In light of losses, Iowa Democratic party works to stay in the game

DES MOINES — It’s an unsettling time for Iowa Democrats, who spent 2008 basking in the glow of having given Barack Obama his first major victory on the road to the White House. Since then, their one-term Democratic governor, Chet Culver, was defeated in November, and three Supreme Court justices were removed from the bench over a decision favoring same-sex marriage.

“After all the euphoria of ‘8, ’10 was such a rude awakening,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky, a chipper former special education teacher who refers to years by only their last digits. ” ‘7 and ‘8, for those of us who lived through it, was so spectacular.”

On a recent afternoon, Dvorsky was in her small, cluttered office at party headquarters near the Des Moines International Airport. In one corner, there was a small photo of Dvorsky with a tall, dark man. “That’s my boyfriend,” said a mischievous Dvorsky, 56, who is married to Iowa state Sen. Bob Dvorsky. On closer inspection, it turned out to be President Obama.

Almost all the excitement in Iowa now is on the Republican side. But Democrats are hardly sitting things out. The Iowa Democratic Party, which has steadily lost registered voters in the last two and a half years, pumps out a stream of stinging retorts to the GOP news of the day.

“We want to keep ’em honest,” said Megan Jacobs, the party’s press secretary. She picks on nearly all the major GOP candidates; not so much, though, on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has been beset by defections and controversy. Gingrich, she said, “kind of does my work for me.”

The state’s Democrats have recently criticized former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his opposition to the auto industry bailout and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman for his plans to skip the Iowa caucus.

A favorite target is Tim Pawlenty, who spends a lot of time in Iowa but is doing poorly in fundraising and polls.

Late last month, when the former Minnesota governor released an ad touting his fiscal record, vowing, “If we can do it in Minnesota, we can do it in Washington,” the Iowa Democrats replied: “To that, we here in Iowa say, please don’t.”

Whether Iowa voters are tuned in yet is hard to know. But Iowa, which went solidly for Obama in 2008, is up for grabs in 2012. Democrats still have an edge in registrations, but as Dvorsky pointed out, the electorate of about 2 million is basically divided into thirds — Democrats, Republicans and independents. “We are just about as purple as can be.”

Whoever the nominee is, she said, “they are going to have to come back here and make the argument to independent voters. Even if they’ve won the caucuses, what they’ve won is only a subset of Republicans. That’s the danger of blowing off Iowa.”

Casey Mills, spokesman for the Iowa Republican Party, said his Democratic counterparts should be worried.

While Democrats do have an edge in registration over Republicans in the state, the gap has narrowed considerably since Obama took office, plunging from 111,000 to 35,000, according to the Iowa secretary of State’s website. “We have closed that gap every month that President Obama has been in office,” Mills said.

Newly registered Republicans, Mills said, are driven by the federal issues — healthcare reform, the deficit, opposition to the stimulus — that led to widespread Republican success in the midterm election.

“Iowans are particularly concerned with the jobs numbers we saw out there today,” Mills said Friday, when 9.2 percent unemployment in June was announced. “Iowa Democrats have failed to make the case that four more years of President Obama would help restore the economy.”

In the meantime, both parties are preparing for the signature Republican event of the summer: the Ames Straw Poll, scheduled for Aug. 13. It is a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party and has many critics, but it also functions as the true beginning of the 2012 campaign. The results can boost — or undermine — a candidate.

The Iowa Democratic Party plans to be there.

“We’ll have a rapid response room,” Dvorsky said. The Democratic National Committee, she added, “will have important people there to push back a little bit. This is the reelection of the president, different from the election of Barack Obama. It has a different weight and there are different stakes. God yes, it’s our job to worry about it.”