They celebrated Joe Biden’s presidential victory, but other results of the November 2020 election left a group of grassroots Johnson County Democratic activists disappointed and looking for answers to their party’s other losses.
Members of the Potluck Insurgency, which organized four years ago after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, were frustrated by then-President Donald Trump’s eight-point reelection win in the state as well as the loss of two congressional seats and six seats in the Iowa House to the GOP.
As they watched the results, Roseanne Cook and Janice Weiner were texting ‘OMG, things didn’t come out very well in Iowa,’” Cook recalled. They didn’t stop there. “We asked each other if there was something we could do to help.”
Cook and Weiner, who were among the founding members of the Potluck Insurgency, a group that until COVID-19 interrupted met monthly over a meal to discuss politics, host candidates, fundraise and advocate for Democratic values.
With Emily Silliman and Sarah Prineas, also from Iowa City, they launched a deep dive into the 2020 election, conducted more than 30 interviews with candidates, party officials and activists to learn what Iowa Democrats could do to rebuild the party after years of losing ground.
While acknowledging the impact of Trump at the top of the ticket and COVID-19 disrupting typical campaign activities, the Potluck Insurgency has delivered a lengthy critique with some pointed recommendations.
“The whole thing is sort of tough love,” said Weiner, a former member of the Democratic State Central Committee. “We need a strong state party and we need all these grassroots groups working together to help mobilize people.”
For starters, they were “super impressed” with the 2020 candidates, Silliman said.
“They were just excellent, well-matched to their districts, articulate, intelligent, hardworking,” she said. “So it was very clear that candidate recruitment was not the issue.”
Democrats were outspent by Republicans in some cases, but money was not an issue, the team agreed.
Major themes from their interviews was the lack of year-round organizing and the party’s top-down messaging that didn’t necessarily speak to issues in individual races, Cook said.
“We need to get away from this boom-or-bust cycle that’s driven by the election cycle every two years or even more to the point, every four years because of the impact that presidential politics has here in Iowa,” she said.
Year-round organizing goes hand-in-hand with another theme that came out of the interviews — the Iowa Democratic Party’s top-down messaging isn’t resonating with voters, added Prineas.
“We have a disconnect between these excellent candidates and the messages they’re trying to deliver,” Prineas said. “If messaging is being created by focus groups and polling centered in Des Moines, what does that have to say to Cedar County? Probably not a lot.
Year-round organizing also would help combat negative messaging, Cook said. “We’re not socialists, we’re not baby killers, we don’t want to take away everybody’s guns.”
It also would be a way to remind voters that government is a good thing, Prineas added. As a party, “we need to reframe how we talk about what we do ... in really positive way about what we want to do as a party.”
Another thread from their conversations was the need for relational organizing, Silliman said. She used the Pete Buttigieg 2020 caucus campaign as an example of “empowering volunteers and organizers to reach out to their networks of people and to think about how they can bring them into the political process.”
More than a report on what went wrong and what isn’t working, the Potluck Insurgency’s debrief offered recommendations for the state party, candidates, county parties and grassroots organization.
That said, Prineas acknowledged that because the report is coming out of deep blue Johnson County, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear a county chair in really red Northwestern Iowa say, ‘You have no idea. We’re in the trenches out here and it’s a bloodbath.’
“But that’s part of it. We have to connect with everybody and it’s the party’s job to do that,” she said.
The goal should be better local organizing, Silliman said. “We need to talk to them about what they need and get them to be telling the Iowa Democratic Party what they need in order to do build a stronger Democratic organization.”