in 2021 are still reeling from a series of federal, state and local defeats. But democrats now have power in Washington. We explore the current status and future of Iowa democrats with new State Party Chair Ross Wilburn on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, February 5 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Democrats in Washington breathed a collective sigh of relief in recent weeks as they reclaimed control of the presidency and U.S. Senate. But back here in Iowa, democrats are still licking their wounds from their Election Day losses. Hopes to retake the Iowa House actually resulted in republican gains. Democrats lost 2 narrow congressional races. And a high-profile U.S. Senate race fell flat for them despite their record fundraising. And if that wasn't enough, this week marks the one-year anniversary of the 2020 Iowa Caucus night fiasco. Against that backdrop, we're joined by the new Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, State Representative Ross Wilburn. Representative, welcome to the show. It's good to see you.

Wilburn: Thank you. It's good to see you too. It's been a couple of years.

Yepsen: It has been. Journalists joining us across the table, Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Wilburn, he mentioned the 2020 Caucuses. In your new role, you'll be the advocate for the Iowa Democratic Party in regards to the 2024 Caucuses. There was some news this week about a prominent democrat, former Nevada Senator, who is pressing for Nevada's Caucuses to be first. How will you counter that argument, if at all?

Wilburn: We have been watching this for years. Every time, every four years when the calendar rolls around it's time for jockeying for position. And it's important that Iowa continues to have a critical role in our presidential nomination selection process. We vet the candidates here, it gives them an opportunity to connect with real people, with real Iowans, and stories and come up with solutions. And so we're prepared to defend first-in-the-nation and make any changes we need to and move forward.

Murphy: One of the compromise proposals that has been floated out there is to have all of the early 4 states go on the same day. If it gets to a position where Iowa democrats, you yourself feel like maybe Iowa is in danger of getting bumped to the back of the line, would you find that as an acceptable compromise where you go on the same day with New Hampshire, South Caroline and Nevada?

Wilburn: I've just been Chair for a couple of weeks and hit the ground rolling. But I had a great conversation with the New Hampshire State Chair, Mr. Buckley, Ray. So it was good to chat with him about the partnership, an historic partnership that we've had with the first four states. And we're going to continue proceeding with that. Obviously that process hasn't started, it won't start until late summer or early fall. But we want to be a part of the conversation and support that Iowa plays a critical role and continues in that presidential selection process.

Murphy: How about more broadly, would it be possible for Iowa democrats and Iowa republicans to have a different format, go on different days? They used to way back in the early days of the Caucus, haven't in a while. Could that be a potential thing that happens here where Iowa democrats and Iowa republicans caucus on different days?

Wilburn: Among the first things I did was reach out to Jeff Kaufmann, the Chair of the Iowa Republican Party. And we had exchanged messages, we haven't talked officially with each other. But we're in lockstep. He has been there for Iowans and democrats in keeping that first-in-the-nation status and role that we play. And I'm glad, I heard the show last week and I'm glad that he is willing to continue that role with me. He may not be aware of it, but I think at the University of Iowa when we were both undergrads, I think our paths crossed back then. I'll have to check with him when we talk.

Murphy: How about Iowa as a primary? That is what some critics of the caucuses talk about, that it's tough for some people to participate and the best way would be to just move to a primary election. Is that on the table?

Wilburn: It's important that Iowa, Iowa's selection process, is inclusive, is accessible, it's accurate and that it's transparent. We're proceeding with the caucus. We have made adjustments, improvements every year and we're going to start with that.

Yepsen: Well, Mr. Chairman, you guys really messed up a year ago, right? Now, a lot of people very unhappy writing the Iowa Caucus obit. There's never been a flub like that ever. So solutions are being sought. A primary, going to a primary instead of a caucus, would accommodate more people, it's transparent, it's accurate, it is run by the government. Why not go to a primary? You have a lot of Bernie Sanders people that would dearly love to have a primary instead of this caucus.

Wilburn: You know, in talking with Ray in New Hampshire, they are the first-in-the-nation primary and it's important that we play a critical role too. We help vet the candidates. As that discussion moves forward, we're looking at ways to improve the caucus. There were some possibilities, alternatives discussed in the past and we'll take a look at those. But as of right now we're proceeding with the caucus.

Yepsen: Another question, besides the competency of the party in trying to run this affair, is the question of whether or not they're still relevant to the Democratic Party. The future of the Democratic Party no longer runs through Iowa. You don't need it to get to 270 electoral votes. It's more important for democrats to win in states like Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona. How about some of those states getting a piece of the action?

