Des Moines Register: Iowa Democrats rally at Polk County Steak Fry, urging hope ahead of midterm elections
September 17, 2022
As storm clouds loomed above, Polk County Democrats rallied at their annual Steak Fry fundraiser and predicted sunnier times ahead.
“I’m going to be honest, the speech that I was planning to put together about a month ago is very different than the speech that I get to talk about today,” said Polk County Democratic Party Chair Sean Bagniewski. “Midterm elections are historically terrible for the party in power — i.e. us. Inflation is way too high. But a funny thing happened on the way to the ‘red wave.’ And Republicans seriously overplayed their hand in this country.”
Bagniewski, who is also running for the Iowa State House, said that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is advocating for a national 15-week ban on abortions, and Iowa politicians, like 3rd District Congressional candidate Zach Nunn, have also advocated restrictions. A series of special elections shows that enthusiasm is on the Democrats’ side, he said.
“The analysts are starting to say after all these special elections, it’s starting to feel like 2018 all over again,” he said. “And, as you know, 2018 was a pretty damn good year here in Polk County, and in Iowa as well.”
In 2018, Iowa Democrats flipped two U.S. House seats, electing Cindy Axne in the 3rd District and Abby Finkenauer in the 1st District.
Candidates up and down the ballot spoke, including gubernatorial candidate Deidre DeJear, who marched into the event with volunteers hoisting signs and a four-piece band playing “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
DeJear, who is running against incumbent Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, detailed Iowa’s progressive past on issues like marriage equality, bringing the crowd to its feet.
“We’ve got a lot of fight ahead of us,” she said. “But I know that we have what it takes to get it done, because we’ve done it before. We’ve done it time and time again.”
U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken wished his opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a happy 89th birthday in a subtle dig at the senator’s age and longevity in Congress. He, too, worked to uplift Democrats who may be wary of their chances in November.
“We are all in this together, and we have a winning formula,” he said. “We may not have the money that the Republicans have this time around. But we’ve got the candidates, and we’ve got the energy to make this happen, folks.”
Axne, Iowa’s lone Democrat in Congress, touted her party’s major legislative achievements, including passage of the president’s massive infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act.
“While the Republicans are trying to tear down this country and the radical right is causing divisiveness, Democrats are building it up,” she said.
Other candidates up and down the ballot made appearances as leaders urged Democrats to support the entire ticket in November, saying it’s the only way to bring change to the state.
But Republican Party of Iowa Chair Jeff Kaufmann presented a different message, saying in a statement that “Iowa Democrats are hopeless heading into this election, because their vision for Iowa is more of a vision for New York and California.”
“The Republican Party is the party of freedom and opportunity while Democrats are focused on spending America’s economy into recession,” he said. “They have proven they don’t deserve power in Washington any longer.”
Although the Polk County Steak Fry has traditionally been a big draw for announced or future presidential candidates, Bagniewski said this year the entire focus is on state and congressional races.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the caucuses or to our presidential guests,” he said, alluding to efforts at the national level to rethink the presidential nominating calendar and Iowa’s place at the front of the line. “But I can guarantee you one thing that Iowa has: We have three really competitive congressional seats that are not gerrymandered, that have a lot of Democrats and fewer Republicans actually, and it’s going to be the focus for the rest of the country as we look at the House majority nationwide.”