CEDAR RAPIDS — Hillary and Bill Clinton will return to Iowa next month to headline Sen. Tom Harkin’s final Steak Fry.
Harkin predicted his 37th annual gathering “just might be the best ever.”
“What started out nearly 40 years ago as a handful of interested Iowans sitting around on hay bales, discussing politics” has grown into an iconic gathering of Democrats and media, according to Harkin, who is retiring after 40 years in Congress.
The Sept. 14 edition from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Indianola Balloon Field will continue that tradition with former President Clinton making his fourth Harkin Steak Fry appearance and the former first lady and secretary of state making her second visit.
It will be Clinton’s first public appearance in Iowa since losing the 2008 Iowa precinct caucuses to Barack Obama and likely will further fuel speculation that she will run for president in 2016.
However, the steak fry isn’t about a Clinton campaign, but “an opportunity to rally Democrats ahead of 2014,” according to Sam Roecker of Link Strategies, referring to the Nov. 4 election.
That’s the tack Harkin is taking, too.
“Not only will this be my last steak fry, we’ll also need to rally our troops for outstanding, progressive Iowa champions on the ballot this fall — all of whom have tough races, all of which we need to win,” he said.
Harkin has had a long relationship with the Clintons. In addition to appearing at previous steak fries, the Clintons — Bill, Hillary and their daughter, Chelsea — headlined a rally with about 5,000 people in Cedar Rapids the night before the 1996 election. Their appearance was credited with tipping the scales in Harkin’s favor in what had been virtual dead even race with U.S. Rep. Jim Lightfoot. Harkin won 52 percent to 48 percent — his thinnest re-election margin.
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While her visit doesn’t mean Clinton is running for president, Derek Eadon of Bluprint Strategies said her supporters here are enthusiastic about her visit.
“We have no reason to speculate that this is a sign either way,” said Eadon, who is coordinating Midwest efforts by Ready for Hillary, a super PAC signing up Clinton supporters in case she runs. “But obviously it is encouraging to see her back in Iowa.”
He noted that it’s the last Harkin Steak Fry and “obviously the Clintons are close to Tom Harkin and there also is a close Senate race here.”
“So I don’t think we can look too much into at this point, but people are excited to see her back here in Iowa,” he said.
Ready for Hillary expects to be at the steak fry to sign up supporters and donors in the she runs for the White House. The group’s goal is to provide Clinton with an email list longer than the one she had at the end of her unsuccessful 2008 bid and amass a list of volunteers and small-dollar donors so she can raise millions when — or if — she becomes a candidate.
The Clintons’ appearance at the steak fry also is good news to the Iowa Democratic Party and Democratic candidates. Proceeds will be split the proceeds 50-50 with the party. That hasn’t been the case every year. Some years, Harkin’s TOM (To Organize a Majority) PAC kept the proceeds.
The Republican Party of Iowa also welcomed the Clintons — Hillary Clinton, in particular — to Iowa “after more than six-and-a-half years of flying over the Hawkeye State,” Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said.
“In the spirit of bipartisanship,” Kaufmann said, he hopes potential presidential candidates of both parties will visit the first-in-the-nation state “to interact with Iowa voters in a meaningful way.”
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First held on a farm in Madison County, the annual gathering of Democrats and media has become a signature political event in Iowa. In addition to the Clintons, past special guests have included Obama, Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, Sens. Paul Wellstone, Al Franken and Bernie Sanders, Gov. Martin O’Malley, now-HUD Secretary Julian Castro and all of the major Democratic presidential candidates in 2003 and 2007, among others.
General admission tickets for the Steak Fry cost $30 and include refreshments and a steak dinner. For tickets and information, visit www.TomHarkin.com or call (515) 277-9966.