Wilburn: It's important that we don't discount the votes of Iowans. And even though we didn't select the eventual nominee, the votes went to help President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris get elected to office. And we've got an important role in, as I said before, vetting the candidates. It is retail politics. And even if we haven't selected the nominee, I think if you check with past people who have been through the process that they will say that Iowa made them a better candidate and connected them with issues.

Henderson: But let's shift to the general election in 2020. We've had guests on this program from your party who said it was a mistake not to campaign in-person as republicans did. Was that the problem? Or was it the message? You have to figure that out before you can figure out what to do in 2022.

Wilburn: Right, exactly. And there's no question whether from the caucus or how we went about keeping ourselves and Iowans safe. But we're going to learn from those lessons. I myself did do some literature drops for candidates, I gave money to, probably more than I should have, to some of our candidates and there was a, there is a study that is going on right now by the Hughes Group to evaluate the entire process, both from activists, candidates, our county chairs, and our donors, to find out what exactly was it. Was it getting out late or too late with the door-to-door? Was it message? And that is going to be part of the analysis going forward. But in terms of the messaging, one thing that is clear to me is year-round organizing. And I've got to fundraise, we've got to fundraise so that we can have that year-round presence instead of starting, stopping, starting, stopping with the coordinated campaign.

Murphy: Your leader in the House Democratic Caucus in the Iowa legislature, Todd Prichard, on this show said that he feels that part of the, a big part of what happened in 2020 was simply that Donald Trump had coattails in Iowa and suggested that might have been the biggest factor. Do you subscribe to that same theory? Was there nothing Iowa democrats could have done differently to perform better in the 2020 elections?

Wilburn: Part of it was Donald Trump I believe and I think the other thing was just that connecting with Iowans and not letting ourselves be branded. And part of year-round organizing will help us have a presence in Iowa, rural, urban, across-the-board to have those relationships so that we're not just coming to communities about vote for us. But what are the issues? What are you facing? And let's work together to try to resolve those. And I think that is part of the democratic brand, grassroots organizing.

Murphy: So that's perfect, I'd like to use that to look forward now to 2022. There's a couple of big races and obviously with all the legislative races again. Not having Donald Trump on the ballot, is that in your mind going to make things easier for Iowa democratic candidates in this next midterm election?

Wilburn: No one knows what Donald Trump is going to do. What is right in front of us is we've got to organize, I've got to fundraise for that year-round organizing so we can connect to Iowans about the issues and we're going to move forward from there.

Henderson: You have mentioned brand, I've heard other leaders in the party mention our brand. What is the brand?

Wilburn: I'm going to jump back to -- I ran for Governor and a theme that I said was let's be Iowa. I didn't finish the thought. It's let's be Iowa standing for people and creating opportunities for everyone. And so we've got a diverse party. We've got diversity in our state, rural, urban, people of color, people that are living with disabilities, veterans, older Iowans. And so our brand is what can we do to improve the lives of everyday Iowans?

Yepsen: A lot of people would quarrel with the fact that Iowa is such a great place for democrats. The state is becoming whiter, is becoming more republican because it is a state that is white, rural, older. Young people are leaving. It used to be the blue collar party, blue collar voters now tend to vote more republican. Again, isn't Iowa losing its place as a good battleground state? It's a republican state.

Wilburn: There's no question that democrats have lost ground and not really stuck to that message of what are the issues? What are democrats doing to resolve them? And moving forward one of the things I'm asking both our party, our state central committee, as well as our counties, is we're in the legislature right now, let's focus on what is in front of us. Help us get the message from the Senate and the House out about what republicans are putting forward instead of dealing with coronavirus recovery for families, teachers and small businesses.

Henderson: It's clear Governor Kim Reynolds will seek re-election. Who will she face?

Wilburn: Governor Reynolds, she is a good politician, but she hasn't stopped running and she hasn't led in terms of effective governance. And Iowans want someone who is going to take the issues that are in front of them, that will let them know here's the plan, here's how we're going to move forward and get results. And I'm confident that we will have a candidate that will be able to do that and deliver for Iowans.

Yepsen: How do you rate her handling of the coronavirus?

Wilburn: Again, she has just been a good politician. But what I mean about shifting from campaigning is you've got to stop providing back room deals and really corrupt practices in terms of your larger donors getting an opportunity, getting no-bid contracts that you can manufacture face masks, protective PPE without any experience. And in the meantime we've got over, unfortunately, over 5,000 Iowans that have died. We're last in the nation in terms of testing. We are third highest in positivity behind Alabama and Idaho. And we are third from the bottom in getting shots in people's arms.

