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Donald Trump's message is resonating in Iowa. How might Democrats rebuild?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are following results and news from last night's caucuses in Iowa, where former President Donald Trump won decisively with more than 50% of the vote. Trump delivered a speech to some of his supporters in Iowa last night after he was declared the winner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I really think this is time now for everybody, our country, to come together. We want to come together, whether it's Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative. It would be so nice if we could come together and straighten out the world and straighten out the problems and straighten out all of the death and destruction that we're witnessing. It's practically never been like this. It's just so important. And I want to make that a very big part of our message. We're going to come together. It's going to happen soon, too - going to happen soon.

(CHEERING)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former Governor Ron DeSantis, who had campaigned in all 99 Iowa counties, came in in second place with 21% of the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: They spent almost $50 million attacking us. No one's faced that much all the way just through Iowa. They - the media was against us. They were writing our obituary months ago.

(BOOING)

DESANTIS: They even called the election before people even got a chance to vote.

(BOOING)

DESANTIS: In spite of all of that that they threw at us, everyone against us, we've got our ticket punched out of Iowa.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the former governor of South Carolina, came in right behind DeSantis with 19% of the vote. Tanya Wheeless counted that as a win as she left Haley's caucus headquarters last night in West Des Moines.

TANYA WHEELESS: I think it's a huge hill to climb, but that's how things happen. I mean, back in 2016, nobody thought Trump would do it. And he stayed in, and he kept with his message. This year's our year, and Nikki's going to stay in there. She's resonating. We've got all the momentum in this race. And so I think we just take it one state at a time, and I think we're going to surprise everyone.

INSKEEP: OK. Democrats in Iowa also caucused last night, but not in the same way that they have in the past because their party had wanted to lead with other states than Iowa. So this year, Democratic voters are sending mail-in ballots for their choices, and the results will not be revealed until March 5, a date on the U.S. election calendar otherwise known as Super Tuesday.

MARTIN: And all this shows just how much Iowa has changed from a swing state to one where Donald Trump's brand of Republicanism has come to resonate among the rural areas and small towns of Iowa. So just where and how might Democrats rebuild? Our co-host, A Martínez, went to Iowa to find out.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: We decided to get the answer to that question at a city in Iowa called Ankeny.

AMY TAGLIARENI: It's a suburb of Des Moines, probably about 15 miles north. It's a fairly affluent suburb.

MARTÍNEZ: Amy Tagliareni is a mother and a Democratic-backed school board member in this city of roughly 70,000 people.

TAGLIARENI: But with changing demographics, it's hard to keep up with the exponential growth.

MARTÍNEZ: Tagliareni has two school-aged children. She won her re-election to the school board in November in what local news outlets called a sweep for progressive candidates. She believes her election victory was, in part, a reaction to the policies enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

TAGLIARENI: This was an opportunity for Ankeny community members to have control over what happens in their school buildings. And they are fearful of, you know, the book bans. They're fearful of the slippery slope. What could be next? I think they wanted people that were going to stand up for our teachers and tell teachers, we have your back.

MARTÍNEZ: Iowa's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, last year signed a ban on books depicting sex acts from school libraries and classrooms. It also forbids teachers from raising gender identity and sexual orientation issues with students from kindergarten through sixth grade. In December, a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of that ban. Reynolds says she's extremely disappointed in the ruling. Here she is defending the ban last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM REYNOLDS: Our kids and our teachers deserve better - not a damn distraction on a nasty, pornographic book that should never, ever be in a classroom.

MARTÍNEZ: Many Republican-led state legislatures across the country are pushing for book bans or outlawing lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation. Here's Amy Tagliareni again.

TAGLIARENI: It feels like governance, you know, in Iowa and in spots across the country seems to be government through punishment instead of lifting people up. I would like to see us get back to, you know, using resources that we have as a safety net to catch people who have fallen.

MARTÍNEZ: Heather Matson understands the push and pull of Iowa politics firsthand. She's a Democratic state lawmaker who won her election in 2018, then lost in 2020, then won again in 2022. She is currently one of 36 Democrats in the 100-member state House. Despite being the minority party, she's hopeful for the party's future.

HEAHER MATSON: Putting people over politics is something our Iowa House Democratic Caucus has focused on a lot over the last couple of years - you know, proactively introducing legislation - everything from strong public schools, protecting reproductive rights, lowering costs. If we're willing to do the work, which I believe we are, then we can win back voters across this state.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Up until 2016, Iowa looked very much more of, like, a purple state for a lot of years. And politicians in the Iowa legislature - they kind of, like, wore their compromises at the statehouse as a badge of honor.

MARTÍNEZ: Minnesota Public Radio's Clay Masters has covered Iowa politics since 2012. He says things really started to change four years later.

MASTERS: Donald Trump's right-wing, populist message really resonated with voters.

MARTÍNEZ: But without a drastic demographic change, he says it could take years until Iowa is once again in play for Democrats.

MASTERS: The population growth doesn't align as much with what they would really need to see to see a really big shift in the state at this point. It's going to be a tough hill for those Democrats to climb in this now very red state.

MARTÍNEZ: That means, for now, Democrats may focus their efforts on local races to try and slowly chip away on the Republicans' grip on Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.