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Iowa Democratic Party Chair wants to empower county parties

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart sits on her front porch at her farm home outside of Wheatland in Iowa's Clinton County on May 9, 2023.
Clay Masters
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart sits on her front porch at her farm home outside of Wheatland in Iowa's Clinton County last week.

IPR's Clay Masters talks with Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart about the future of the party and fight over Iowa's place in the presidential nominating calendar following the 2023 Iowa legislative session and another pummeling at the polls by Republicans in the 2022 midterms.

Rita Hart is the fourth person to serve as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party since the debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucuses. Hart was elected to lead the party in January following another pummeling by Republicans at the polls. That’s when two longtime statewide office holders lost after serving for decades, the state Senate gained a supermajority and Democrats lost their only remaining seat in Congress.

“The midterms were devastating for us,” Rita Hart says. “But thank goodness, we could look around the rest of the country and say ‘maybe we’ve got to look here [and] make some changes here.”

Hart took over as Iowa has become the reddest it’s been in recent history and Republicans now have a large financial advantage over Democrats.

Hart farms with her husband in rural Clinton County, just outside of Wheatland, and was an educator and state senator. She made national headlines in 2020 when she lost her bid for Congress by just six votes to now-Republican U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller Meeks. She was also Fred Hubbell’s running mate in his unsuccessful race for governor in 2018.

Hart says Iowa politics have changed.

“It used to be that Democrats could run a good candidate because they served on the school board [or] they were just good people,” Hart said. “People would vote for them on both sides of the aisle.”

Hart partly blames former President Donald Trump and the prevalence of right wing and social media. One of the first things Hart says she did as state party chair was to conduct a survey of county parties. Hart says they need to empower counties to get out there “neighbor to neighbor” and have conversations.

“I think that we have to do a bit of training on in this divided society, how we talk to each other, so that we can so that we can agree on things,” Hart says. “Instead of immediately coming at each other from a point of disagreement.”

Hart is also inheriting the fight over Iowa’s place in the early window of presidential nominating states. The DNC voted this year to replace Iowa with South Carolina in the leadoff position and Iowa Democrats have proposed major changes to the caucuses to try to stay early. Their plan would have Iowans mail-in presidential preference cards and those votes would be counted separately from the party business conducted on caucus night.

There’s a bill on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk that was passed by the Republican-led legislature that would require in-person caucusing. Hart admits the caucuses are not the first thing on Democrats’ minds.

“The caucuses are certainly not the first thing they talk to me about,” Hart says. “They want to talk about what are we going to do to improve our education system, how are we going to keep our kids safe? How do I make sure that there's going to be some jobs here for my children?”

Hart says the Iowa Democratic Party will continue to fight to keep Iowa in the early window because the calendar is not finalized with Georgia and New Hampshire not falling in line with the DNC’s requests. Hart says the caucuses have been important for party building and fundraising.

“In the meantime, we're going to pay attention to the issues that matter, to finding the candidates that are the right candidates because they represent the values that people of Iowa hold dear,” Hart says. “And we're going to make sure that they have the resources that they need in order to win those races.”

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Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.