Henderson: Are you encouraging Congresswoman Cindy Axne to run since she is a name that at least one-quarter of the state has heard before?

Wilburn: I've got a meeting set up with Congresswoman Axne. I have supported her in the past for her current position and have not had a conversation with her or anyone about running for the Senate, Governor, regardless of what the office is.

Yepsen: Do you think the pandemic, you just mentioned the problems that you thought the Governor had, does that give democrats an opening, her competency, make competency an issue, make preparedness an issue? Or will that not be a useful political issue in 2022?

Wilburn: This is Kim Reynolds' first election after serving a full term and so Iowans are going to take a look at her record in total. But what is right in front of us is coronavirus, she didn't cause it, but how you respond, how you repair, how you acknowledge whether or not there is a virus and challenge those in your party about being truthful, that matters. And Iowans are going to, that is going to be both an opening, but part of conversations moving forward.

Murphy: The other race at the top of the ticket in 2022 will be for the U.S. Senate seat. All indications appear to be that U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, a republican, is going to run again. Chuck Grassley has been winning elections in Iowa since James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were making movies. So why would this one be different in your mind? How can a democrat beat Chuck Grassley?

Wilburn: I'll let you talk with Chuck Grassley about the age reference there. But, you know, it's important whether Senator Grassley runs again or whoever the nominee would be for the republicans that they take ownership of failed action, of failed challenging, responding. Senator Grassley, what are your comments moving forward about the insurrection that happened January 6th? And not acknowledging that Joe Biden is our President and Kamala Harris is our Vice President. I like saying Vice President Kamala Harris, by the way, being a supporter of hers.

Murphy: To both of these races, do democrats have a deep enough bench right now to put together two strong candidates who can take on Kim Reynolds and Chuck Grassley and make those races competitive?

Wilburn: I get the analogy of a strong bench and building the bench. I personally don't like the analogy. I get it, that you've got to have people prepared to come forward. But that means someone is sitting on the bench. And who is allowed on the bench? And who determines who gets to come off the bench? I personally don't like that. We've got a lot of talent around the state. We've got strong mayors, strong city council members, county supervisors, county recorders. And so I am going to try to work with my vice chairs and the state central committee to elevate and lift the faces and voices, in particular communities of color. We've got mayors in Iowa City and Waterloo, we've got a recorder in Scott County, and I want them to help be the faces to elevate what they are doing, the strong work in their communities as well as the party.

Murphy: But can a mayor or a city council member or a county recorder come up and beat Chuck Grassley or Kim Reynolds in a general election?

Wilburn: We're going to focus on the issues. We're going to elevate and lift -- it's not just about messaging but results and mayors get results. President Biden when I first met him back in 2007 in the spin room at Drake University he came up and I said, I'm Mayor Wilburn from Iowa City. And he said, mayors, that is where the real work gets done.

Henderson: When you were elected a couple of weeks ago, you said in a new conferences that one of the things you want to focus on is the bench for, I guess searching for a word, because democrats haven't done as well at the county and city level, particularly in rural Iowa. How do you encourage democrats in rural areas to run, even in non-partisan elections, when they look at the voter registration in their county and they see that they are just way outnumbered by republicans?

Wilburn: We are developing local leadership, whether it is running for office or just leading in the party in your community. And one of the roles of my vice chairs is going to be connecting to the different constituencies and caucuses. In fact, the third vice chair, Chris Adcock, she had run for office, but her position was created by the state central committee to focus on rural issues.

Henderson: You have redistricting coming up. As a member of the legislature you'll be voting on the map by which elections will be determined in 2022. Does the, I guess the delay in the release of census data hamper your ability to start fundraising and to start recruiting candidates to run for the legislature in 2022?

Wilburn: Redistricting is in front of us, certainly the delay in the census is going to have an impact, but fundraising has started, well the last couple of weeks I have been working on fundraising. That is the work that is going to continue, that is the message that I am reaching out to with the state central committee and our county folks that we've got to continue, we've go to fundraise for year-round organizing. It's not fundraising for the caucus, it's for year-round organizing so that we're in a strong position when the caucuses come up to win some seats back, to chip away at that lead.

Yepsen: Doesn't redistricting give democrats an opportunity, just because you're the party out of power and it jumbles up the seats and the district lines and diminishes some of the advantages of incumbents?

Wilburn: The delay in redistricting will certainly put even more emphasis on the non-partisan process that we have in place and it is an envy of the country. So I think there's merit to what you're saying.

