“What makes me unique to Iowa is that I’m not unique,” Dave Muhlbauer told the small group of Johnson County Democrats gathered on the makeshift patio behind George’s Buffet on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m an Iowan.”
Muhlbauer, a farmer in western Iowa and a former member of the Crawford County Board of Supervisors, launched a nine-city campaign swing through the state on Tuesday after becoming the first Democrat to declare as a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Chuck Grassley. Iowa City was one of his stops, and local Democrats arranged a meet-and-greet for him at the venerable George’s.
The site offered a reminder of one of the most obvious contrasts between Grassley and Muhlbauer. Even though George’s will celebrate 82 years in business next month, it is still younger than Grassley. At 87, Grassley is 50 years older than Muhlbauer, and had already been in elective office for a quarter century when Muhlbauer was born.
“I just feel it’s time to let the next generation of Iowans take the reins,” Muhlbauer said. “And let us shape what Iowa is going to be, going into the next 20 to 30 to 40 years.”
“It’s exciting to have you here,” Green said. “It’s exciting to have, not to put too fine a point on it, somebody who looks like me also running for office.”
Green was not just referring to the fact that both he and Muhlbauer were wearing cowboy hats. Both Green, who grew up in Wyoming and southern Johnson County where his family has lived for 150 years, and Muhlbauer, who is the fifth generation of his family to farm in western Iowa, stressed the importance of Democrats being able to appeal to rural voters.
The two said that by actively campaigning in small communities, listening to the concerns of rural residents and taking those concerns seriously, Democrats should be able to tap into the progressive streak they believe still exists in rural areas and win with policies that appeal to people in Iowa City and Muhlbauer’s hometown of Manilla, which Trump easily carried in 2020.
“Get out there,” Muhlbauer said, in response to a question about how to connect with rural voters. “It’s what we’re doing right now. We’ve got to spread truth, and not be shy about it. Social media, face-to-face, door knocking.”
Summarizing the main issues he is campaigning on, Muhlbauer talked about the need to use the power of the federal government to create a more even playing field for small farmers. Four companies — JBS, Tyson, Cargill and National Beef — control approximately 80 percent of meat processing in the United States. Their control of the market has allowed them to keep prices low for farmers and wages low for workers in their plants, but increase the prices paid by consumers and increase corporate profits.
Muhlbauer said he favored enforcing antitrust laws to break up the influence of the big four.
That wasn’t the only agricultural issue the candidate raised. Muhlbauer said it was important for government to also support farmers in adopting practices that will “combat climate change, improve water quality, and soil health.”
He also listed a series of priorities very familiar to Iowa City progressives: improving funding for education “starting with early childhood education,” creating a healthcare system that doesn’t bankrupt people who fall ill and treats mental illnesses as fully and seriously as it does physical illnesses, and improving the state’s infrastructure from roads and bridges to expanding broadband.
These sort of policies would improve the state in a way that would make bright young Iowans want to stay here, Muhlbauer said. And it would make those who have left consider returning.
“We want people to come back to Iowa,” he said. “Come back to our western Iowa small towns.”
Muhlbauer and Green both said they hoped the last year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic would help people see beyond the conservative orthodoxy that government is incapable of truly helping people. But that orthodoxy has been promoted on talk radio, which has a wide reach in rural Iowa since the Reagan administration. Muhlbauer was asked by one of the people attending the meet-and-greet how the influence of talk radio can be countered, so people can fully consider the policies he’s proposing.
Muhlbauer said it can be done by visiting small towns, letting them see who he is as a candidate, and repeating his message at each stop.
But Muhlbauer has first-hand experience with the sort of message discipline right-wing media can bring, although he didn’t mention it during his remarks at George’s on Wednesday.
Muhlbauer’s father Dan served two terms in the Iowa House of Representatives, starting in 2011, representing Crawford County. In 2013, he said during a newspaper interview he favored regulations on semi-automatic rifles and would be in favor of a gun buy-back program to reduce the number of those weapons in circulation.
His comments were highlighted on a conservative Iowa blog, then picked up by state GOP and then began circulating up the conservative media food chain. Fox News, national talk radio shows and right-wing news sites began denouncing Dan Muhlbauer as a “gun grabber.” All that national noise was recycled on local conservative talk radio in Iowa. Muhlbauer lost when he ran for reelection the following year.
After the event at George’s, Little Village asked about what he had learned from watching the media campaign against his father that could help him get his own message out to voters in Republican-dominated parts of the state. As he did early, Muhlbauer said repetition is the key.
“It’s really just pounding the pavement and just getting our message out there,” he said. “All we can do is be who we are, and get our message out there.”
It will still be a tough sell. J.D. Scholten ran for Congress in western Iowa last year on the same sort of issues Muhlbauer is running on, and Scholten lost in a landslide to his Republican opponent, 62-38. Muhlbauer, who campaigned for Scholten, also lost his run for reelection in Crawford County to a Republican, but only by 95 votes.
Still, his experience during his one term on the Crawford County Board of Supervisors, as well as that of his father and grandfather who both served on the board, is what gives Muhlbauer confidence he would be an effective U.S. Senator.
“I’m solution-oriented,” he said. “And I think one thing that has helped us — rural Democrats, serving as supervisors in Crawford County for three generations — is that we could reach across the table, and we can really have open, and just honest conversations about issues we face.”
“And by taking that approach, we can find solutions that can help people every day.”