Democratic Party Chair of Iowa

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 7, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rita Hart, chair of the Democratic Party of Iowa, discusses this week’s primary elections as campaigns shift focus toward the November general election, as well as other party business.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register.

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



Democrats aim to gain state legislative seats this November and shake up Iowa's entirely republican federal delegation. We'll visit with Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 7th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest today is from Wheatland, a small community in eastern Iowa. She is a former member of the Iowa Senate. In 2018, she was the democratic party's nominee for Lieutenant Governor. And she is currently the Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. Rita Hart, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Hart: Well, thank you so much, Kay. I'm really happy to be here.

Henderson: Joining our conversation, Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Rita, we're coming off a primary election here in Iowa. One of the things I wanted to ask you about was the turnout was down a little bit in this one, only 8% overall. On the democratic side, do you have any concern? And I know there weren't any statewide primaries to drive interest. But there was at least one competitive congressional primary in the democratic party. Do you have any concern that that low turnout is a signal of voter engagement going ahead to this fall?

Hart: No, I have no concerns about that. I think you kind of already said why I don't have any concerns about it. It's really too bad that we don't have more participation in the primary process. I think that is an inherent problem. But it's not surprising in this case. We just didn't have that many primary challenges. And so, a lot of people just have busier lives and decided it wasn't so important for them to go. But we are encouraged by the fact that we have so many people running for office. And we're gearing up for November.

Murphy: What are the signs then, if this doesn't concern you, what are the signs that make you hopeful or positive that the fall will be a strong turnout?

Hart: I think it's pretty typical that most people don't get involved until later in the cycle. And the fact that we've got so many people that are stepping up and putting their hat in the ring is really encouraging. I think by the time we get done with special nominating conventions that we're anticipating here, we'll have around 80 democrats who are running for the Statehouse, which is very encouraging. And we've got candidates all across the state that are stepping up. And I think that the reasons they're stepping up is also encouraging. I think that they, a lot of our candidates have been inspired to run because of the many things that have been happening at the state level that are very concerning to folks. They're stepping up because the AEAs have been under attack. They're stepping up because they value public education and they feel like the direction of the state is not good for public education and they want to get the schools up to a better performing level and they feel like the republican leadership has gone in the opposite direction. They are concerned about women’s' reproductive freedoms. And so, they don't want this state to follow in the path of so many others that have taken women's freedoms away. And so, a lot of people are stepping up and a lot of our democrats are really inspired to get involved and make sure that we get some common sense back here in Iowa by electing more democrats.

Murphy: And to do that you'll have to overcome some voter registration disadvantages. And I wanted to ask you about that too. It wasn't too many cycles ago that the first three congressional districts in Iowa were fairly politically balanced and in many cases the no party voters actually outnumbered republicans and democrats. Republicans now have advantages in each of those three districts by 16,000, 17,000, 19,000 voters. Tell me a little bit about that trend and how democrats can a, reverse that, and b, in the more immediate future, battle that in this fall's election?

Hart: I think that that just is also an indication of the hard work that we have to do as a party. It's no secret that we've had several cycles in a row where democrats have struggled to get folks elected. And that has been discouraging to democrats in general. And so, we've been working hard, I started as chair here a year ago in February. One of the reasons why I stepped up as chair is because I wanted to see some change. I wanted to see that we were going to do things differently and get different results. And when I got in there and asked some questions about the structure of the party itself and how we do things and why we do them that way I found that there was a lot of things that we can do differently to get those different results. And so, that is what we've been working on and that is what we'll continue to work on. As we reach out to our fellow democrats, we know that there are, in the last election cycle in 2022 there were 92,000 democrats who voted democrat in 2018 but just didn't vote in 2022. We didn't lose them to the republicans, to your point, we just lost them to the polls. And that is what we have to turn around and that is what we are bound and determined to do from now until November.

Pfannenstiel: As you're working to get people out to the polls, President Joe Biden has a historically low approval rating. It's 29% in Iowa right now according to the last Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. Are you worried that that's going to be a drag for democrats in Iowa?

Hart: Well, I think that the contrast here is pretty stark. I think that the American people and Iowans recognize that we are looking at a republican party that is struggling to get behind their nominee because it's hard to see that we could have a president who is a convicted felon, who has the potential to actually be elected from jail, that he is morally compromised, that he's a draft dodger, I could go on and on about all the reasons why it doesn't make sense to elect this guy into the most respected office in the country. And so, we're going to keep talking about that, about how there is a clear contrast between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who is working to lower costs for Iowans, who is working on improving health care for Iowans and Americans, who is somebody who is on a much different path by working for common working Americans, rather than to give tax cuts to billionaires and millionaires and to cater to special interests.

Murphy: So, to that, do Iowa democratic candidates have to sell Joe Biden as well as themselves? Or do you expect they will try to avoid talking about the President and focus on their own races?

Hart: I think that we're going to take this on. I think we're going to be able to tell a good story about all of the things that Joe Biden has done to make Iowans' lives better, just to talk about the Infrastructure Act, to talk about how Joe Biden has lowered the price of insulin, to talk about how he is working on lowering costs for Iowans by taking on shrinkflation and to talk about the greed that is causing prices to rise But, here in Iowa I think people really like to focus in on Iowa itself. And so, I think the candidates will definitely be listening to Iowans and talking about their concerns and what they can do to make Iowans' lives better.

Henderson: In the first and third congressional districts there were primary elections. In the third district, a candidate has been nominated in Lanon Baccam, who is a first-time candidate. In the second congressional district, you have a first-time candidate. In the new first, which is southeast Iowa, you have a rematch. Which is best, to have a candidate that is known, or have a candidate that is unknown?

Hart: That's a really good question and I think that the answer to that is within the candidates themselves. We have a known candidate in Christina Bohannan. She is such a strong candidate and she has done such great work that that race is going to be a good one to watch. And we know that both the first and the third congressional districts, according to the Iowa Poll, were in the margin of error. And we know that it's really important that Iowa focus in on those two in the first and the third because the control of the House goes right through those districts. And so, Lanon Baccam, he is not as well-known as other candidates, but he is a strong candidate who has a great resume and he has served in the military, he has worked for the USDA, he understands the agriculture issues. He is going to be a candidate that people want to get to know.

Henderson: In the fourth district, there was a republican primary. And the candidate who made the pipeline the cornerstone issue of his campaign got 40% of the republican vote. I've talked to democrats in that part of the state in northwest Iowa and they are just waiting for the democratic party to make that an issue. Why is the democratic party reluctant to do so?

Hart: I think that, again, every candidate is taking that issue on in their own way. But I think as a party, the democrats have made it very clear that they don't believe in taking people's property for eminent domain when it ends up in private hands. So, I think that we will be continuing to talk about that as the campaign goes forward.

Murphy: You mentioned earlier women's reproductive health care as an issue in this campaign, access to contraception, abortion policy. Here in Iowa, that's technically not on the ballot like it literally has been in other states. Do you feel confident that that will be a voting issue for Iowans in this election?

Hart: It absolutely will be. It absolutely will be. People know that maybe it's not on the ballot this time, but if we don't turn that back, it will be next time. And it's absolutely interesting to me that the republican party doesn't understand how important this issue is to every day Iowans, every day Americans, and that they can see that they are out of sync, that women deserve to have control over their own bodies, that they need to be able to make their own decisions when it comes to that doctor's office, and that the state has no business coming into that doctor's office and making those decisions. And for now, for them to now indicate that they are willing to go after contraception rights, to go after birth control when birth control is so important to so many families’ lives, that is absolutely resonating with Iowans across the state.

Pfannenstiel: Polling shows that immigration has also become a major issue for voters increasingly across the political spectrum. And that is borne out for us in interviews with Iowa voters and increasingly Iowa democrats. So, how do democrats in Iowa need to adapt? Or how should they message? How should they be talking about immigration in this election year?

