Kristen Norman

The Fight for Iowa’s White Working-Class Soul

The progressive Millennial Abby Finkenauer wants to make the first district blue again.

For Abby Finkenauer, authenticity is everything.

“Sorry we’re late!” she calls out, walking through the front door of her childhood home and into the kitchen, where I sit waiting with her campaign manager. Finkenauer, the 29-year-old candidate for Iowa’s first congressional district, wears a flowy blue blouse, skinny jeans, and pink lipstick. Smoothing her long brown hair, she describes how she and a staffer had been caught on the highway behind two tractors, one of which was pulling a contraption for distributing fertilizer. “Or, as I like to call it, a shit spreader!” Finkenauer says. She shakes my hand, then heads for the fridge. “There’s pop!” she says, offering me a bottle. “There’s always pop!”

A member of the Iowa House of Representatives since 2015, Finkenauer is now challenging the 63-year-old incumbent Rod Blum, a Tea Party Republican and member of the House Freedom Caucus, in Iowa’s first congressional district. Blum, Finkenauer says, is out of touch, whereas she is one of the people: Her father was a union pipe fitter–welder, her mother an employee of the public-school system. She’s a progressive Democrat, but she doesn’t fashion herself that way; instead, her campaign has stressed economic issues and neighborly goodwill.

“In a lot of ways, she is the antithesis and antidote to Trumpism,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has served in senior roles for the House’s campaign arm. “Congressman Blum and the Republican Congress have forgotten the ‘forgotten man’ … She is stepping into that void with a megaphone.” Blum did not respond to my request to be interviewed for this story.

I grew up in Burlington, Iowa, just south of the first district, and Finkenauer reminded me of the people I grew up with—the way she says “tellin’” and “workin’” and talks about her “grampa.” But the race also intrigued me: Every politician wants to demonstrate a oneness with their constituents, but there is something uncanny about watching a candidate perform her statehood when you’re from the same state.

If Finkenauer wins in November, it will be because she’s convinced enough members of the white working class that Republicans don’t have their best interests at heart. If she doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.

I arrived at Finkenauer’s Dubuque headquarters on a steamy day last month, entering through the city’s sprawling downtown, full of old, repurposed-brick warehouses, and bordered by the Mississippi River. Overlooking her Main Street office is a steep bluff peppered with churches and Victorian-style houses, all made accessible by a 19th-century cable car offering tourists a round-trip ride and a view into Illinois and Wisconsin for $3 a pop. Downtown Dubuque would be the perfect setting for a Nicholas Sparks romance, or a Gilmore Girls reboot. But I didn’t stay. Instead, Finkenauer’s (now former) campaign manager, Joe Farrell, carts me 10 miles down the road to her childhood home in Sherrill, Iowa. It’s the picturesque backdrop for most of her media interviews.

“She’s so authentic. She can just tell her story, and people understand it,” Farrell says in the car, as the brick downtown gives way to gentle green hills.

Inside her family’s home, there’s a big fireplace covered in trinkets: family photos. Canvas prints of inspirational phrases. A box containing the ashes of a beloved Labrador retriever. A rifle leans against a gas fireplace in the family room. Fishing tackle is spread out on the dining-room table. It reminds me of the homes of some of my childhood friends—and I get the sense that it’s supposed to. Authentic.

Iowa’s first district, which has a high concentration of working-class voters, encompasses 20 counties in the northeastern part of the state. Fifteen of those supported Barack Obama by double digits in 2008 and 2012, but swung to Donald Trump by four points in 2016. Republicans and some Democrats are to blame for the shift, but some 40 percent of the district’s active voters aren’t affiliated with any political party. These voters are largely credited with Trump’s victory, and they’re expected to decide the midterms, too. Finkenauer has sold herself as the candidate best able to win them over.

She’s advocated for infrastructure reform, and raising the minimum wage. She talks about the Republican tax plan as a giveaway to the wealthiest Americans. She frequently describes how she keeps one of her dad’s old sweatshirts at her office in the Capitol to remind her of the hardworking Iowans back home. “At the end of the day we all want the same thing. We all want to work hard and be able to have good lives,” she says, her voice full of passion. The election isn’t “going to come down to Democrat or Republican … It’s a referendum on our values.”

