Parallel messaging gave GOP Statehouse control

Have casual conversations with Iowans and a pattern emerges of the ways the national 2016 election narrative did and did not apply to the Statehouse.

Since November I’ve been quietly talking to people around Iowa. I’ve reached out to farmers and small town residents I met during research on rural communities, as well as urban dwellers I met through discussions on public transit and affordable housing.

As a general rule these aren’t folks who’d be labeled as political activists. That is, they vote, but don’t shake signs outside Congressional offices or hold court with the county central committee.

They live in the present, focused on taking their kids to activities, worried about their mortgage and expending energy on careers or higher education.

Nearly all political nuance is lost on them. They don’t spend hours each day watching cable news networks or social media feeds. They may catch the local nightly newscast, or they may not. It really just depends on the day.

Some voted for Donald Trump, others for Hillary Clinton. A few won’t say. Even fewer report they were turned off by the vitriol and didn’t bother.

“I think I might regret that,” one middle-aged Buchanan County woman who didn’t fill out the presidential election portion of her ballot told me. “But at that time, I saw no difference between two candidates I knew about, and knew too little about the others.”

When it comes to the presidential election, most broad-brushed national narratives hold true. They were worried about their family’s economic future, which fed into underlying concerns about immigration and vertical industrial and agricultural integration. They wanted leaders focused on problems here at home.

Repeated campaign headlines penetrated — private email servers, “locker-room talk” — but most were cast aside as “noise” or having little bearing on domestic policies.

“You know dairy farmers have had it rough,” a Clayton County producer said. “But did you hear the candidates say the word ‘dairy’? I didn’t. It all gets tossed into ‘agriculture’ as if all food producers are the same and facing the same.”

Few felt either candidate could identify with them, or had any idea what it was like to walk a day in their shoes. And shockingly, at least for me, not one person brought up the U.S. Supreme Court, or gender.

During discussions on Congressional races the phrase “the devil you know” was uttered so many times I’m tempted to suggest it as a replacement for the state motto “fields of opportunity.”

To be sure, all of these sentiments also were at play during Iowa Statehouse decisions. Those I spoke with were looking for “progress,” often defined in nostalgic terms — plant and business closures in small towns, loss of independent retailers in cities, the shrinking number of family farms. Few grasped connections between community betterment programs, public art projects and so-forth and increasing the local economy.

“What good is another bike trail or monument on the river when I’m worried I’m going to have to let employees go?” asked a shop owner in Burlington.

The view from this angle was a deadlocked or inefficient Statehouse where nothing was being accomplished. House Republicans were perceived as proposing, and Senate Democrats as obstructing.

“I had some people come to my house campaigning. When I found out they were there for the Democrats, I asked them what the Democrats were going to do,” a retired Ottumwa woman said. “They told me what the Democrats would put a stop to, things like ‘erosion of rights’ and ‘union busting.’ They didn’t tell me what they were going to do.”

Iowan after Iowan gave voice to some version of this perception.

“After a while, when you know nothing is getting better, you just want to see some movement,” a Tipton man explained.

Republicans had ideas, most of which weren’t even getting heard because of the other party. Democrats were the obstructionists, the ‘naysayers’ and, perhaps worst of all, they were proud of it.

And, looking back just at headlines and 10-second nightly news blurbs, it’s easy to see how this belief took hold. It’s a rare case where Republican and Democratic messages aligned, both gleefully labeling Democrats as the roadblock.

GOP: Give us the majority and we’ll make good on our promises.

Democrat: Let’s keep the majority so that we can fend off the Republican agenda.

Given that choice, who can blame Iowans for taking a chance on change?

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 9, 2017. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette