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By Daniel Allott
RICEVILLE, Iowa — When Barack Obama burst onto the national political scene, Laura Hubka, like so many other young Democrats, became politically active for the first time in her life. “I was like ‘Wow! Change and hope, so exciting,’” she recalled in an interview last June. Obama’s lofty rhetoric inspired Hubka to join the Democratic Party in her home state of Iowa, rising to become party chairwoman of Howard County, in the rural northeast part of the state.
A decade later, Obama is out of office, Democrats are out of power, and Hubka says the hope she once felt has changed into despair at the prospect of the reelection of a president who is Obama’s antithesis.
Hubka recently resigned from the Iowa Democratic Party State Central Committee and as chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Howard County. Last year, Donald Trump won Howard County by 21 points four years after Obama had won it by the same margin, one of the largest swings in the country.
In anopen letter, Hubka explained her reasons for leaving, expressing frustration with Democratic infighting and a party that too often betrays its principles.
In an interview in early December at her home in Riceville, Iowa, Hubka said bad blood continues to linger between Hillary Clinton supporters and Bernie Sanders supporters, and that too little progress has been made in reconciling the party’s establishment and progressive wings.
Laura Hubka outside her home in Riceville, Iowa. Trump may win reelection in 2020 despite historically low approval ratings, Hubka said. “Trump is the perpetual underdog. People in rural areas still say the ‘n-word’ and ‘Pocahontas’ and they don’t want to be made to feel bad about it. They identify with ‘deplorables.’”
In October, Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, ousted several party officials who had supported Sanders during the primaries from their leadership positions. He also stripped of their at-large delegate status some officials who had supported progressive Rep. Keith Ellison during his bid for DNC chair, appointing scores of loyal Clinton supporters in their place.
“When Perez cleaned out the Bernie people, that didn’t help,” Hubka said. “I have several people who are Hillary Clinton fans who are still saying they want Bernie to die because he ruined her chances of winning. I don’t know how to resolve that fight, but kicking out people, it shows progressives that there isn’t room for them.”
Democrats have suffered huge electoral losses in the last eight years. Since 2009 they’ve lost a net of more than 1,000 seats in state legislatures and 12 governorships, as well as the presidency and control of both houses of Congress.
Iowa Democrats haven’t fared much better. Between 2010 and 2016, they’ve lost six of seven races for president, governor, or U.S. Senate. They also lost control of both state legislative chambers and relinquished two of their three congressional seats (out of five in the state).
Democrats are losing in part because they have lost touch with rural voters, Hubka wrote in her letter. “We stopped talking to them and instead assumed they were ‘ours’ because, well, you know ‘people that vote Republican are deplorable.’”
Hubka believes Democrats won’t win those voters back solely by resisting President Trump. But in the public’s perception, the Democrats have become the party of The Resistance. In July,a poll asked whether the Democratic Party stood for something or just stood against Trump. A majority of respondents said the latter.
“We need to come away from ‘We are not them’ and come forward with big bold ideas,” Hubka said. “Can anyone sit down and say what the Democrats are for that’s new and different? What’s our tax plan? Do we have one? Regulations—who’s making the argument that they are good?”
According to Hubka, the bickering and recriminations within the state party have become so intense that many Democrats are privately contemplating a mass exodus from the state central committee. “Not many people walk around saying they are proud to be Democrats. Not many,” she said.
The situation is so dire for Democrats, Hubka says, that Trump may win re-election in 2020, despite historically low approval ratings. “Trump is the perpetual underdog,” she said. “People in rural areas still say the N-word and ‘Pocahontas’ and they don’t want to be made to feel bad about it. They identify with ‘deplorables.’”
It’s still an open question whether Democrats have learned that they can’t neglect the rural Midwest, which helped deliver the election to Trump and scores of down-ballot Republicans. Hubka complained that Iowa State Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who is challenging two-term incumbent Republican Ron Blum in Iowa’s first congressional district, isn’t campaigning much in Howard County or other rural places in the district. “Abby hasn’t been coming up here. She’s staying in the cities and is just focused on raising money. Rural areas are the red-headed step-child of the Democratic Party.”
Iowa Democrats’ first test will be the governor’s race next year. Popular Republican Gov. Terry Branstad left Des Moines in July to become ambassador to China. His successor, Lieutenant Gov. Kim Reynolds, is expected to run for a full term next year. Former Iowa state party head Sue Dvorsky has called the race Democrats’ “one shot to stop what has been clear algebraic decay since 2010.”
The big question for Hubka and those who would take the party in a more liberal direction is: How can they reconcile Bernie Sanders-style progressivism with the rural Midwest, where even many Democrats are pro-gun, pro-life, and more than a little skeptical of socialized healthcare?
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