Murphy: Another legislative issue that has political consequences that we wanted to ask you about was the election laws and specifically we had a close race in Iowa's Second Congressional District and the democrat in that race, Rita Hart, is still challenging those results in the U.S. House. At the state level, is there some clean-up that needs to be done in your estimation, maybe clarifying Iowa's recount laws and making tweaks to that? And are you hearing of any proposals that have been brought forth?

Wilburn: First, I applaud Rita Hart for making sure that every vote counts. Legally cast ballots, but 22 were not counted. And so she is making sure that Iowans deserve to know that their votes were counted. I'm on state government committee in the House and so we are, I know there is a sub-committee that is preparing to take a look at that. Whatever issues come up at the state level, I'm sure there will be some proposals to address that.

Murphy: Do you expect that to be a bipartisan fix? A couple of years ago we had a super close race in House District 55, confusion over absentee ballots, both parties came together, made some clarifications and it was, if I recall correctly, a unanimous vote in support. Do you expect this to be similar where lawmakers see things the same way and just want to get the code clarified? Or do you have concerns that this will become a partisan fight?

Wilburn: Iowans want fairness, Iowans want transparency and Iowans want their votes to count. So it behooves both parties to work together to make sure that that occurs.

Henderson: The Democratic Party's nominee for Governor in 2014 was from Des Moines, in 2018 was from Des Moines, the party's Chair is from an urban area currently, Ames, which is seen as an urban area by everybody who doesn't live in Central Iowa. How does your party connect with rural Iowa when you as a party keep elevating people from urban Iowa?

Wilburn: It's going to go back again to connecting with Iowans wherever they are. And I mentioned with our state central committee putting an emphasis on that rural outreach. As the Chair, it's going to be important for me to make sure that whatever candidates come forward that they have an opportunity to make their case and that is part of that retail politics that we have to do. So we'll see how it turns out there.

Henderson: One reason republicans believe they are successful in rural areas of the state is because they view their voters as people who are concerned about cultural shifts that are championed by democrats. How do you attract people who think change is just happening too quickly?

Wilburn: It's about relationships and building relationships. I have been working the past six years or so at Iowa State Extension and Outreach and we've got an office in 99 counties, 1 county has 2 offices and I won't go into the reasons for that. But, the issues that Extension has been dealing with and trying to manage in terms of child care, accessibility, affordability, in terms of the economic, the small business. That is where democrats have to talk about the issues that are facing as opposed to waiting every two years and saying, we're with you, vote for us. We've got to have ongoing relationships so that rural Iowans know that democrats are not only saying that we're on their side but we're at their side.

Murphy: So what, this is an issue that blindsided democrats in 2020. There has been talk about the need to attract more rural voters. So what didn't happen in 2020 or what more needs to happen for Iowa democrats to make more of those gains? Because the issues that you lay out are issues that Iowa democrats knew about before this last election and still weren't successful in those areas.

Wilburn: Part of what compounded the challenge of connecting with rural Iowans is that starting and stopping of organizing. So that year-round organizing I believe will give in-roads. Certainly the coronavirus and our ability to take that energy from democrats to reach their neighbors, their democrats in rural areas as well, so we've got to make sure that they've got the tools to help keep those connections and to talk about issues. We're going to focus on issues.

Yepsen: What is the mood inside your party right now?

Wilburn: Well --

Yepsen: Here in Iowa.

Wilburn: In Iowa, yeah. Part of it obviously is because of the anniversary of the Caucuses and the mistakes that were made from there and certainly elevated because of what happened this past time. But we have made modifications in the past and we're willing to look at that and keep the connections going forward. So part of it is that what happens that elevates us this time? But the coronavirus and what is happening in the legislature right now. The other piece though is just feeling deflated. But I want democrats to keep your chin up, the expression in my family from my mom, keep your chin up, dust yourself off, keep moving forward.

Yepsen: Well, that's nice, and my mother said the same. And why would a democrat, why would somebody want to run as a democrat for the legislature from a rural district?

Wilburn: Because they care about people, they care about what happens in their community.

Yepsen: And would you like to see a candidate that does not come from Polk County or who has not run for office before be your candidate for Governor or U.S. Senator?

Wilburn: As someone who ran for Governor who was not in the legislature at the time, who was not living in Polk County at the time, I want anyone who has -- to have an opportunity to do that, to build their case.

Yepsen: And we're out of time. We have to leave it there. Thanks for being with us. We'll be talking to you a lot during the coming years.

Wilburn: Thank you so much, look forward to coming back.

Yepsen: Thank you.

Wilburn: You bet.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at Noon on Sunday. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa