CAMPAIGNING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC: Kayla Koether (D), House District 55

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Kayla Koether

In the midst of an election year, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted how political candidates typically connect with voters. Over the next few weeks, the Times-Register will share how some local candidates have adapted—how they’re “meeting” constituents and continuing to share their ideas.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

It was never the logical progression for the northeast Iowa native—politics and running for office, that is. But Kayla Koether, after losing by nine votes in a controversial defeat in 2018 that saw absentee ballots go uncounted, is once again challenging for the Iowa House, District 55. 

Koether openly admitted she never expected to be here, but after refocusing in the wake of such a devastatingly close loss, conversations among family and friends, remembering the stories heard along the 2018 campaign trail and recognizing that more needs to be done to stave off rural retreat, it simply felt like the right thing to do. 

Leading a rural-centric campaign, Koether seeks to stem the tide of disappearing family farms and promote a sense of rural Iowa vibrancy, so there is something left for future generations. It’s a campaign about preservation, revitalizing agriculture and making rural areas thrive. 

It’s about creating “an agenda that has a chance to change the way rural Iowa looks,” she said. 

There is a growing unease that rural America is being left behind, that a good quality of life is being shoved aside and that the people making the decisions don’t see the “value in rural communities.” 

This past winter, harkening back to the defeat, Koether thought about the votes that didn’t get counted, the voices that went unheard and the “unfinished business” that needed to be done, so she returned to the campaign trail. 

Long past are the days when Koether felt like she “didn’t fit the mold” or running “seemed crazy.” The days ahead are forged by determination and adapting to the shifting currents of politics. Unlike 2018, she is not a newcomer and the grassroots, door-to-door strategy that propelled her to within nine votes of victory has been obstructed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2018, Koether relied on very social events, door knocking and in-person meetings, which drove the campaign’s connections to the people, allowing them to not only share their personal stories and ideas, but to ask the candidate questions directly. 

The organization was built on working within the community, forging real relationships and dedicated volunteers spreading the word. 

“People were open to sharing their true stories,” she said. 

But these personal bonds have been fractured and replaced by impersonal phone calls and Zoom sessions, which “lack the same feeling. I’m bummed I can’t be at people’s doors,” Koether said. 

This has led Koether to rely on trusted standbys, such as mailers, and to focus more on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. 

It has also allowed for some creativity to blossom. Koether plans to roll out “drive-in events” over the coming weeks, where people can show up in their cars, listen to her speak via the radio and call or text in their questions. It’s a way to socially distance, maintain public safety and give voters access to the candidate. It’s a way to liberate the campaign from the shackles of COVID-19. 

Koether also encourages supporters to go to their social networks and spread the message because together “we can help people solve problems,” she said. 

Koether wants to solve rural flight by revitalizing rural Iowa. She has made it a priority, not just as a possible elected official, but also in everyday life, working as a specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, providing technical assistance to businesses and beginning farmers on best business practices, sustainability, production, marketing and innovation. 

However, it’s a tall task. It’s no secret the populations of Clayton, Fayette and Winneshiek counties, which comprise District 55, have all been steadily declining for decades. That means rural Iowa isn’t being left behind so much as it’s just being left, resulting in fewer voices being heard. Nevertheless, Koether still insists, “We shouldn’t be overlooking anyone.” 

Should rural Iowa be saved? Is it worth it? According to Koether, it is. “I think we care deeply about our communities. I think that keeping our schools intact, our communities intact, is worth working for,” she responded. 

Such revitalization will ultimately require “being engaged with the communities and letting the communities guide that process themselves.” This creates a natural evolution combining what people want, need and are looking for. Koether believes in the people, having “seen a lot of people step up,” through both campaigns. She is profoundly “proud of people’s capacity to take care of each other.” 

It is a noble quest for which Koether has undertake, but it’s one she believes in, as she believes in the people. She also cares about the future of rural communities and standing up for the voiceless. 

In this endeavor, Koether proclaimed, “I will stand up for you. I will listen to you. I will find out what you need and I will truly represent you.” 

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