‘Too blue to bother’: In Iowa, suburban Democrats are trying to stage a political takeover

“We are not going to stop until Republicans don’t even want to run candidates here,” said McAdams, 54, a molecular geneticist-turned-singer-songwriter with a fondness for alliterative phrases. “We are going to make this place too blue to bother.”

In this affluent outpost of the state capital, local Democrats are done playing “Iowa nice.” They are mounting aggressive recruitment campaigns, mocking opponents and organizing to push Republicans out of elected seats, including offices that are traditionally nonpartisan.

Even as Iowa Democrats gear up to make their choice in a hotly contested presidential nomination battle Monday, activists here are trying not to lose sight of a longer-term political goal: staging a political takeover.

Their strategy has upended the live-and-let-live atmosphere that often permeates the suburbs, where some Democrats said they used to be content to focus on their families and leave local politics to the other party.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Iowa have gained power in its rural areas and manufacturing towns, leading the state to back Trump in the last presidential election.

But today’s suburbs aren’t like the ones that existed 30, 20 or even four years ago. Between rapid population growth, shifting demographics and anti-Trump sentiments, they have become the key to Democratic hopes of compensating for the defection of many working-class white voters to the GOP.

Over the past decade, Republicans in Iowa have gained power in its rural areas and manufacturing towns, leading the state to back Trump in the last presidential election.

State data show that the great voter registration advantage that Republicans once had in the Des Moines suburbs continues to narrow. In 2018, four state house seats and one congressional seat went from red to blue. In 2019, Democrats in Polk County won 13 seats on city councils and school boards that had been held previously by Republicans

The Democratic Party’s biggest successes in those years came in a part of the state that was overwhelmingly white, well-educated and affluent — home to some of the fastest growing cities in the United States.

When McAdams and her family moved to Ankeny in 1999, this place was a reliably red bedroom community of 27,000. By 2018, the number had increased to 66,000, and growing.

Widened roads and state highways connect Ankeny to cities that were once surrounded by fields and farm, like Johnston, Urbandale and Waukee, which boasts of students speaking 62 languages in the schools.

Places where soybeans were planted and pigs once roamed are sprouting $750,000 houses, townhouses for young professionals, and strip malls with barre studios and restaurants with chicken tandoori and quinoa bowls.

On this night, McAdams’s “Ankeny Army” was composed of those relative newcomers. Here was Kelsie Goodman, a 35-year-old high school assistant principal who returned home because “there was so many more options in this area than there had been before.” She was proud to be from a state that was the first in the Midwest to legalize same-sex marriage, a place that helped to springboard the candidacy of the first black president. But as her state was slowly diversifying, she became concerned that Trump was empowering voters who resented those very distinctions.

Next to her was Amy Tagliareni, a 49-year-old administrator of a small nonprofit and a mother of a middle-schooler, who moved to the state in 2008 and had never voted in a primary until 2018. She voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but felt she needed to be more active to relieve herself of guilt that so many middle-class white women like her had voted Republican or chose not to vote at all. The president won the majority in all but one precinct of Ankeny districts in Polk County.

“I feel so embarrassed,” she said.

The two women were representative of the activists who were fueling the activism in Ankeny: young professionals and mothers with older children. They were horrified most by what they saw as the administration’s poor treatment of the vulnerable — separating immigrant families, restricting food stamps, banning refugees — and were desperate to post some wins. So they decided to play hard.

The change was evident when the Polk County Democrats invited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to a fundraiser. Some officials from other parts of the state warned against bringing such a polarizing figure to a politically fractured state, but more than 350 people attended.

The fundraiser also attracted protesters who supported the president but misspelled his name, “T-R-M-U-P.”

“In past years, nicer Democratic parties would let that go,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats. “We took a picture, paid for a Facebook ad and showed it to 500-hundred-dollars-worth of people.”

Conventional practice used to be that local elections were nonpartisan affairs. No more. In 2018 and 2019, the Polk County group dispatched fliers to registered Democrats that showed the name and picture of every person in their party running for office, from the Congress to the school board.

“Our message was simple,” Bagniewski said. “These are the Democrats. This is the fight of our lives. Get rid of Donald Trump.”

Now, it is Republican politicians who are fighting for their political preservation. In Urbandale, the Republican mayor switched parties. State House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, seeking reelection, switched neighborhoods.

And last week, state Sen. Zach Nunn filed legislation that would ban county parties from pouring money into nonpartisan races and printing fliers like the ones distributed by Bagniewski.

“A local school board trying to figure out how to fund a teacher program or a city council working to fix a street should not be a partisan issue,” Nunn said. “What they are doing is, in a word, frightening.”

Nunn also said he didn’t think it was very wise. While the Democrats were experiencing more success in Ankeny, he was able to sail through his election in Altoona — one of those blue-collar Democratic districts that swung for Trump. Their attitude, he said, only solidified the idea that the party was catering to the elite.

“They might win these suburbs, but they are going to lose every other part of the state and all the gains they make will be mitigated,” Nunn said. But as a Republican in the suburbs, he readily admitted he felt a bit endangered.

“I’m one of the last ones left,” he said.

On a snowy Saturday, a few days before the caucus, the new activists were targeting another one of the last remaining Republicans, a square-jawed state senator named Brad Zaun. Zaun was attending a legislative forum held in a no-frills community room at a local park, on a panel that included the Urbandale mayor and state Rep. Karin Derry, a political newcomer who won her seat during the Democratic wave of 2018.

