Blue Missouri leader tells rural Iowa Democrats: Don’t talk about Biden

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Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Even with strong job growth, infrastructure development, including boosts to ag regions, and other financial metrics trending positively, President Joe Biden is struggling to break through on the economy with voters — a fact former presidents Obama and Clinton delved into last week at a record-breaking New York City fundraiser for the president’s reelection.

Instead of searching for to-this-point unobtainable messaging on the economy for Biden, a leader of a progressive Missouri organization has another answer for rural Democrats: Don’t bring up Biden and focus on local candidates.

Jess Piper, the executive director of Blue Missouri, spoke last week in Des Moines at a Progress Iowa celebration. (Photo by Douglas Burns)

“I specifically don’t talk about Biden because all he’s doing is delivering roads and that sort of thing, but they need to talk about who’s really impacting their life and that’s people in the Statehouse,” Jess Piper, the executive director of Blue Missouri and the host of the “Dirt Road Democrat” podcast, said in an interview with The Iowa Mercury.

How could Democrats cut through on the economy?

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“You don’t,” Piper said.

Piper, a Missouri farmer who lives near Maryville in the northwest corner of the Show Me State, close to the Iowa border, headlined the recent Progress Iowa 12th Birthday Party in Des Moines at the Tom and Ruth Harkin Institute on the Drake University campus.

A former Missouri Statehouse candidate who challenged GOP headwinds herself in 2022, Piper came north with a message for Democrats in red regions of Iowa: running for office is worth it, even if you lose, as it likely will take several elections for the party to climb back in wide swaths of the nation.

“I did come from Missouri,” Piper said in her speech at the Progress Iowa celebration. “I heard that Kim Reynolds had sent the troops down to the Southern border, and I got through.”

Piper said she became energized in 2018 when Missouri passed an abortion ban with no exception for rape and incest after 6 months.

“I’d kind of been coasting through because Obama was president and everything was cool,” she said. “And then I was jarred awake.”

In 2020, she voted for Biden. No Democrat was on the ballot in 2022 in her House district, so she ran herself.

“That was a tough two years and I got my butt kicked — I mean bad,” Piper said. “But here’s the thing: It’s worth it.”

State Rep. Jeff Farnan, a Missouri Republican in that state’s House District 1, captured the race with 75% of the vote to Piper’s 25%.

A Democrat hasn’t been elected to the Missouri House from her region for 32 years, she said.

“And you can tell because there’s no shoulders on our roads,” Piper said. “Because our schools are four days a week. Because they close our hospitals. Because they ban our books and they pay our teachers $33,000 a year to teach.”

Even when Democrats in conservative districts know they can’t win, their candidacies make the Republicans spend money.

“That person I ran against had to show up to forums,” Piper said. “He had to face me. He had to knock doors. He had to make calls. He had to raise money, and he had to use it in the district. He couldn’t take that money when there’s nobody running and pocket it and head to Columbia or St. Louis or Kansas City where they have blue places. He had to spend $100,000.”

Piper said she was aware of the challenge of flipping her district in one cycle. But people need to hear the Democratic message — over and over, she said.

“They understood I didn’t have horns,” Piper, a longtime teacher, said. “They understood that I was someone from their community, that I taught their son or their nephew or their granddaughter and they remember that.”

When Democrats come back and knock doors in successive election cycles, maybe voters will reconsider in her Statehouse district, Piper said.

“I am a patriotic person, but I also believe you ought to have access to health care,” Piper, 48, said.

She said the voucher/education savings account legislation that passed in Iowa is destroying public schools.

“There is misinformation, they don’t understand what is going on,” Piper said.

Democrats can change that, Piper said.

Iowa Democrats can “claw your way back” to power more quickly than in other states, like her native Missouri or Idaho, she said.

In an interview after the speech, Piper said Democrats can’t surrender on core principles like abortion rights in rural areas where such positioning could potentially shake seats loose.

In Pennsylvania, a Democrat in the Johnstown area, State Rep. Frank Burns of Cambria, defies conventional political wisdom by holding a seat with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and an anti-abortion voting record.

Should Democrats embrace “pro-life” candidates again in rural areas — elected officials who would be with Democrats on labor issues and other economic matters, but stray on culture issues like abortion?

“I don’t think so,” Piper said. “Bodily autonomy is a right and I think that we should draw a clear distinction. I think the time for pro-life Democrats has come and gone. Most of the progressives I know, even pretty conservative women that I know, are not going to vote for someone who has a pro-life stance at all.”

What’s the draw in rural America to Donald Trump?

“It’s a team,” Piper said. “It’s a winning team. It’s red versus blue. It’s not politics anymore. It has nothing to do with economics. It has nothing to do with their schools, their farms or anything else, because they are voting against their self interest. I think it’s just identity politics.”

This column was originally published by Douglas Burns’ blog, “The Iowa Mercury.” It is shared here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative and member authors’ blogs to support their work. 

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