Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Asleep At The Switch

How the Democrats Lost Johnson County

The first thing to say, of course, is congratulations to John Etheredge. A win is a win. We've only chatted a couple times but we'll get to know each other better soon. I think John has a lot to learn. Anyone new to that job does, though Terry Dahms was as close to ready as anyone I've ever seen. But the people chose otherwise, and as a fellow public servant I'll do my small part to help John do the job.

My dad was a coach and he had a pat answer when asked the standard dumb sports reporter question: "are you going to win?" He'd say: "Well, if we play our best and they play their best, we'll win. But: if they play their best and we don't, they could win."

The Johnson County Republicans didn't quite play their best; Etheredge polled less votes than Lori Cardella did in her January 2010 special election loss. (Of course, he wasn't married to a spouse with deep pockets who owned his own call center either.)

But they played a far better game than the Johnson County Democrats who, frankly, were asleep at the switch. Terry Dahms barely won half the votes that Janelle Rettig did in the `10 race. Blame the weather? Maybe. But that doesn't explain the much lower early vote total. We saw that coming two weeks out. It doesn't explain Dahms' narrower early vote margin, which should have been 3 to 1 rather than 60-40.

The bigger turnout problem than weather was the sheer lack of interest in the election. Burned out from the school election fight last month, overshadowed by Linn County's gambling vote, looking ahead to the justice center vote in May -- which looks a lot iffier after yesterday  --  this election was orphaned, like a bad Iowa City primary with five candidates, the top four advancing, and one person who isn't campaigning at all.

We're coming off an election cycle where the Obama campaign showed up a year and a half out, recruited all the bodies, made all the calls, then left with their volunteer lists. Us locals stayed behind, complacent and out of shape and not able to get up to speed fast enough for a sprint-paced special.

We have a lot of Democratic voters focused on national and state issues who don't even know what a supervisor is, who don't get county government's critical role in human services and mental health and conservation, and aren't racing out to vote if the name Obama isn't on the ballot.

I think or at least hope that this means Tuesday's result won't be repeated next year. I can't think of anything that'll boost People's Republic turnout more than Steve King at the top of the Republican ticket, and bonus! a chance to vote against Terry Branstad. A Republican down-ballot candidate, even as an incumbent, will have a tough time fighting that tide.

But for now, Johnson County has a lot of lefties who will call their legislators about an amendment to a bill that won't even get out of the funnel, rather than calling their neighbors to get out and vote in a local election. We have a lot of ivory tower types who are above gauche townie things like a zoning fight, which is why Iowa City's council had been business conservative dominated all my 20+ years here.

There's also an ugly split in our community (other than the Love The Hawkeyes Hate The Students split in the city). The Democratic Party, and specifically county government, has a serious rural problem. We saw it in the Rettig-Cardella special, and it was the centerpiece of the Etheredge campaign. (This at-large win makes a strong argument against the Republican's supervisor district plan, doesn't it?) I don't have the answer, it has to be more complex than just "tax bad," and as an urban lefty I'm the wrong person to try.

Sure, we had "party unity" after our contested convention, compared to the 90s when candidates who lost at convention bolted and ran as independents, one winning and one losing. But we spent more energy on that convention than we did on the campaign for the election itself.

And it delayed the launch; remember that Rettig was already up and running as a candidate for the 2010 primary when Larry Meyers died in September 2009. The signs were printed, the funds were raised. There was no excuse for a delay here, as this election and even this time frame had been expected for a year and a half.

I've lost an election, but I could look in the mirror and say "gee, I must suck" afterwards and brush it off. It hurts me more to see a friend lose. Terry Dahms took over our local party at our nadir, after a contentious two years and after a terrible 2010 defeat. Despite his personal loss, the strictly local structure, while still recovering from 2009-10, is in better shape. (Yes, even with our current disarray, it was worse.) Terry still has much to give to the county and the party.

This doesn't really have a conclusion, at least not yet. There's some key elections and some key votes between now and November 2014 before we know how this story turns out.

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