Hart: Immigration is an important issue. I think that everybody agrees that we ought to have a secure border. But we also understand how important immigration is in so many ways to all of our lives. We look here in Iowa at how many communities where the work that is being done that, we need to get done in the state is done by immigrants. And the fact that we don't have a better immigration policy, that is on both republicans and democrats. And so, the bottom line I think is that people are just wanting to elect people that are going to be common sense about this and actually get something done because we need to be able to -- if we look at Iowa and we see the fact that population growth is mostly on immigration, that that's why we're growing as a state, it's so important then that we have good immigration policy. And what they don't like, I don't think, is grandstanding by Governor Reynolds, who goes down to the border, who takes money from the state of Iowa and spends it by grandstanding down at the border instead of promoting the policies that could actually make a difference to immigrants and to Iowans who are interested in making sure that we have a secure border, but have strong immigration policy that benefits all of us.

Henderson: On June 15th, your party will have a state convention. Do you anticipate a platform fight over the Israel Gaza war, the Israel Hamas war?

Hart: No, I do not look for a fight there. I think that there is plenty of discussions going on right now and I think that there is a definite unhappiness with, of course, with the situation over there. And I think people are looking to coalesce around a way to address that situation that all democrats can get behind. The bottom line is people would like to see peace there and that is a complicated issue. And so, we're going to be working together to make sure that we are coming up with policy that supports the efforts that are going in the way of cease fire and are going in the way of creating peace there.

Murphy: Moving on to the national convention, we've covered those in the past and so we know how popular Iowa has been in the past at those events because of its place in the presidential nominating schedule. Now that the caucus calendar has been changed, what do you foresee Iowa's role being at the national party convention this year?

Hart: Well, we're certainly looking forward to the national convention. I think that it remains to be seen exactly how that will all pan out. But we continue to have a relationship with the DNC in talking about the importance of Iowa in the grand scheme of things. And we're looking forward to making those kinds of in roads when we get to Chicago in August.

Pfannenstiel: The Democratic National Committee spent a lot of time over the last several years looking at the primary calendar and coming up with a new system that de-emphasizes Iowa, removes Iowa from first-in-the-nation. They have said that they intend to go through a similar process again, that they intend to look at the calendar again. What is your expectation of how that goes? And would you like to propose changes to the way Iowa did it this last time around?

Hart: So, I will tell you what I have said to our Central Committee members, that in many conversations that we have had with the DNC, they have assured us that we're starting on an even playing field in this conversation about first-in-the-nation and etcetera. So, right now we need to concentrate on this election cycle. We've got to get some democrats elected and people want us to get democrats elected because they do care about women's reproductive rights, they do care about the fact that public dollars are being diverted into the families of private school students, and they care about making things more affordable. And so, we've got to get some democrats elected to Congress, we've got to get some democrats elected particularly here in the state of Iowa, so that we can get some balance back and stop passing legislation that just does not address those issues, but instead it creates more issues that people are not behind. And so that is what we've got to do is work really hard to get some better results here in November. And then we'll have these conversations after this election is over.

Pfannenstiel: The DNC has said as it chooses those states to lead off the calendar, that it wants to emphasize battleground states, it wasn't to emphasize states where democrats are doing well. Does Iowa have to show some movement this November in order to have a chance at those conversations?

Hart: I certainly don't think it would hurt. And the more important reason is, we have got to do this for ourselves. We want a state of Iowa that is more reflective of the needs of Iowans. And we just haven't been well represented. So many places -- I've been traveling all across the state and people are really upset that they're not being listened to, they're not being well represented and that is why these issues are out of sync with the realities of their daily lives.

Pfannenstiel: RFK Jr. was somebody who has said that he has made it onto Iowa's ballot in November. Do you have any concerns about his candidacy and whether he takes away votes from Joe Biden in November?

Hart: I think that really the results on our presidential preference cards really made that clear that we did not have one delegate for RKF Jr. So, I think that kind of speaks for itself.

