Resolute Square

Iowa: Report from the Front Line

David Pepper Provides The Perfect Case Study of Why You Run Everywhere--With Gumption
Published:October 5, 2023

*Read all of David's writing and watch his fantastic videos at Pepperspectives!

By David Pepper

It’s the age-old story, but this time it played out with an entire county watching.
An eminently qualified woman passed over for a job by a completely unqualified man.
In this case, that eminently qualified woman told me, she felt like she had no choice but to do something about it. So she took on the man. And got the job!

How? She stepped up and ran against him.

Here’s the backstory: Kimberly Sheets served as the deputy auditor of Warren County, Iowa for four years. When the long-time County auditor stepped aside mid-summer for personal reasons, she recommended that Kimberly replace her. But the Republican County Commission passed her over for a construction executive who had no relevant public auditing experience, and who one of the commissioners acknowledged was a personal friend.

Worse, within hours of returning to work following a short vacation, Kimberly was informed that the new/interim auditor was placing her on administrative leave.

And even worse, beyond being unqualified, social media posts from that interim auditor soon emerged. Wouldn’t you know it? This guy was fond of disseminating QAnon and election denial conspiracies. Not someone you’d want in an office that serves as the “Commissioner of Elections” for the county!

Well, Kimberly Sheets and the people of Warren County decided to do something about it:

First, they gathered the signatures needed to trigger a special election (you need 2,500—they gathered 3,500), pitting Kimberly against the interim auditor.

Then, they worked tirelessly to get the word and the vote out.

And, they succeeded!

The August 29 election generated a record-high turnout for a special election. And Kimberly nearly doubled the election denier’s vote total (5,051 votes to 2,538) to win the election, and the job of Warren County Auditor.

How great is that!

Now let me make it even greater: Donald Trump carried Warren County by more than 14 points. But Democratic candidate Kimberly Sheets beat her election-denying and unqualified GOP opponent by 33 points!

Saturday, both Kimberly and I spoke at the must-stop Polk County Steak Fry in Iowa, saying the same thing: “we have to run everywhere!”

I preach it wherever I go—she lived it, and showed why it must be our mantra everywhere. There are so many lessons from her story…
Backdrop: My Iowa Visit

Iowa is one of too many states—like Ohio, Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma—enduring the downward spiral of unaccountable and extremist statehouses wreaking havoc on the people of these states.

As I spoke to folks at Beaverdale Books and then at the storied Polk County Steak Fry, I heard what I hear in all my visits to “Laboratories of Autocracy” states: the same disturbing pattern of attacks on public education (in a state with one of the best public schools in the nation); voter suppression; a six-week abortion ban; book bans; attacks on LGBTQ Iowans; and so on.

It’s the same playbook we see everywhere—another reminder that the front-line of the national, coordinated attack on democracy are statehouses. And like too many other states, so many of those doing the damage face no opposition—33% of Iowa Republican legislators ran uncontested in November 2022!

Again, they’re on offense, while too often, we’re not even playing defense (let alone offense!)
And remember, this plunge toward extremism is happening in a state that voted for Obama for President not long ago. Iowa sent Tom Harkin to the Senate for years, and elected respected statewide officials like Governor Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Tom Miller.

It’s a stunning turn. But it’s exactly what happens when one side is engaged in a long and fierce battle against democracy, state-by-state, while the other largely focuses on federal elections in a narrow band of swing states—wrongly believing it’s won the battle for democracy when it’s won those states federally.

Stepping Up, One Office at a Time

But then there’s the story of Kimberly Sheets. She’s the hope, and the way out. We must replay what she did again and again, way beyond Iowa.

And what about her story can we learn from? How about all of it!

First, even though she says she’s never been a very political person—“I care more about numbers than speeches,” she told me—she knew something wrong was happening, to her and to her community. So she made the brave decision to step up.

Lesson 1: Many of your most effective candidates will not be the ones with political
backgrounds. They’ll be those with integrity, courage, authenticity and some other expertise that gives them credibility with the community—like being an experienced deputy auditor, who will do a better job of overseeing elections than an unqualified election denier.

Second, Kimberly stepped up knowing full well it would be a difficult race. Think about it: A county Trump had won by almost 15 points. A county commission who would no doubt fight hard to protect its choice. A special election when most weren’t paying attention. Despite all that, she told me, “I felt like I had no choice but to run.”

