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Iowa’s Democratic Party is on track to lose the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus status it has held for half a century.
In a major realignment meant to give voice in the party to more people of color, the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted Friday on a proposed calendar for early presidential nominating contests that will remove Iowa as an early state in the party’s nominating calendar.
The states making up the new early window for 2024, holding Democratic primaries before the first Tuesday in March, would consist of South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan. The proposal will need to be approved by the full Democratic National Committee, but it is expected to easily pass.
States not selected as early states by the party are required to hold their primary or caucus for the 2024 presidential election on or after the first Tuesday in March. In the 2020 presidential election, the early states were Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Republicans, on the other hand, already have agreed to a nominating calendar that keeps Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status for GOP presidential candidates.
The change sets up a showdown between the Iowa Democratic Party and the national Democrats, as state Democrats navigate complying with being booted from the early window while following state law, which requires both major parties to hold a caucus before any other state’s nominating contest.
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement Thursday the state party would adhere to Iowa’s law when it submits its delegate selection plan to the rules committee early next year.
“Iowa does not have the luxury of conducting a state-run primary, nor are Iowa Republicans likely to support legislation that would establish one,” he said. “Our state law requires us to hold a caucus before the last Tuesday in February, and before any other contest.”
Caucuses in Iowa serve two purposes in presidential election years: Caucusgoers express their preference for president, which results in candidates’ share of state delegates to the national party convention. Separately, party members elect delegates to the 99 county conventions and set priorities for the party’s platform.
What that means for Iowa’s presidential selection process remains to be seen.
If Iowa holds its caucuses earlier than the DNC allows and uses them to select delegates to the national convention, rules passed Friday dictate the state will lose half its delegates to the national convention, and the DNC can take a vote to bar all the delegates.
Alternatively, Iowa Democrats could choose to hold two separate processes — a party-organizing caucus and a separate presidential selection contest.
“They still have to have a caucus; Iowa law still says they have to have a caucus where they would probably do the party activities,” said Tim Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “But they still have to prepare and say when are they going to have some sort of presidential preference poll, or whatever they’re going to have.”
In its bid to remain in the early nominating window, the Iowa Democratic Party proposed an overhaul of the caucuses that would allow Democrats to express their preference for president by mail or in person ahead of the precinct caucuses.
Under that proposal, on the night of the caucuses, Democrats would announce the results of the early vote and conduct the regular party-organizing business of the caucuses.
The new party calendar is designed to emphasize the diversity of the Democratic Party, putting more people of color into the early primary window. In a letter to the committee Thursday, President Joe Biden said Black voters had been relegated to the later parts of the presidential nominating process and not given a chance to vote on the whole field of candidates.
“For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party, but have been pushed to the back of the early primary contest,” he wrote. “We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar.”
Biden has said he intends to run for re-election in 2024, and if he does he is not likely to face a competitive primary challenge.
The current early nominating calendar, with Iowa and New Hampshire leading, has been criticized for years as lacking diversity. Iowa is about 85 percent white, while New Hampshire is more than 90 percent white.
Iowa’s 2020 Democratic caucuses, in which administrative issues and a malfunctioning app led to a long delay in results, also invigorated calls to rework the process.
Donna Brazile, a political strategist on the committee from Louisiana, said during the meeting the new calendar opens the process to more Black voices in the party.
“I’m so proud that we’re going to hear from more voices,” she said. “Voices of those who simply yearn to be heard, to be seen. When I was born, this party did not see me.”
Proponents of keeping Iowa as an early state, however, said the proposed calendar ignores middle America and rural states.
Scott Brennan, an Iowan who sits on the rules committee, said during the meeting Friday in Washington the proposed plan includes no early states in the central and mountain time zones.
“Small rural states like Iowa must have a voice in our presidential nominating process,” he said. “Democrats cannot forget about entire groups of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing significant damage to our party for a generation.”
Republicans in Iowa, who have been strong proponents of the state keeping its prized spot in the Democratic calendar, derided the proposed calendar.
"Democrats have abandoned rural America and denied everyday Iowans a voice in the presidential nominating process,“ Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement. ”It’s disappointing that there wasn’t much of a debate, but that’s what happens when a ruling elite gives orders from the top down. Make no mistake, Iowa Republicans will continue to protect this time-honored tradition."
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a statement the proposal was a “grave mistake” and would erase the voices of middle America.
Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann — who led the Republican committee to set its nominating calendar — called the vote “an unserious alternative from an unserious president.”
“The DNC and Joe Biden have just kicked off utter chaos. This is just a recommendation, and the fight is not over,” he said in a statement.