Assuming full control of the Statehouse after the 2016 election, Iowa Republicans aggressively set in motion plans to echo the experiments in conservative takeovers like those the GOP had already pulled off — with controversial and, at times, disastrous results — in states like Kansas and Wisconsin. They brought in the secretive former director of Kansas’ privatized Medicaid system, Mike Randol, to manage Iowa’s own failed effort at privatization, before passing a $2 billion tax cut similar to the one that bankrupted Randol’s old state. And, before that, they decimated collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did before them with his notorious Act 10 in 2011 that led to dramatic protests at the state Capitol.
For the 2018 election, the Iowa GOP has enlisted as its communications director one of the veterans of the political battles that came in the wake of the Wisconsin experiment. His name is Jesse Dougherty, a Sioux City native who got a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Creighton the year Act 10 passed, then, the following January, became a press assistant for Friends of Scott Walker, the governor’s campaign committee.
At the time, Walker was soliciting six- and seven-figure sums from deep-pocketed conservative donors across the country to help fend off his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, in a recall election scheduled in response to the widespread anger over Act 10. In order to skirt campaign finance limits, much of the money Walker raised was funneled through a 501(c)(4) dark-money organization called the Wisconsin Club for Growth instead of Friends of Scott Walker. Thanks to the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed Walker’s campaign to pull this off, it was the most expensive election in the state’s history.
In June, Walker survived the challenge by a comfortable seven-point margin, and Dougherty took a new job as press secretary for the Wisconsin GOP. He remained in that role through January 2015, defending the governor against criticism from labor unions over Act 10, and from Democrats who claimed Walker was too focused on his presidential ambitions, which included trips to Iowa, to effectively govern Wisconsin. “The Democrats are lashing out with these ridiculous attacks because they have run out of credibility and substantive ideas on the issues that matter most to Wisconsin families,” Dougherty told reporters at the time. He did this amid an ongoing criminal investigation into possible campaign finance violations stemming in part from the recall election, but returned to Iowa half a year before the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority shut the investigation down.
Back in his home state, Dougherty landed a job as communications manager for Strategic Elements, a public affairs consulting firm based in Des Moines that also has an office in Washington DC. A bio on the firm’s website credits him for his “critical role” during the Walker recall election. “Jesse has utilized his expertise to produce a variety of winning client stories across the country,” it goes on. “Jesse recruits the voices of influencers and industry experts to deliver the most impactful message pertinent to any political climate.”
As head of the Iowa GOP’s 2018 election press team, Dougherty has hammered Democratic gubernatorial nominee Fred Hubbell over his record at the helm of the Younkers department store chain with the hashtag #FiredbyFred and also directed attacks at Abby Finkenauer (#AbsentAbby) and Cindy Axne (#TheAxneFiles), the Democrats challenging incumbent Republicans Rod Blum and David Young in the state’s 1st and 3rd congressional districts, respectively.