Lesson 2: “No choice” but to run is how we have to feel everywhere. Regardless of how uncertain or difficult the road may be, our default must be that we are running. Everywhere! An unqualified election-denier overseeing a county’s elections is one hell of a reason to run, especially when you’re more qualified to do the job than that person. But equally unacceptable are extremists in statehouses all over this country who are doing so much damage as they advance extremism and attack democracy. Knowing that’s what’s happening, we all should feel the same way Kimberly did—that “we have no choice but to run” against them all. Allowing extremism to be imposed with no opposition must no longer be acceptable.

Third: Kimberly thanked the activists not just from her county, but from Polk County, for doing so much organizing and volunteering to help win the race. She would never have gotten it done without them. And she’s right.

Think about it—one county of activists got fired up to help a neighboring county oust an election denier from a position that handles elections. Now that’s fighting for democracy.

Lesson 3: when candidates step up in tough races and in tough places, entire communities (including folks beyond their communities) need to embrace them for their courage in doing so. Help get them on the ballot. Help get their message out. Help get the vote out. Entire communities need to shower candidates like Kimberly with support—be sure that they understand that their decision to run for that office is valued as an incredible act of public service (even if they don’t ultimately win). And the longer the long shot candidacy may appear, the more heroic that decision to run. We must rid ourselves of the reflect that if someone isn’t running for a “swing” district or a federal office, we don’t value their run—it’s that instinct, collectively, that leads to all those uncontested races everywhere, often in the very positions that the far right is using to undermine democracy.

Fourth: It was the spirited opposition to that unqualified interim Auditor that exposed and amplified his prior dissemination of QAnon and election-denying conspiracies.

Lesson 4: running for office brings essential accountability. Imagine if Kimberly hadn’t stepped up to run, and those helping her hadn’t waged such a spirited campaign to expose and amplify those messages. Warren County’s elections would’ve been in the hands of someone dabbling in conspiracy theories, and hardly anyone would’ve known it.

Scary. Equally scary is that when we don’t run against extremist legislators, this is happening all the time! Their extremist laws and the damage they cause go largely unnoticed back at home. Even in losses, the added accountability and transparency of running for these offices is critical in rooting out extremism.

Fifth: Kimberly won, and it wasn’t even close.

Lesson: for all the reasons I mentioned above, Kimberly would’ve been a hero even if she hadn’t won. But her overwhelming victory shows us that even now, directly taking on toxic extremism can succeed even in tough terrain. Her upset victory reminds me of all those election-denying Secretary of State candidates last November—they didn’t just lose, they were the lowest finishers on their tickets. It reminds me of Doug Mastriano (Pa.) and Kari Lake (Az.) going down in flames. It reminds me of the many traditional red Ohio counties that voted “No” on the anti-democratic Issue 1 in August.

The election-denying, book-banning, democracy-attacking brand of the GOP is toxic. When properly exposed, fired-up Democrats (showing up in big numbers), independents and some moderate Republicans will unite to stop candidates and issues that feel too extreme for their community.

They’ll do it in blue areas.

They’ll do it in swing areas.

And yes, whether it’s Warren County, Iowa or Geauga County, OH, they’ll do it in red areas if the choice is presented clearly enough.

Build from There

By the way, Kimberly Sheets wasn't the only champion of democracy I encountered in Iowa.
I had breakfast with Andrea Phillips, who took on a previously unchallenged state legislator three times, narrowing the margin each time. She couldn’t run the fourth time, but the person who did finally toppled the incumbent. That ultimate victory grew out of Andrea’s tireless and selfless efforts. And she loved running.

There was the new Democratic party chair of Iowa, Rita Hart, who stepped up after a tough 2022 (including her own run for Congress) to become chair, committing to rebuild the party from the precinct level up—in all parts of the state.

There was the fiery speech from Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, about how flipping the State Senate in Minnesota in 2022 (thank you to all those who helped make that happen) has unleashed so much change for the good there. Now a true Laboratory of Democracy.

And there was the passion and commitment of abortion and LBGTQ activists and leaders who keep fighting for human rights in Iowa even in the face of the relentless attacks.

With that energy, there are opportunities to be gained in Hawkeye State. There are school boards to protect from book banners over the coming month. There are clearly a lot of statehouse seats (33% of the GOPs) to take on that weren’t even opposed last November. And there’s a Congressional seat (the 3rd is particularly close) that can be flipped next year.

I know. Given the recent history, it may all feel like an uphill battle.

But ask Kimberly Sheets what can happen when you enter those.

Run everywhere, folks! Like Kimberly said, have no choice.