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Iowa political parties prepare for low-key off-year caucuses
Without presidential hopefuls, focus is on party-building
CEDAR RAPIDS — Just as they do every two years, Iowa Democrats and Republicans will hold precinct caucuses next week.
“They’ll be exactly same as in a presidential election year with one big difference — no presidential straw poll,” said Linn County GOP Chairman Justin Wasson.
Democrats also won’t be doing their slightly-more involved version of a straw poll. Participation isn’t likely to be as great as in a presidential election year caucus because those campaigns won’t be encouraging their supporters to get to the caucuses.
However, party leaders say the absence of presidential candidates and the accompanying national and international media coverage doesn’t diminish from the important work of the caucuses at 7 p.m. Feb. 7
Both parties see the off-year caucuses as party-building opportunities. Caucus participants will elect central committee members and delegates to county conventions. Participants can indicate interest in serving on various committees and submit platform proposals. Caucuses also are an opportunity for candidates hoping to qualify get their ballot petitions signed.
That’s made more difficult by COVID-19 as many party members are reluctant to gather in large numbers.
Johnson County Democrats will conduct virtual caucuses to allow everyone to participate without COVID-19 risk, said Chairman Ed Cranston of North Liberty.
“We believe that our caucuses should be open to all Democrats, including those in high-risk populations,” he said, adding that can be achieved with online caucuses.
Linn County Democrats will have hybrid caucuses — in-person but with an online option.
“I look at these off-year caucuses as party-building events, but COVID-19 really putting a damper on that,” Chairman Bret Nilles of Cedar Rapids said.
In 2014, 240 people showed up at Linn County caucuses, he said. In 2018, 640 people participated despite a blizzard that night.
“A lot of it depends on what’s going on in terms of people’s motivation to get out. In 2018, it was (Donald) Trump” and the midterm elections, he said.
He expects in-person turnout to be closer to 200 this year because of COVID-19.
Party leaders say the Iowa Democratic Party is encouraging in-person caucuses, but at least three counties — Johnson, Woodbury and Dallas — are planning virtual caucuses.
“We have lots of volunteers who have been at every caucus, but they’re not able to attend his year because of the pandemic,” Cranston said. “We had a committee that put together some health plans to make it as safe as possible.”
He expects more people will participate in the virtual caucuses than if they were held in-person.
Democrats at the virtual options are planning a “walk-through” feature to allow people to sign candidate petitions, sign up to serve on central committees or run to be delegates to county conventions without being in a large gathering.
Republicans are planning in-person caucuses. Although there won’t be a presidential straw poll, Johnson County GOP caucus coordinator Karen Fesler of Coralville said there’s important work to do because of the midterm elections that include a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s race.
Their concern is a repeat of the blizzard four years ago. Fesler and one other person were the only ones at her precinct, she recalled.
In Linn County, Wasson said two caucus sites had been closed because of weather and parking lots and sidewalks at many others had not been cleared of snow.
“I think participation will be pretty good for an off-year,” he said, “There’s definitely energy in the party.”
Schedules may vary from county to county, but in general, whether caucuses are in-person or virtual, doors open at 6 p.m. with the caucuses starting at 7 p.m.
To find Republican caucus locations statewide, visit iowagop.org/2022-caucus-locations. For state Democratic Party caucuses, visit iowademocrats.org/2022-caucuses.
In Johnson County, precinct information for both parties can be found at johnsoncountyiowa.gov/february-7-2022-caucuses. In Linn County, the information is at linncountyelections.org/caucus.
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