DES MOINES — The weather was unseasonably warm, the steak seasoned just right and the Democrats were nervous. At the inaugural Polk County Steak Fry, their party’s rising stars confirmed every bad thing that Iowa had heard about their leaders.
“We’ve left behind Americans who run lunch counters and small businesses across this great nation,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.).
“Sometimes, we come off as so anti-business,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio).
“It’s a knife to my heart that there are some in the Democratic Party who just want to write off districts like mine,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), “that think we should just be flown over.”
It was a stark message for an event designed to set up Iowa’s Democrats for a comeback. In Washington, the clock was running out on the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Saturday, the day of the steak fry, was the day that the 2017 budget resolution expired, and the day after Tom Price departed as health and human services secretary in disgrace.
In Iowa, those victories hardly registered. The battered state party had watched loyal Democrats switch en masse to the Donald Trump-led Republican ticket, then watched a GOP-run legislature pass bills that undercut labor unions. Democrats had won most of the year’s special elections, but the trauma of 2016 lingered.
For Polk County’s Democrats, urban progressives who worried that they had lost touch with their rural neighbors, one response was the resurrection of what used to be the Harkin Steak Fry, the fundraiser hosted for decades by former congressman and senator Tom Harkin where meat was grilled and activists were revved up by star political guests.
Harkin retired in early 2015, with Hillary Clinton working the grill at his last hurrah. This year, local Democrats revived and re-branded the event but were clear from the outset that they were not holding a presidential cattle call.
“The three qualifications we had were: new faces, bolder messages and an economic focus,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party. “The less people know about you, the more they want to come and see you — which is great for us.”
Instead, the event became a friendly airing of grievances about the direction of the country under Trump and the direction of a Democratic Party led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). Seven candidates for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Des Moines, had five minutes each for speeches; so did seven candidates for governor.
Bagniewski had hoped to outsell Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s “roast and ride,” which had booked Vice President Pence and moved 1,450 tickets; the Polk County event moved 1,500 tickets, hundreds of them for local candidates.
Most of those candidates, such as gubernatorial front-runner Nate Boulton, decried a state and country that had been misled into Republican rule. They talked about small roots, about 99-county tours and — most frequently — about rural hospitals that were on the chopping block after Iowa Republicans privatized Medicaid.
“They’ve defunded Planned Parenthood,” said Boulton, a state senator who represents fast-growing Des Moines but emphasizes his roots in tiny Columbus Junction. “They’ve cut whole programs for our state. I’ve talked to a physician who couldn’t fill a prescription for a little girl because of Medicaid cuts.”
There was far less talk about Washington; the party’s leaders were not mentioned by name. Moulton, Ryan and Bustos walked from conversation to conversation, would-be candidates and volunteers getting friendly face time. They had the brand that made the most sense, post-Trump — young and unpretentious, with plenty to say about rural voters.
“I think we need a new generation,” said Vince Geraci, 63, who took a knee during the steak fry’s playing of the national anthem. “I wouldn’t want that job. We’ve got 75-, 80-year-old people in charge. I like Kirsten Gillibrand, I like Cory Booker. I want to see some younger folks in leadership positions. It’s time for some of these old-timers to retire. We need the post-Vietnam generation to come in.”
There’s little sense that the party’s current leaders want to give up — or that they’re interested in a rural apology tour. In interviews, Pelosi has mocked Republicans’ plan to campaign on an anti-Pelosi platform in 2018, counting on her low favorable ratings to tarnish local Democrats’ brands.
“They do that because they’re bankrupt in terms of their ideas,” the House Democratic leader told the New York Times in a podcast interview last week. “They have to resort to personal assaults.”
Iowa’s Democrats, who hope to win the 3rd District and the bluer 1st District in 2018, are more worried. The response, helped by Democrats such as Bustos, has been to build campaigns early and focus on local issues, before Republicans can go negative.
And to blunt the attacks, Democrats would own their mistakes. In her remarks at the steak fry, Bustos described how in her state, as in Iowa, rural voters fell away to Trump because they felt ignored by Democrats.
“The heartland is far from Trump Country,” she said. “I saw too many forgotten corners of our country — frankly, too many places forgotten by our own party. You know what? We can never let that happen again.”
Ryan, the Ohio congressman who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for speaker after the 2016 election, was even more damning on the 2016 message. As a backbench congressman, he’d endorsed Clinton for president and even spoken at “Ready for Hillary” events before she announced her candidacy in 2015. He has since become convinced that Clinton’s rainbow coalition strategy allowed Republicans to portray Democrats as a hodgepodge of interest groups.
“We said, well, if you’re African American, we’re going to talk to you about voting rights,” Ryan said. “If you’re Latino, we’re going to talk to you about choice. If you’re a woman, we’re going to talk to you about choice. If you’re gay, we’re going to talk to you about LGBT rights. We affirmed their divisions! We played right into their hands!”
But there was little in the Democrats’ Iowa message that Clinton had not said in 2016. Ryan suggested that Democrats could be the party in favor of “reversing global warming.” Moulton called for high-speed rail that could cut three-hour commutes to 30 minutes.
None of the policies on this agenda were conservative. The main difference was in who was selling them. Not even Pelosi’s apparent victories in 2017, deals with the White House that saved Democrats’ spending priorities, were considered enough to change the party’s image so long as she led it.
“You can just look at the numbers,” Moulton said. “Look at the polling. I give her all the credit in the world for negotiating the best deal with President Trump that she could. But imagine how much better that deal would be if we were in the majority.”
In the meantime, rural Democrats could agree on one message: more and better flag-waving patriotism. In the hours before the steak fry, Bustos attended a training session for a dozen local candidates at Wildfire Contact, a media firm that had helped her and other rural Democrats hold on in 2016. Some of the advice was standard — short stump speeches, clear values, personal stories that would stick.
Other advice was more tailored to the Trump era. At one point, the candidates saw a direct-mail advertisement Bustos had sent after passing a bill that required the federal government to buy U.S. flags that had been entirely made in the United States.
“Made in America, thanks to Cheri Bustos,” read the front of the ad.
A consultant running the session said that it looked like an outtake from the HBO series “Veep” — and that it had worked.
“It’s the best piece of mail I’ve ever sent,” Bustos said.