Finkenauer was part of the first batch of candidates added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list, which provides candidates in Republican-held districts extra funding and support. (She has so far raised more than $1.8 million, after bringing in over $750,000 in the second quarter of 2018 alone.) The most recent public poll, taken in April, gave her a six-point edge over Blum, and the race is currently rated as a “toss-up” by three different trackers. Iowa 1 “is the quintessential purple [district] in what has become a pretty purple state,” said David Oman, a Republican strategist and the former chief of staff for two Iowa governors. “It’s no surprise to me that Democrats have made that a target, that they’ve put a lot of support behind this new candidate, and that Rod Blum is having to work very hard.”

A view of downtown Dubuque, Iowa (Kristen Norman)

Finkenauer, despite expressing support for a public option and emphasizing the need for affordable college, is perhaps best recognized throughout the district as a union ally. The Republican-led state legislature, in February 2017, voted to dramatically reduce collective-bargaining rights for some 180,000 public employees. Conservatives celebrated the move as a win for taxpayers and managers in local government, but Finkenauer gave an impassioned floor speech condemning the bill. “You had a lot of union guys who had voted Republican who just saw their rights gutted, their health-care rights, their wages, all of it,” Finkenauer tells me. Several local and state-level union leaders remembered this moment, and eagerly offered her their support when she announced her candidacy in May last year.

“You can argue there are a whole lot of posers out there who can say and talk and tweet about all kinds of things … but they don’t have the experiences she’s had,” said Charlie Wishman, the secretary treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor, in an interview. Tom Townsend, the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Dubuque, said the same. “I think what Trump did really good in the Midwest was he talked to working people,” Townsend told me. But “with her it’s real, it’s not fake.”

Finkenauer’s experiences are genuine. But she’s happy to use them for political gain, and she’s not alone. A slew of progressive candidates with populist economic messages have taken to flaunting their populist credentials through social media and gritty, deeply personal TV ads. Take New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist who tweets regularly about her very authentic interactions in the Big Apple: “There’s nothing like walking into the bodega, grabbing an iced cafecito,” and “chopping it up with everyone behind the counter,” she wrote on July 5.

“You wanna know what tough is?” Finkenauer asks in one of her campaign videos, standing in an empty warehouse wearing a red sheath dress and a blazer. Loud rock music plays as her dad wrings the sweat out of his belt and cracks open a cold one. “Tough is eastern Iowa.”

But Blum’s supporters, at least, don’t buy it. “No doubt in my mind she’ll be a career politician,” said Monty Alexander, a 41-year-old account manager in Dubuque who has supported Blum in the past and is listed as a “reputation management professional” at a company co-founded by the lawmaker.* “The commercials she has been running makes it look like she wants you to vote for her dad.”

After Finkenauer arrives for the interview, we douse ourselves in bug spray and walk out to the backyard, where there’s a small, green pond and a picnic table. We sit, and she tells me that growing up, her parents never talked politics. “Dad was talking about—when he was home on the weekends—how he would love to get on the river and go fishing,” she says. “So we were talkin’ about if the walleye were biting and where.”

Finkenauer gets why so many people in her district voted for Trump: They were tired of politicians, and Trump was someone different. He’d promised to provide a voice for “the forgotten men and women” of America. He had pledged to make health care more affordable, and invest in infrastructure. “Folks were ticked,” Finkenauer says. People thought “things weren’t getting better, and they weren’t wrong.” The problem is that Trump didn’t mean any of it, she says. “It was clearly talking points for him. For me, it’s my life, and there’s your difference.”