Henderson: You currently as democrats have one statewide elected official in State Auditor Rob Sand. You have to be, as the party chair, sort of thinking about what is the bench? 2025 is the year that you have to come out of the gate running and start preparing for 2026 in statewide races. Who is the bench?

Hart: I think that we have several people on the bench. You mentioned Rob Sand, I think people recognize what a good job Rob Sand has been doing. He gets out, he is very accessible to people, he has been doing his job, he has been saving the state of Iowa money, he has been going after the people that are not honest about things and he is holding them accountable and people appreciate that. And that is why in the Iowa Poll he came out with 55% approval, better than any of the other elected officials, better than the Governor, better than Brenna Bird, better than any other elected official. So, I certainly think that we should be talking about Rob Sand. But there are others. I think Jennifer Konfrst definitely has also done an admirable job and people recognize what a good, strong leader she is. And we're very grateful to have her leadership in the Statehouse. And I think there will be, again, if we can move things in the right direction, if we have a November that speaks well, I think there will be other candidates that come out because, again, there are so many folks that recognize that this state is heading in the wrong direction. Half of the state indicated that on the Iowa Poll, that the state is heading in the wrong direction, and they know that because our women's reproductive freedoms are being challenged, because these unpopular decisions have been made and not only sending public dollars to private schools, but also the book banning controversy, all of these things that are not reflective of what really matters. And so, we need to make sure that we've got candidates that are going to step up and they're going to work hard on issues like lowering the cost of child care that really affects Iowa families, on working on all the things that lower people's costs and make their lives better.

Henderson: Do you have to, though, think about encouraging people who don't live in the Des Moines metro to run? Paul Pate, Cedar Rapids, the Secretary of State. Roby Smith, the State Treasurer from Davenport. Doesn't your party, if you expect to expand and do better in rural areas, have to recruit candidates from outside of the big metros?

Hart: Well, absolutely. And those conversations are going on, have been going on. You started talking about Wheatland, that is one thing that I know well is small towns because I live outside of Wheatland and I have spent my career teaching in small schools and that is so important. And that is one thing that I have really been pushing down on is how important our small towns are, our small county parties and I've been traveling all across the state, been doing events, 18 events in every corner of the state and having these good conversations with good folks all across the state who would be great candidates.

Murphy: We're down to our last couple of minutes here. I wanted to circle back on something you mentioned earlier when you came into the job and took a holistic look at the party's structure and looked at what needed to be done to reverse the state party's fortunes. Can you tell us a little bit about any progress that you have made on that front? And why should democrats who are thinking about running for office feel more confident about doing that given the state of the party?

Hart: Yes, I would tell you that a lot of progress has been made in over a year. And I intended to make that kind of progress. I started out with a plan that people could buy into. I appreciate the fact that they did. Before I was ever elected, I said, we've got to make these changes. So, if you're going to elect me, these are the changes we're going to make. And we went after it. And so, we've made a lot of structural changes within the party itself. We've done a lot of work to empower the county parties. We have a lot of work yet to do. But I'm proud of the progress that we've made, we've got a terrific staff, I've got so many great county party leaders who are working hard every day, they're working harder I think than they ever have.

Murphy: Do you have 99 county party leaders?

Hart: We have -- we're going to get to a strong county party leader in every county. That's going to take several cycles I think to get to the goals that we want to get to. But we're very definitely on the road. And it's much better than it was a year ago. And so, I have every confidence that we're going to make a difference. And one of the things that we just launched is, if people go to our website at, one of the things that we're really focusing in on is getting people to understand, because they have been confused, the republicans have changed our voting laws and people get confused as to what has changed and what has not.

Murphy: For when and how they can vote.

Hart: Correct. And so, our Make Your Plan front is giving them an opportunity to decide when am I going to vote? Where do I vote? Am I voting absentee? Am I voting early? How do I get there? All those kinds of things.

Henderson: And I have to say we've gotten to the end of our time together at this table. Thank you for being here, Rita Hart.

Hart: Hey, yeah, thank you everyone. It's really great to be here.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.



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.

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