7 Democrats, so far, want to be Iowa governor

Fundraising prowess could cull the crowded field

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A few weeks ago, at the Jeno’s Little Hungary tavern in Davenport, about 20 people talked about their worries.

They had plenty.

Since Iowa Republicans won complete control of state government in last year’s elections, they’ve moved aggressively. The results have thrilled conservatives and angered liberals.

On the list of worries at the Jeno’s gathering: low wages, poorly funded schools, dirty water and limits on collective bargaining rights for public employees.

At the front of the room was Brian Shepherd, the campaign manager for Cathy Glasson — a union leader from Iowa City who is expected to announce soon her campaign for the Democratic nomination for Iowa governor.

The meeting was intended to begin organizing the area for Glasson’s campaign, but Shepherd added: “If people have policy questions, I’ll stay here ‘til the bar closes.”

The meeting ended after about an hour. But in these dwindling days of summer, a time for county fairs and the start of a new school year, gatherings like this are beginning to proliferate.

Pushing back

So far, seven Democrats have said they’re in the running.

The June 2018 primary is about 10 months away, and it’ll be six months before candidates can even file nomination papers. But the departure of undefeated former Gov. Terry Branstad and the raft of changes made by the Legislature have sprouted a garden full of Democratic challengers.

These Democrats are focusing on the Legislature and the state’s budget shortfalls.

They’ve complained about new laws that restrict collective bargaining rights, cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, implement a voter-identification requirement, limit abortion rights and roll back minimum-wage increases in several counties.

The fast moving changes by the GOP took Democrats aback, and now they’re readying for a fight.

At a party gathering in Clear Lake a few weeks ago, Kurt Meyer, a party leader in north-central Iowa, likened the legislative actions to igniting a fire under Democrats.

“By abandoning all reason, the other party has given us tinder,” he said.

It’s that tinder that Democrats now are trying to ignite.

The early stages

Democrats know the stakes in next year’s race for governor. Winning back majorities in the House or Senate will be difficult. Republicans hold a 29-20-1 edge in the Senate and 59-41 lead in the House.

But the party says it’s still working to gain control in the Legislature. And Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, acknowledges, “the governor’s race is critically important.”

Right now, the Democratic campaign is fairly new. Much of it so far has centered on candidates traveling the state, touting their backgrounds, early endorsements or fundraising.

John Norris, a former top aide to then-Gov. Tom Vilsack and chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a long history and a lot of friends in Democratic politics, has been crisscrossing rural roads, trying to carve out a niche.

State Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, who turned activists’ heads with an impassioned speech opposing the collective bargaining bill, lately has racked up a series of union endorsements, including AFSCME Council 61, the state’s largest public employee union.

Andy McGuire, the former state party chairwoman and physician, has emphasized health care and criticized cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood.

Fred Hubbell, a wealthy Des Moines businessman, is drawing attention to his business experience, including as chairman of the Younkers department store chain, and as an official at the Iowa Department of Economic Development. He also has sent an early message about his financial capabilities, announcing in July he’d already raised $1 million from Iowa donors.

Glasson has promised to be a “bold progressive” who will demand a $15 per hour minimum wage with a short phase-in period. “I would prefer that we do it right away,” she said in Davenport recently while taking part in an anti-hate rally.

Jon Neiderbach, a former policy analyst at the Legislature, says he swims outside the political mainstream. He has proposed legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenue for health care.

Another recent entrant is former Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn.

The next steps

“People are kind of sizing everybody up,” said Norm Sterzenbach, a former state party official who had been advising Rep. Todd Prichard’s now defunct campaign.

That it’s early in the campaign is pretty clear. But with so many in the field, campaigns also are mindful that they need to step lively in the event the nomination fight goes to a state convention. A candidate needs 35 percent of the vote to win it outright.

A convention would make the party’s caucuses next February more important than usual. The caucuses are the first step in picking delegates to the state convention, which is scheduled for June 16, 11 days after the June 5 primary.

Those delegates, if nobody reaches 35 percent, would pick the eventual nominee to run against the Republican nominee.

Already, campaigns are thinking of the necessity of mobilizing supporters for the caucuses.

At the meeting at Jeno’s, for instance, Shepherd challenged volunteers to reach out to 15 people apiece in an attempt to widen the campaign’s circle of contacts.

But opinions vary on whether a convention will be necessary. They seldom happen — but then the race usually doesn’t include seven candidates, either.

At the same time, it’s not clear how long the sizable field will hold. Three people already have dropped out, citing difficulty raising money.

Runoff potential

The first fundraising reports aren’t due until January, so it’s difficult to compare the field.

But money will be an important factor in the race, along with the first polls. A poor showing in either or both could lead to campaigns being weeded out by activists and donors looking to focus on a narrower set of viable candidates.

“You could (have people) say, ‘Why would I throw away my vote at somebody who looks like they’re only going to get 7 percent?’” said Meyer, the party leader from north-central Iowa.

If there is significant weeding out, it would impact the chances of a convention.

The last prominent race in Iowa to go to a convention was the Republican 3rd District U.S. House contest in 2014. David Young placed fifth in the primary, but won at the convention. He eventually won the seat and is in his second term.

In fact, that convention could have an impact in this year’s Democratic race.

The top vote-getter in the 2014 primary, state Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, has proposed legislation to shift Iowa to a runoff system in the event of an inconclusive primary. His bill passed the Senate last session but wasn’t taken up in the House.

That could change next session. The Des Moines Register reported in June that the bill has been assigned to a House subcommittee and that Zaun wants to amend it so it would apply to the 2018 campaign.

His plan would have the two top vote-getters in an inconclusive primary go a runoff.

That type of system, if implemented, would likely not affect the Republican primary campaign, which so far is limited to Gov. Kim Reynolds and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett.

But it could upend a Democratic race that already is underway.

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