DES MOINES — Democratic voters in less than two months could make a critical decision that would go a long way toward deciding whether they are able to stem the tide that has washed then away from power in Iowa politics.
The choice that faces Iowa Democrats in the state’s June 5 primary election: Which of a half-dozen candidates should be their party’s nominee to run for governor?
The victorious Democrat will face Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who took over in 2017 after then-Gov. Terry Branstad resigned to become ambassador to China.
For Democrats, it is the first opportunity to bounce back from the elections that placed Republicans in full control of state lawmaking and five of the state’s six congressional seats.
For months, the six remaining candidates have been traveling across the state speaking to voters, wooing party activists, raising money and, in a few cases, airing TV ads.
Some Iowa political experts say the field has developed into tiers, with Nate Boulton and Fred Hubbell appearing to have the most support, with Cathy Glasson also in the mix.
Behind that is John Norris and Andy McGuire, who experts say could factor in the race.
Ross Wilburn may be the biggest long shot.
“The general sense is that both Fred Hubbell and Nate Boulton have by far the best shot at clearing 35 percent in the primary and winning outright on Election Day,” said Pat Rynard, a former Democratic campaign aide who publishes the political news website Iowa Starting Line.
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But if no candidate receives at least 35 percent of the vote in the primary, by state law the nominee will instead be chosen at the party’s state convention 11 days later.
“Cathy Glasson has a lot of money available thanks to SEIU (a public employees union) so she’ll be able to go up big on TV in the last month and who knows what could happen with that,” Rynard added.
Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University, said the absence of polling on the primary makes it difficult to know where voters stand on the race.
Boulton, Glasson and Hubbell were able to raise enough money to air campaign advertisements on television.
Such advertisements are important in a primary race like this, where many of the candidates started out relatively unknown to voters. The candidates who are able to introduce themselves to thousands of voters through TV ads gain an advantage, experts said.
“It’s very important, and not just name recognition, but what is the narrative, what is the story they’re telling,” said John Epperson, a political-science professor at Indianola College.
Many of Iowa’s most active Democrats have made up their minds who to support. But there are lots of voters who remain in the market.
One such voter is Megan Klee, of Des Moines, who attended a forum with the six candidates this past week at Simpson College.
“I’m still kind of shopping. That’s why I wanted to see them all together,” Klee said. “If this is going to be a horse race, I want somebody who is going to be a winning horse.”
Undecided voters say they face a difficult choice. The candidates are close if not identical on most policy issues dear to Democratic hearts, yet their backgrounds provide a variety of choice. Hubbell is a businessman, Boulton a state lawmaker, Glasson a union leader, Norris a longtime public servant, McGuire a medical professional and former state party chairwoman, and Wilburn a former local government leader.
Boulton, a senator from Des Moines who was raised in Columbus Junction, rose to prominence in 2017, his first in the Iowa Legislature, when he became the face of Democrats’ pushback against Republican legislation that overhauled the state law governing collective bargaining for public employees.
That’s to what the Boulton campaign refers when it says he has a record of fighting for Iowa’s working families. Boulton says he is offering a new generation of leadership and a positive vision for Iowa’s long-term future that includes higher wages, retirement security, family-centric programs like paid family leave and higher education funding.
Glasson, a registered nurse and union leader from Coralville, is viewed by many as the most liberal or progressive candidate in the field. Her support for universal public health care is a central tenet of her campaign. She supports a $15 per hour minimum wage and while she, like other candidates in the field, supports boosting union membership, hers is the only campaign staff in the field to unionize. She also has been noted by liberal groups for her positions on gun control and climate policies.
Glasson commonly remarks about running a “bold, progressive” campaign and says Democrats should reject “politics as usual.”
Hubbell, a Des Moines businessman and former Younkers chairman, has promoted his mixture of experience in the private and public sectors. He served on a board that handled investing state funds in renewable energy projects, and on the state’s economic development board in the wake of misuse of tax credits for movie projects.
Hubbell says his business experience makes him the best candidate to take on Reynolds, who he charges has mismanaged the state’s budget. He says his three key priorities are funding and promoting lifelong learning, increasing access to quality and affordable health care and increasing household incomes.
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McGuire, a physician and former state party chairwoman from Des Moines who was raised in Waterloo, has leaned on her experience in the health care field. She commonly talks about the need to expand access to health care, especially for women’s reproductive health care, and criticizes the state for its decision to turn over to for-profit companies management of its $5 billion Medicaid health care program for low-income and disabled Iowans.
McGuire also said the Republican administration and GOP-led lawmakers have not adequately addressed sexual harassment in the workplace or gun control.
Norris, from Red Oak, has vast experience in Iowa Democratic politics. He also is a former state party chairman and served as chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell and former Gov. Tom Vilsack. He chaired the state utilities board and worked for Vilsack at the federal agriculture department under President Barack Obama.
Norris has said he marched with Cesar Chavez for environmental justice, with the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone for fair trade policies, and managed Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in Iowa. Norris also stresses his rural Iowa roots while insisting Democrats need to regain support in the state’s rural areas.
Wilburn is a former Iowa City mayor and a diversity officer for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. His campaign theme is “Let’s be Iowa,” and he says the state is bold, progressive and pragmatic — one that values education and equality.
Wilburn said business tax credits, which many of the Democratic candidates are criticizing, should be targeted to small- and medium-sized businesses, not “big box” businesses. He also said while he agrees that education funding needs a boost, the education system also has issues with disparities and some students falling behind.