Iowa City, Iowa—On the morning of Labor Day, a crowd gathered outside Mercy Hospital in Des Moines to hear health-care workers speak about their worsening labor conditions. After a number of hospital employees had spoken, Mike Carberry, a Democrat serving as supervisor for Johnson County, took the stage.
“Do we have any good liberals here?” he asked.
Carberry was met with tepid applause.
Then someone shouted: “We’re communists!”
The crowd exploded in cheers.
“Okay! Communists and socialists!” Carberry conceded.
The rally was a joint action between organizers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the local chapter of Fight for $15, which earlier that morning organized a strike at a local Burger King. But the event of the day was a speech by Cathy Glasson, a recent entrant to the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“If you work in healthcare in Des Moines, you probably work two jobs,” Glasson told the crowd. “That’s why I’m here with you, to fight for $15 and a union!”
Glasson’s path to the governor’s mansion is far from clear. Her rivals in the primary include business-friendly centrists with close ties to establishment Democrats. But Glasson is the farthest left candidate in recent memory to mount a serious campaign for the state’s highest office.
She is betting on her campaign’s ability to build a coalition of unlikely conspirators: service workers, many of whom are immigrants and people of color; members of manufacturing unions, many of whom are white and some of whom supported Trump; and young members of the ascending Democratic Socialists of America.
Glasson and her staff are full of youthful energy, blending “Iowa Nice” with political rage. Yet their approach is old-school. They conceive of electoral politics as an extension of labor organizing, hoping to use the techniques that once made the Midwest a hotbed of union activism in order to convince voters to support progressive politics.
If proven right, the prairie progressives could augur a path forward for the American left.
Iowa was once a true swing state, where conservative farm owners and organized workers vied for power. Over the last decade, however, the state has drifted rightward: Though Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and the two houses of the state legislature between 2007 and 2010, Republicans have held the governorship since 2011 and took over the legislature in 2017.
Narratives about “flyover country” often attribute this shift to the supposedly intractable bitterness of uneducated white voters. But local political observers insist that the state’s transformation was due in large part to state Democrats’ support for Big Agriculture and their neglect of workers’ concerns.