AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Democrats have a lot of ground to recover in the midterm elections. From Congress to governor's mansions and state legislatures, the party's losses have been huge over the last decade. Democrats haven't struggled like this since before the Great Depression. One state where they're trying hard to reverse the shift to the right is Iowa. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has our report.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Pete D'Alessandro is running for the U.S. House in Iowa's 3rd District. At a Des Moines campaign event that was also his birthday party, D'Alessandro frames 2018 as crucial for Democrats.
PETE D'ALESSANDRO: The reason we are going to win is because we are at a crossroads in our party and in this country.
KURTZLEBEN: He was Bernie Sanders' campaign coordinator in Iowa in 2016. And D'Alessandro thinks Democrats need to resist the temptation to run as moderates this year.
D'ALESSANDRO: I don't think diving to the mushy middle - first of all, I don't think it's been very successful in this state or anywhere else.
KURTZLEBEN: And that feels especially pressing for Iowa Democrats. Just listen to how much power they've lost. In 2012, Democrats held three of Iowa's five House seats. Today they hold one of the state's four seats. In 2010, Democrats controlled the state's House, Senate and governorship. Now Republicans control all three. Not only that, but the state that voted for Barack Obama twice chose Donald Trump in 2016. Here's former state GOP chair Matt Strawn.
MATT STRAWN: 2018 represents the three-strikes-and-you're-out moment for Iowa Democrats following, you know, relatively sweeping Iowa Republican wins in both 2014 and 2016 across the state.
KURTZLEBEN: And that's not just a Republican sentiment.
TROY PRICE: Folks know that this is a do-or-die moment for us.
KURTZLEBEN: That's Troy Price, current chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.
PRICE: This is a moment where we have to come together, where we have to work together. And we have to win this fall.
KURTZLEBEN: It's not just about losing elections. Iowa Democrats have watched the state pass a string of what they see as unacceptably conservative policies. Measures that privatized Medicaid, weakened public sector unions and sharply restricted abortions have Iowa Democrats spoiling for a fight. All of that was a wake-up call to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell.
FRED HUBBELL: Look; we can't allow this to have five more years because otherwise you can call us Kansas, you can call us Oklahoma, whatever you want. It's going to be one or both.
KURTZLEBEN: But Iowa Democrats have reason for hope. They have a shot at flipping two U.S. House seats and also hope to unseat Republican Governor Kim Reynolds. Next week's primaries feature several competitive Democratic races, but they do not seem to have sharply divided the party, according to D'Alessandro supporter Fred Trujillo.
FRED TRUJILLO: Having been involved almost 10 years now actively involved in political campaigns and things in the state of Iowa, this is probably the least tension I've seen among Democratic candidates.
KURTZLEBEN: But they're still left pondering where they've gone wrong in the last few years. Here's Troy Price's diagnosis.
PRICE: Lot of campaigns that have been driven by forces that are not necessarily in Iowa presidential campaigns, for example, or driven by folks in D.C. or Brooklyn or Chicago.
KURTZLEBEN: Democrats in rural areas have been feeling ignored. Retired schoolteacher Steve Dicker explains his frustration.
STEVE DICKER: Two years ago, I tried to get a Hillary Clinton sign for my front yard, and I could not get one. So somebody really dropped the ball.
KURTZLEBEN: State House member Marti Anderson says that Democrats are trying to pick the ball back up again. They're working hard at reaching voters out in Iowa's rural areas.
MARTI ANDERSON: Because a lot of us are urban, we've been doing a concerted effort to learn more about agriculture, to get out to small towns.
KURTZLEBEN: That kind of rural outreach is happening in plenty of other states. And while Iowa's Democrats may not expect it to turn the state blue, they're at least hoping to pull it back towards the middle. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.