CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Just over 20 years ago, Tom Vilsack became the first Democrat elected governor of this state in 30 years and only the fifth Democrat to hold the office in the 20th century.
He won narrowly the first time, then easily the second time. He governed for most of his eight years as a heartland Democrat, served as the head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, then decided to run for his party’s nomination for president.
He said the results of the 2006 midterm elections, in which centrist House and Senate Democrats ran and won on a shared values campaign message, opened the door for a guy like him.
What he missed is that those voters were actually angry at Republicans, not necessarily excited about Democrats. He also missed that the voters who gave Democrats their big win that year were on the cusp of being kicked out of their party in favor of a more progressive coalition.
Vilsack's presidential campaign never really got off the ground in 2008. By 2010, all of those gains Democrats earned through the shared-values message, crafted by Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and promoted through farm radio channels all over the country in 2006, had been wiped out.
Vilsack would go on to serve as secretary of Agriculture for the duration of the Obama administration, the same position in which he now serves under President Joe Biden. Both times, despite a coalition of progressive environmental organizations launching grassroots campaigns to pressure senators to vote against him, he was overwhelmingly supported by the Senate.
Biden's nomination of Vilsack illustrates two points. First, it shows that the bench for heartland agricultural Democrats must be pretty thin not to be able to find anyone else except the guy who did it before. Second, Democrats have to ask themselves if they will cede control to loud progressive activists who make up a slim percentage of the population. Every presidency they have won and every majority they have earned included values voters.
Biden would not have earned slim wins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan without them. Neither would House candidates such as Conor Lamb. Both men said all of the right things to win their races narrowly.
Yet pressures from their progressive wings affect how they govern and how they vote.
There is a rodeo going on here at the Iowa Equestrian Center at Kirkwood on this warm sunny day. When I last interviewed Vilsack during his tenure in the Obama administration, he said voters like the ones who work the farms and live here in Cedar Rapids need more representation in Washington. “They have lost their clout,” he said.
He was right. Rural Democrats in Washington are going by the way of the dinosaurs, and that is not good for a healthy party.
Vilsack understood that rural America is our greatest source of food, water, energy, fuel and jobs, and the place where a disproportionate number of our servicemembers come from. These voters are extremely relevant because of all their contributions to the nation's well-being.
If the Democratic Party continues to lose these voters' trust and support, which they have bled consistently since the 2000 presidential election, they will not be able to win presidential races or congressional majorities.
It doesn’t matter that the progressives have the loudest megaphone. They are a long way from having the ability to win elections without the very voters they demonize, shame and ostracize.