Rob Schmitt, a 36-year-old welder for John Deere in Dubuque, was one of those folks. Schmitt, a registered Democrat, said he voted for Trump in 2016 because he hoped the businessman would make health care more affordable, and he liked Trump’s talk about strengthening American manufacturing. Now he’s voting for Finkenauer: “I think she fits the district well, with her coming from a working family, her dad being a welder, with their values,” he said. Schmitt and his brother farm near the Finkenauers’ home in Sherrill, where they run a cow-calf operation and plant row crops like corn and soybeans. The price of soybeans has dropped more than 20 percent since March, after Trump first issued tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Blum has expressed concern about how the tariffs will affect Iowans, but said in a recent interview that he trusts Trump’s judgment. He contests the claim that he’s out of touch and said it’s actually Finkenauer who’s too liberal for the district. Blum has voted with Trump more than 91 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, and Democrats believe that that makes him particularly vulnerable. On top of that, in February, Blum was accused of violating House ethics rules by failing to disclose his role as one of the two directors of an internet-marketing company, which, among its other services, aimed to help businesses cited for federal food-and-drug-safety violations bury their FDA warning letters in search results.

“Rod Blum is such … scum,” said Margaret Mjoness, a 64-year-old Dubuque resident who works at a local nonprofit and plans on supporting Finkenauer. “He’s just doing things that are bad for the country, like the tax giveaway to the wealthy, and now with Trump in [office], he’s just rubber-stamping all that stuff.”

“He acts like he doesn’t like his constituents,” said Cindy Garlock, a retired educator in Cedar Rapids. “Abby very clearly is of the people, and she knows where her roots are.”

Blum, like Finkenauer, was born and raised in Dubuque, and he’s still well liked by a good swath of the district, especially those in the region who see him as an independent voice for the district’s many unaffiliated voters. He doesn’t apologize for supporting the big tax cut, and Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both made separate visits to the district in recent weeks, which could help boost Blum’s support.

Wayne Fredericks, a farmer living in Osage, Iowa, has been a board member on the Iowa Soybean Association since 2008, where he’s worked closely with Blum. Fredericks finds the Republican lawmaker very authentic. “He’s had a very, very good voting record for agriculture,” he told me. And when it comes to tariffs too, 67-year-old Fredericks is optimistic. “I think we’re all patiently and patriotically supportive of getting these trade inequities solved,” he said.

If she is able to defeat Blum this November, Abby Finkenauer will be the second-youngest member of Congress. The youngest, of course, will be the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated the longtime incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in June. Finkenauer could also become the first woman ever to represent Iowa in the House of Representatives—although another Iowa candidate, the Democrat Cindy Axne, is currently giving Representative David Young a run for his money in Iowa’s third district.

Finkenauer in her family’s backyard in Sherrill, Iowa (Kristen Norman)

Finkenauer, in other words, is part of a new wave of young, progressive women running for office: More than twice as many women have launched congressional bids in 2018 than in 2016, and many of them were first-timers motivated to run by Trump’s election. But Finkenauer doesn’t see herself as part of any new trend. “I am my grandfather’s Democrat,” she says. “He was the former president of the Iowa Firefighters Association. He loved Joe Biden.” Finkenauer earned the endorsement of the former vice president in June.

“I don’t think this is new,” Finkenauer tells me. “I don’t know if [Democratic leaders] took too many theory classes in political science or something … They just started reading so many theories about how this was all supposed to work instead of talking to real people.”

After our interview, we pile into a staffer’s car and head over to the local UAW hall, where the Dubuque County Democrats are having a meeting.

“Do you like country music?” Finkenauer asks me from the front seat, where she is applying powder foundation in the sun-visor mirror.

Before I can respond she adds, “Pretty sure I already know what you’re gonna say, since you left Iowa.” She gives me a knowing look.

I laugh awkwardly.

We pull into the UAW hall, just next door to the massive Prairie Farms Dairy, and Finkenauer slips on a pair of silver heels. Inside the building, there are a dozen burly men in T-shirts and overalls hunched over Styrofoam plates of food. A handful of older women are arranging baked goods on the kitchen counter. Finkenauer greets them all like family—very authentically. When she walks onto the small stage at the front of the hall, every person stands and applauds.

“Everything is on the line in 2018,” she says from the lectern, her voice full of emotion. “We are gonna go to Washington, D.C., and we are gonna show them and remind them of every single person in this room that they have forgotten!”

* This article has been updated to reflect Monty Alexander’s relationship with the company Tin Moon.