“There’s a lot of publicity around the Democrats, but we live in a great community and it hasn’t changed that much,” Zaun said in an interview. “I’m up for reelection this year and I’m not too worried.”

The Democratic activists saw it differently. When the forum started, they took their seats. There was nothing particularly coordinated about them; they weren’t wearing special uniforms or reciting catchy slogans. They didn’t even sit next to one another.

They took turns asking Zaun questions about issues that concerned them. When one asked him to fight for more money to go toward education, another held up her cellphone to record Zaun responding that he would rather try to find ways to cut administrative costs. This was potential fodder to argue that Zaun was weak on school funding.

When one asked Zaun about a bill that would make it illegal for institutions to ban guns from their parking lots, another recorded footage of Zaun saying he was a “strong supporter in the Second Amendment.” This was potential footage to show he didn’t want gun control.

Derry, the state representative, knew most of the activists at the forum. After all, she had hosted them at a late-in-the-season holiday party the night before. The activists, all women, ate cookies and cheesecake and sat around her Christmas tree, speckled with blue ornaments — a tradition that started in 2016 as a symbolic protest to Trump. They discussed Lizzo and their husbands and how to come up with a strategy to get another friend elected to Zaun’s seat.

This plan didn’t seem like so much of a coup. They had done the same for Derry, knocking on doors and making phone calls to get her elected in a district where the Republican registration advantage had shrunk from 14 percent in 2016 to about 7 percent today.

The arguments against Zaun would largely be the same. They told residents that the 2016 election, which also gave Republicans in Iowa all three branches of state government, had deep consequences.

Republicans had weakened collective bargaining, passed voter restrictions and curbed abortion rights. Derry found that even her conservative neighbors were willing to listen to their points.

Lifelong Republicans such as Mark Toebben, a 62-year-old retired business executive, voted for her for reasons that went beyond Trump. He had grown increasingly frustrated that lawmakers wouldn’t boost the education budget past the rate of inflation. It felt as if his party was attacking the very thing that made his community great: the school system.

“I’ve really just lost faith in the Republicans,” said Toebben who planned on caucusing with Democrats for the first time. “I understand the realities of politics, but I also understand that you have got to see the bigger picture in life. I think they’ve lost track of the big picture.”

In Ankeny, McAdams was still trying to understand the big picture. She saw her community as a blank political canvas, its future still unwritten.

“I can’t do anything about Wisconsin — that’s their problem,” McAdams said. “Pennsylvania, Michigan — I can’t do anything about that. But I can do some damage in Ankeny, and I can deliver Ankeny to the Democrats on election night.”

Her crusade started with a desire to remove Trump, but it was also about herself. After the great unsettling of 2016, she realized she hadn’t taken stock of her neighborhood, which had grown so much that she could hardly recognize it.

She hadn’t taken much stock of her country, either. Republicans were sweeping state houses and blocking President Barack Obama’s agenda in Washington. Young African Americans had grown so exhausted with police violence that they were taking to the streets to assert that their lives, too, had value.

Still, McAdams remained in a state of suburban bliss. She raised children, put on open mic nights. She figured things couldn’t have been that bad; after all, the country had elected a black president.

“I think a lot of us felt like we had racism under control, that white supremacy was gone, that we’d solved a lot of problems,” McAdams said. “I think we grew complacent. I know we did. I did.”

She pledged to do something to get more involved — or at least find more like-minded people. She rebuilt the Democratic club’s website and updated its social media pages. More residents were visiting the Facebook page, and more started attending meetings. Before 2016, the group averaged a monthly attendance of eight. Now, the attendance averages around 50.

When the Democratic candidates began to file in 2018 and 2019, she urged her group members to do everything they could do to elect them.

She asked volunteers to knock on doors. If they did not want to knock on doors, she asked them to make phone calls. If they did not feel comfortable making phone calls, they could write postcards. If not postcards, she’d ask volunteers to drive around so others could knock on doors.

As they set out to find registered Democrats, McAdams saw an Ankeny beyond its stereotype. There were trailer parks, and residents there said they couldn’t afford rising rents. Middle-class-looking homes had sunken ceilings and no hot water inside.

They drove through neighborhoods of Bosnian refugees and met black and South Asian families who had moved for better jobs. Even as the city’s median income continued to rise, the suburbs had become more diverse and more stratified.

“We just never noticed it because we were too damn busy,” McAdams said.

Politics was the impetus, but the thing McAdams and others felt they were missing most was community. The old institutions for gathering neighbors — churches, union halls, country clubs — were all playing less of a role in American life. Politics, and the discussion of it, was the suburbs’ new social club.

They started reading clubs, drinking clubs, women’s groups. Deshara Bohanna, who would become the first black woman on Ankeny’s school board, started a meetup group to discuss racism and diversity.

“We are a family now,” McAdams said. “And I’ve got more best friends and sisters and brothers than I did three years ago. I’d be damned if I lost contact with them after 2018. Nothing is stopping us now because we are a family, and Donald Trump is still president.”

So that night at the caucus training, McAdams tried to give the volunteers every tool they needed to make sure their event ran smoothly. She went over complex equations to properly calculate delegate counts. She suggested displaying tallies in publicly visible spaces so everyone could clearly see the results. To prevent perceptions of bias, she asked the volunteers not to wear clothing or buttons endorsing a political candidate.

Instead, she had another suggestion.

“Maybe you could wear a T-shirt that says, Ankeny Area Democrats,” she said. “Let’s show them who we are.”

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