CLINTON — In the fall of 2015, Ted Cruz boldly predicted Hillary Clinton would lose Clinton County, Iowa.
At the time, it seemed absurd.
The last time a Republican won a presidential election in Clinton County was 1984.
Of course, Cruz was pursuing the Republican nomination himself at the time, surely thinking that he would be the one to win this Democratic stronghold.
Then, and for months afterward, few dreamed it would be Donald Trump.
But on Nov. 8, 2016, as Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency, Clinton County Democrats watched as Cruz's not-so-absurd prediction came true.
Drew Kelley, a young engineer who previously lived in the Republican strongholds of Texas and South Dakota — and who counted among the blessings of his move to Clinton that he'd settled in a state whose politics more closely aligned with his own — it was a shock.
"It was heartbreaking," he said.
A year later, Democrats have dusted themselves off and set their sights on making 2018 different.
Change follows change
There will be no presidential race next year, of course. It will be another three years before Democrats here and across the state get another chance to pull Iowa back from the abyss that, to many, is implied with the label "red state."
But there is a race for governor at the top of next year's ticket, along with the knowledge the Republicans didn't win the Statehouse and three of Iowa's four congressional seats overnight.
The change took place over several elections, and if the tide is going to turn again, it is likely to happen over time.
If there is a shift to take place at all, it's places like Clinton County, along with other Mississippi River counties, that will be a key to stitching back together a winning coalition.
It's not just Clinton County that voted for Trump. Nine of the 10 counties bordering the Mississippi River did the same. In 2012, all 10 went with Obama.
The idea that places like Clinton County have gone irreversibly red is in dispute. Bill Jacobs, chairman of the Clinton County Democrats, is quick to point out that there are Democrats who won last year in Clinton County — U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack and state Rep. Mary Wolfe, to name two.
Not in dispute is that Democrats here have work to do.
Jacobs became the new chair this spring, succeeding Jean Pardee, who for years led the county Democrats and was looking to hand over the reins.
A soft-spoken man who was a teacher at Ashford College, Jacobs jumped back into the Iowa caucuses in 2016 for the first time since the early 1990s. Bernie Sanders' ideas on the economy and health care were attractive to him.
"I just felt connected to Bernie's message," Jacobs said. When Clinton won the nomination, Jacobs took charge of the local Democrats' absentee ballot program in the fall.
Now, he and others are seeking to improve connections with Democrats, updating voter lists and finding out the best way to make contact. They're encouraging Democrats already active in the party to talk to like-minded people around them. "I call it the love-your-neighbor campaign," Jacobs said.
The party also is ramping up its social media presence. Facebook and Twitter accounts that previously served merely as platforms for spreading the word about fundraisers and meetings now are pushing out news articles and opinions. "Republicans drive the nail into the coffin of the 'Party of fiscal responsibility' myth," reads a recent Tweet related to the GOP tax plan.
"My hope is people will see these tweets; they'll like them or retweet them," said Kelley, the engineer who has taken the helm of the party's social media accounts.
But party leaders across the state acknowledge it will take a change in approach to turn losses to wins next year. Already, the party's candidates for governor are trying to make greater appeals to rural areas. And much of the message has to do with the economy, health care and kitchen table issues some believe were lost in last year's election.
"We've got to have an economic message about jobs and wages that speak to peoples' concerns," said Joe O'Hern, who managed Loebsack's 2016 campaign and now is heading state Sen. Nate Boulton's run for governor.
Improving the economy can be complicated
Growing jobs in smaller communities and rural Iowa isn't easy.
Iowa's unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country, at 3.0 percent in September. In Clinton County, it was 3.9 percent. That's better than what it was a year ago, when it was 4.8 percent. But that dip hasn't happened because more people have jobs. Iowa Workforce Development figures say 22,120 people were employed in the county in September, 430 fewer than the year before. Essentially, the unemployment rate is down because there are fewer people in the labor force, which is defined as those who are employed or are looking for work. That fell from 23,680 to 23,010.
On a chilly, drizzly November evening, state Sen. Rita Hart, a Wheatland Democrat, convened the first of a half dozen forums she's holding across the county to talk about jobs.
About 15 people showed up at the DeWitt Community Center. Hart acknowledged her meeting had some heavy competition. Game 7 of the World Series was on at the same time, and there was a meeting nearby about expanding the public library.
"It's a nasty night out there, so I appreciate you coming in," Hart began.
Over the next 80 minutes, all of the people in the room introduced themselves and brought up their set of interests. A range of topics was aired, including homelessness, the need to bring wages up, complaints about the availability of housing and the difficulty in navigating the cumbersome tax-credit system.
Over coffee the next morning, Hart said the forum showed her that myriad issues are entangled in growing an economy. "It's complicated," she said, adding that she's eager to find a way to promote more partnerships between area manufacturers and school districts.
Hart, who represents the 49th district, is likely to face a stiff election challenge in 2018. The district, like Clinton County itself, is one that blends large tracts of farmland and small towns.
The district stretches from Lost Nation and Delmar in the north to DeWitt and Grand Mound, then on to northern Scott County, where LeClaire and Princeton are folded in along with a handful of rural precincts. There were 11,748 Democrats, 10,903 Republicans, 121 Libertarians and 17,549 independents registered to vote in the 49th at the end of October.
Hart won the seat in 2012, but, because of redistricting, had to run again in 2014. Even with a Republican wave coursing through the country, she narrowly edged out her opponent with 52 percent of the vote.
However, Trump won the district by 9 percentage points over Hillary Clinton last year.
That was a change from 2012, when Barack Obama won the district, largely on the strength of the 15,141 votes he pulled out of Clinton County — about 5,000 more than Hillary Clinton got last year.
Hart said last year's election has caused the party to reassess. For her, she said, "It's always been about the economy" and trying to find ways to improve peoples' lives.
Still, she acknowledges that elections, especially ones like last year's, can get chaotic.
"We have to lay the groundwork and make sure that we are being accountable to people and that we are listening to them and doing everything we can to make it reality for them that the Democrats are interested in your best interests," she said. "If they believe that, if we can prove that to them, we’re going to do just fine."
Republicans 'steeling' themselves for 2018
To get to the Vista Grande banquet hall, you go up an unpaved driveway just off Mill Creek Parkway in Clinton. This week, close to 100 people got together there for the county GOP's fall fundraiser.
It was just two days short of the one-year anniversary of the presidential election. The featured speaker, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, praised the county party.
"I don't worry about Clinton County," he said. "You're doing things right here."
But that was about as far as the self-congratulations went.
For much of the evening, party leaders warned of a tough fight in 2018 and the need to stay vigilant and engaged against a political swamp centered in Washington, D.C., and an East Coast that doesn't understand the way of life here.
Kaufmann urged that any doubts about Trump's manner be pushed aside in order to fight a bigger threat — a veer toward socialism linked to Sen. Bernie Sanders' rise in popularity.
"We have a Republican president for the first time in eight years, and we're worried about tweets affecting us? I've got students who no longer know what socialist means, folks. Seriously," he said. "We all remember the Soviet Union. We all remember Tiananmen Square. We all remember that in here. Your grandkids don't. And we all of a sudden have a party that almost elected a socialist, and it's becoming mainstream," he said.
Kaufmann later softened his remarks, saying the U.S. would not actually end up resembling the Soviet Union. But if the other side is victorious, "We are not going to be able to understand what our country stands for anymore. We are going to have a Supreme Court where Ruth Bader Ginsburg is mainstream if we don't win this thing and we don't look at the big picture," he said.
There appeared to be few Trump doubters in the room, and some said they are as energized now as they were prior to last year's election. Brian Schmidt, who ran unsuccessfully against Hart for the state Senate seat four years ago, said he believes Trump would win Clinton County if he were on the ballot today.
"President Trump is doing exactly what he said he'd do," Schmidt said.
Another Republican, Harold Stansbarger, a retired truck driver from Camanche, blamed the media for hamstringing the president. "If the news media would leave him alone, he'd get a lot done," he said.
Governor's race at top of the ticket
There may be no race in Iowa as important next year as the contest for governor. Seven Democrats are running, and the candidates are eagerly courting places where Trump did well last year.
In Clinton County, Jacobs, the Democratic chair, said he's neutral.
He said it’s important that candidates present a strong economic message. He also believes they should counter the idea that immigration and bad trade deals are the major drivers of Clinton’s economic ills. Jacobs said he believes automation in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors are doing more damage.
"I think a bigger factor is businesses don't need as many people," he said.
Earlier this year, in the immediate aftermath of Trump's victory, Democrats saw thousands of people turn out for rallies and marches. And during the legislative session, weekend forums also drew large crowds.
The turnout, party leaders said, was a sign of a more engaged and active Trump opposition, eager to put the 2016 election behind them and turn things around in the next elections.
As the year has worn on, there have been fewer of those big, media-attracting events. Instead, party leaders are going about the day-to-day work of rebuilding the party.
The 2018 election still is a year away. Even the primary is seven months down the road. But, on Feb. 5, the party's precinct caucuses will be held.
Of course, nobody expects the turnout will be like it was last year, a presidential year. But Jacobs says much of what is being done to organize the party and bring people together is aimed at that date. The candidates for governor also will be eyeing that date carefully, because it's the first step in determining delegates to the state convention, which could decide the party's nominee for governor if no one gets 35 percent of the primary vote.
As a result, pundits will be watching closely what happens on that day.
"What the caucus turnout will be," Jacobs said, "that will be the first real test."