National Democrats Push Economic Message at Steak Fry Reboot

Oct 2, 2017

Over the weekend, three Democratic U.S. representatives were in Iowa at a party fundraiser talking about how to appeal to the middle class again. Recently, Democrats have been losing elections in this state, known for its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. The event was meant to breathe life back into an old annual event and introduce some new faces in the party.

For years, the Harkin Steak Fry, a fundraiser for former Iowa Democratic U-S Senator Tom Harkin, was an annual staple for politicians in his party across the country.

“[Sen.] Tom Harkin was part of an older generation of Democrats who were particularly mindful of representing the little guy’s voice,” says Drake University Associate Professor of Political Science Rachel Paine Caulfield. 

Harkin announced in 2013 he was retiring and his last steak fry was in 2014. Thousands turned out to hear the featured speaker – Hillary Clinton.

At the time, Clinton told the crowd she was thinking about running for president.  She’d come in third in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and would barely beat Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Clinton lost Iowa by nearly 10 percentage points to now-President Donald Trump in the general election - a state that went for former President Barack Obama twice.

It’s not just the presidential race.

Tom Harkin’s seat was won by now-U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican. Only one Democrat is now in the state's congressional delegation.  And last year, Republicans took over the state senate giving them control of both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office. So, Democrats in the Iowa’s most populous county decided to bring back the steak fry and maybe try to re-ignite the party.

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL) speaks at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry on 9/30/2017.
Credit John Pemble / Iowa Public Radio

National and local politicians took turns posing for pictures at the grill as 1500 steaks were prepared for those in attendance.  

“When we returned we were kind of crestfallen,” says steak fry attendee and retired School Principal Dick Edwards of Norwalk. He and his wife, Carmen, moved back to Iowa after living in Las Vegas for nearly 30 years. “[The] Democratic Party just didn’t have the strength and the diversity that it was when we left.”

“We need to stop talking about creating growth and talk about economic health and then the growth will happen,” says Suzanne Stewart, who was also at Saturday’s event at Water Works Park in Des Moines. “The government’s focus needs to be the economic health of the people, the environmental health, physical health and then growth will happen.”

For his part, Mark Bequeaith says the party shouldn’t forget about rural communities.

“If you’re in a small town in Iowa and I come from a small town in Iowa, they’ve got a right to be upset,” Bequeaith says. “I think going to the right is a mistake and that’s probably where the Democrats need to step up their game.”

And that was message the three keynote U.S. representatives brought with them.

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos talked about winning her district last year where 9 of the 11 counties in her state flipped from Obama to Trump. She says Democrats need to get off the interstate and into small town squares.  

Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry 9/30/2017.
Credit John Pemble / Iowa Public Radio

“It starts by listening to hardworking Americans who not only feel like they’ve been forgotten but maybe they really have been forgotten,” Bustos told the crowd. “Far too many of them are struggling to hold onto just that middle class American dream.”

Rep. Tim Ryan from Ohio told the crowd many in the working class don’t think the Democrats are even on their side anymore.

“And we lost ‘em to Trump!” Ryan shouted. “While I’m mad at the Republicans, I’m just as mad at us for letting that happen.”

Congressman Seth Moulton gets ready to speak at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry 9/30/2017.
Credit John Pemble / Iowa Public Radio

Many of those in attendance had never heard of the national Democrats headlining the event.  The woman who introduced Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton even admitted she had to google him. And of course this is Iowa, where the presidential nominating process begins and those eyeing the presidency need to come early to introduce themselves.

Moulton tells Iowa Public Radio he’s not thinking of running for president.

“I’m squarely focused on 2018 and I think it’s a distraction for the party to be even talking about 2020,” Moulton says. “If we can’t figure out how to win in 2018 we’re going to be in a really tough spot for 2020.”

In Midwest states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, Democrats have a lot of work to do to win back that base next year, says Drake University’s Rachel Paine Caulfield.

“That base of support in those states has really eroded for the Democratic party, Pane Caulfield Says. “A lot of those voters have turned to the Republican Party and the messaging of the Republican Party has seemed to be particularly effective for those voters.”

Organizers told the crowd they were already planning next year’s steak fry.