After Clinton lost to Trump in 2016, the Democrat National Committee (DNC) examined its strategy. I hadn’t been active with politics since 1992, but in 2018, I wanted to understand why most of my friends and neighbors voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump. This was my home on the Iowa/Minnesota border and I wondered how sensible people swung in opposite directions.
The Democrat Committee where I lived boasted an impressive 40+ years carving out a presence in the region. They marched in every hometown parade, installed booths at every county fair, and held annual fund raising events. If awards were handed out for Democrat Committees, Northern Iowa would win. But in 2018, these Iowans were looking at dismal statistics. Thousands in their districts were not voting and elections favored Republicans.
Our local Republican Committee, on the other hand, held a much longer historical presence. It was a quieter organization with a lower profile at parades, fairs, and events. It didn’t require effort to put Republicans in office. In fact, it took Obama’s Presidency to spur Republican enthusiasm. A wave of racism and conspiracy dealing from fringe media personalities fueled participation from a new kind of Republican.
By 2018, I knew that my friends and I were living in opposing realities. My Republican friends believed that the Clintons were a part of a network of pedophiles, and I believed that Clintons were ineffective and out-of-touch politicians. My friends believed Trump would stand up for the “little guy,” and I believed he was a billionaire grifter. I hated this divergence, but I couldn’t “come around” to their side and convince myself that a pizza restaurant was a cover for pedophile politicians – this was way too “national enquirer.” Besides, the Democrats’ platform aligned with my hopes for my country.
On a rainy day in August – back when Iowa had rain – I double backed on Main Street to visit our Democrat local headquarters and walked out a “volunteer.” In fact, I got voted into serving on the committee.
As a committee, we were spurred by DNC leadership to garner participation from “working class” constituents. I wondered if this meant that national leadership knew that committees were brimming with professors, doctors, and intellectuals of all kinds. I looked around my Democrat meeting and couldn’t argue with the assessment and I knew that, while I might read progressive journalism and study history scholarship, I was somehow different than this crowd. Despite a college education, I’d worked as a part-time janitor, retail clerk, secretary, and nursing home activities assistant (a job title that took longer to say than saying my wage: $8/hour). The people in my Democrat meetings worked in science, wrote grants, gave lectures, and “vacationed”.
Nevertheless, my role was to help Democrats bring working people into the fold. It was easy to imagine standing outside a grocery store and asking exhausted people if they’d like to come to a Democrat organizing meeting. The bitter irony of it was (still is) in plain view: let’s ask people living paycheck-to-paycheck to volunteer and fund-raise for politicians. (Think about it: that’s really what party committees want you to do – volunteer your time to participate in events to raise money for political campaigns.)
I couldn’t bring myself to spur Democrats to ask people to volunteer, but it occurred to me that I could bring Democrat organizers into new places where they would reach new audiences. I thought about things I enjoy doing where I never see my progressive friends, and right away I knew I wanted to bring the Democrats to a stock car race.
Some Democrats were enthusiastic about the idea and many loathed it. I approached the local racetrack owner – Mark (not his real name) – and he thought it was a great way to support the sport. He made it clear that anyone could sponsor a race through his organization. A $500 sponsorship meant the Democrat committee name would be splashed all over area advertising. Mark also saw value in our participation – we would broadcast his business through our mailing lists and social media.
As planning moved ahead, we decided to invite celebrity Democrats – J.D. Scholten and Randy Bryce. With their presence, we would maximize Democrat attendance. In addition to Democrat and stock car advertising, social-media mentions by Scholten and Bryce would reach their combined audience of over 300,000.
Everything went smoothly. But as advertising reached the public, we began to get push back. Individual Democrats began to pull away from the event; nobody wanted to go to the races even if they could sit by Scholten and Bryce. Increasingly, I encountered stern looks or comments like, “race cars hurt the environment.” Mark received a call from Republicans claiming “partisan politics” and the “Democrats are trying to hurt your business.” He reminded them that they could also sponsor a race. My attempts to reach local newspapers and TV journalists were ignored.
The night of the race, I met briefly with Mark and he put on a brave face. A few Democrat stock car fans volunteered at the table where we hung our banner and offered stock car magnets and a raffle. Bryce and Scholten warmly greeted passersby and took questions and remarks.
But the crowds we hoped for didn’t show up. Mark looked grimly over half-full bleachers and I hid my disappointment. Sitting in the stands and watching the mini-mods buzz along the track, I felt really alone. But I also realized that everyone around me were plain, old-fashioned stock car race fans – politics weren’t going to keep us away from having a night out at the races. The same goes for the drivers and their teams – they were there to race. I took my losses in stride and enjoyed the rest of my night with people who prioritized being together instead of being apart.
One more thing – there was a spell behind the bleachers that I’ll never forget. Standing with Bryce and Scholten and our team of Democrat volunteers, a man in a short-sleeve plaid shirt with pearl snaps and wearing transition eyeglasses pulled a few of us aside. He said, “I’m a Republican and I didn’t think Democrats were stock car race fans. So I appreciate what you’re doing here. It means a lot.”
Sara June Jo-Saebo is the founder of the Midwest History Project and author of I Have Walked One Mile After Dark in a Hard Rain, a book that uncovered new facts about an 1848 settlement of Black Americans in Wisconsin. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.