DES MOINES, Iowa — After nearly a decade of disappointing elections, Iowa Democrats hope the primary will begin what they acknowledge could be a slow return to relevance in what has historically been swing state dominated lately by Republicans.
Democratic losses in four straight elections have handed the GOP most of the state's congressional delegation, both legislative chambers and the secretary of state's office. Equally surprising to many Democrats was Donald Trump's nearly 9 percentage point win over Hillary Clinton in 2016, a dramatic change from Barack Obama's two wins in the state.
"This is a critically important election for Democrats if they want to be able to say with a straight face that, no, Iowa is still in fact purple," said Republican public affairs consultant Jimmy Centers, who was a spokesman for former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad.
Iowa Democrats acknowledge the importance of the election Tuesday as they work to return to relevancy, but they argue the party's losses were largely due to national trends that helped Republicans in recent elections. With Trump as president and Congress controlled by Republicans, they now predict those trends will help Democratic candidates across the country, including in Iowa.
Democratic leaders are hopeful of a "blue wave" that in November could help the party take one or two Iowa congressional seats, lead to big gains in the Legislature and maybe even oust Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is finishing Branstad's term after he left to become U.S. ambassador to China.
Paul Deaton, a Democratic state convention delegate from rural Johnson County, said party activists expect Iowa to start swinging back to Democrats in this year's midterm elections. Failure by the Democrats would cast doubt on the party's future, he said.
"The ballgame is the November election, and that has tremendous consequences if the Democrats don't organize toward some victories there," Deaton said. "I won't sugarcoat this: I think we're out for a long, long time if we don't make some recovery during the midterms."
Some Democrats still remain divided along philosophical lines that became apparent in the 2016 presidential primary battle between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Many who flocked to Sanders argue the party needs to embrace more progressive positions, such as advocating for a $15 hourly minimum wage and single-payer health care.
Union leader Cathy Glasson, one of five Democratic governor candidates, has courted Sanders' supporters, and at a debate last month she tried to highlight the candidates' differences.
"Unlike my opponents on this stage ... I believe that if we reject politics as usual telling us what it is that we have to settle for, and instead we demand what it is that we need, we can change Iowa forever," she said.
Others worry those positions would turn off independent voters needed in the general election. Some have rallied behind Fred Hubbell, a retired businessman who is considered the front-runner. He has spent millions of his own money to run for governor. He argued he's the best positioned to bring the party together against Reynolds.
Zebulon Beilke-McCallum, an Urbandale Democrat who was out knocking doors in Ankeny for an Iowa House candidate on Monday morning, said the party must be inclusive of both progressive activists and swing voters. He said he wants to see the party focus more on building communities around shared values and less on posturing for elections.
"It can't be an either-or, and it has to be more about delivering on something beyond just the election," he said. "For us to win in November, it's got to be that we unite as a party but also progressives feel welcomed in that party — that it's embracing of them."
In the marquee governor's race, Beilke-McCallum said he's still undecided. He had supported Nate Boulton, the Democratic state senator who dropped out of the race after three women accused him of inappropriately touching them several years ago.
"It is really important that we select the strongest candidate, the candidate that is going to be able to lead us to victory in November," Beilke-McCallum said. "If Democrats don't improve on their election performance this time around, that really is going to be a lot harder to offer anything going forward."