Democrats travel far from home, some to Iowa, to hone the party's voice

Many, worried about 2018 and 2020 prospects, descend

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DES MOINES — For some Trump-weary Democrats, 2020 can’t come soon enough.

Iowa, which famously launches the nation’s presidential selection process, already is starting to see the formative stages of the next White House sweepstakes more than three years out.

“I tell you, this just gets worse every cycle,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, at the close of a month that saw a number of presidential wannabes showing up at the Iowa State Fair, fundraisers and events geared toward partisan activists.

“I swear somebody is going to be carrying around a toddler for the ’36 election,” Sagar noted. “We’re not even a year into the new administration and we’ve already got folks stumping around the state. I would say that it’s too early. We can’t seem to catch our breath before the next candidate’s here.”

The state’s top Democrats are working hard to keep first things first in the eyes of the party faithful, with crucial votes on the horizon for governor, Congress and control of the Iowa Legislature in 2018.

Some of the Democrats traveling far from their districts to places like Iowa may actually help with the 2018 elections — honing the message and organizing activists for midterm elections.

To be sure, some have higher aspirations, but others are being invited by party activists increasingly worried about Democrats’ capabilities of reversing elections that wiped them out of power in Washington and in many state capitals including Iowa’s.

Some of the politicians keeping their names in front of Iowans are known commodities, such as U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. But lesser-known Democrats like John Delaney, Cheri Bustos, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Grace Meng, Jason Kander, Jeff Merkley, Pete Buttigieg and Tim Ryan also are making the rounds in Iowa also.

Many of these little-known Democrats are being invited by local and state activists seeking fresh faces to help raise money, recruit candidates and woo voters.

Even as President Donald Trump’s approval ratings tumble, the Democratic Party is in dire straits — trailing national Republicans by some measures in fundraising. The Republican National Committee outraised its Democratic counterpart by more than $6 million in July.

Among the Democrats traveling this summer is Rep. Meng. She recently went far outside her district in Queens to visit the Iowa State Fair. Local Democrats picked her up at the airport, whisked her to the site of the famous butter cow and made sure she sampled such fair staples as a pork chop on a stick and fried Oreo cookies.

“I might come back for breakfast,” she joked as she posed for photos with a pork chop, “the food here is so good.”

Meng, who is a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is focusing much of her political travel on rural areas in a bid to better understand how to win back voters who have drifted away from her party. She said she feels the need to reach out because, “We don’t have the numbers, honestly, in the House and the Senate, in the White House.”

She said she’s not in Iowa because she wants to run for president.

“I’m not here to test waters,” she told a group of Des Moines-area Democrats as she explained why she was visiting the state for the first time. “I am here to do what so many people around this country are doing right now — being more involved than ever before in our party. I’m learning to be a better listener.”

Delaney, a Maryland congressman in his third term, currently is the only officially announced presidential candidate for 2020. He admits it’s early, but these are unconventional times and he said the Iowans he already has met with are eager to talk about “what comes next.”

For Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, what comes next is the 2018 election. And that, he said, is where the focus needs to be if Democrats are to reverse the trends of the past two election cycles.

Heather Ryan, a Des Moines Democrat who is seeking her party’s 3rd District congressional nomination, said she has no problem with candidates eyeing 2020 presidential bids making early visits to Iowa because people already are “jazzed up.”

“I think people are hyper-focused on politics right now because we’re at the brink of war and every single day brings something new,” she said.

Delaney said he has been impressed with how deeply Iowans care about ideas and take their role as the first-in-the-nation caucus state seriously.

“They don’t want to pick candidates based on talking points; they want to pick candidates based on understanding of how they think about things and what they’re going to do, and I think that’s exactly the kind of campaign that I want to run,” he said. “I’m very excited about spending time with voters who actually want to talk about what’s going on in the world and it seems to me that Iowans want to do that. I think they want a civil, respectful debate and that’s also the way I am.”

Delaney said he expects to take a low-key approach over the next nine months to interact with Iowans, set up a campaign office, hire people and organize.

“Iowa voters have a very important decision to make for their governor and for their local elections in 2018, and the last thing we want to do is get in the middle of that,” he said.

“I want to be a respectful visitor and I don’t want to get in the middle of Democrats deciding their nominees, but once they do pick some people I want to put my full shoulder behind them,” Delaney noted.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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