DES MOINES | Iowa Democrats hope one revival in 2017 precedes more revivals in 2018 and 2020.
On a sun-drenched early autumn afternoon Saturday at Des Moines’ Water Works Park, the Polk County Democrats hosted the Steak Fry, a fundraiser and party organizing event that used to be hosted by longtime U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin until his retirement in 2014.
Event organizers said they sold roughly 1,500 tickets for the event, which featured speeches by Democratic candidates for governor, Congress and — maybe — president.
The candidates and hundreds of party faithful talked about how Democrats can bounce back from electoral disasters in 2014 and 2016 to have success in 2018 and 2020.
“Nine months ago people were counting us out, but all of us are here to say with one voice that we are not going away, we are not backing down and we are going to win in 2018,” state party chairman Troy Price said.
But how will Democrats win in 2018? That was on the mind of the hundreds in the crowd on Saturday.
People in the crowd Saturday talked about normal Democratic issues, like health care and the environment, but also said Democrats need to have an economic message and reach out to voters in rural areas.
“I think the labor issue is so big. I think the party needs to represent labor and make sure that that message is there to try to get some of that back,” said Ryan Gillum, of Des Moines.
Said Laurie Wells, of Des Moines, “The rural areas — they need to get that message out to the rural areas. Without them ...”
A similar plea was made by Congresswoman Cheri Bustos of northwest Illinois, one of the event’s main speakers.
Bustos in 2016 won re-election by more than 20 percentage points in a district narrowly won by Republican President Donald Trump. The district includes the Illinois portion of the Quad Cities but also many small towns.
With her victory in a Midwest district won by Trump, Bustos has become a rising star in the national party. She deflected questions Saturday about being a possible presidential candidate in 2020 but did talk about how Iowa Democrats can win back rural portions of the state.
“I think it starts by showing up. This state is full of small towns in every corner of every county. It’s just like downstate Illinois,” Bustos told reporters. “I think it starts by showing up, No. 1, and I think No. 2 it starts by listening, something not all politicians are very awesome at. Then it’s doing something about what we learned.”
Bustos said in 2016 Trump tapped into rural voters’ economic anxiety, although she also said the president has not delivered on his promises to those voters.
“I think there are too many places in too many towns all over this country that feel left behind. And Donald Trump tapped into that,” Bustos said. “People I meet have in some cases not lost their jobs once but maybe twice. And now a decade or a dozen years later they’re making half what they did before their jobs were sent to China and Mexico. Donald Trump acknowledged that and made a lot of empty promises that now we’re seeing he treats us, where we’re standing here, like flyover country.”
Bustos added that Democrats cannot just criticize Trump, but must also present to voters what they stand for.
“We’ve always been the party of jobs, and we’ve got to start making sure that people believe that again. And how we make people believe that is we show them,” Bustos said.
The event’s other main speakers were Congressmen Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.
Democrats’ message must focus on jobs, said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats.
“I think the top three issues are jobs, jobs, jobs. And then jobs after that,” Bagniewski said. “When (Rep. Ryan) was here with us in July, he said you know the Democrats do a certain speech for the LGBT folks and a certain speech for people of color. Everybody needs a job. Let’s start talking about jobs again.”