116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Scott Brennan has advocated to keep Iowa’s caucuses first in the nation for a decade.
The efforts came even though — as Brennan puts it — former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez’ “hatred for caucuses was without bounds.”
But after the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, in which administrative issues and a malfunctioning app led to a long delay in results, Brennan said he knew Iowa could likely lose its enviable position atop the nation’s presidential nominating calendar. Yet he had reasonable hopes Iowa would still remain among the small grouping of early Democratic states.
That was until he saw President Joe Biden’s letter to DNC rules committee members stating the party should scrap “restrictive” caucuses — as opposed to primaries — because their rules on in-person participation can sometimes exclude working-class and other voters. Biden also wrote that the party “must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window."
The plan endorsed by the White House and announced by party officials at a dinner the night before a planned vote to reorder the party’s presidential selection process called for making South Carolina the first state in 2024, followed by Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan. Iowa would move out of the early nominating window entirely, in favor of more diverse battleground states.
Republicans, on the other hand, already agreed to keep Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses for GOP candidates ---- and several Republicans already have been to the state to weigh the possibility of presidential runs.
“It was brutal,” Brennan said on a Zoom call from his Des Moines home after the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted nearly unanimously to strip Iowa of the Democratic first-in-the-nation presidential caucus status it has held for half a century.
“It has been a lonely process,” said Brennan, the only Iowan on the DNC rules committee and one of only two members to vote against the proposal — the other being Joanne Dowdell of New Hampshire.
The new presidential nominating contest calendar is expected to be ratified by the full DNC in early February in Philadelphia.
“After what happened in Iowa in 2020, there just weren’t many fans of the Iowa caucuses left” within the party leadership and the White House, Brennan said.
Biden has never done well in the Iowa caucuses — coming in fourth in 2020. And that year’s Democratic caucus debacle invigorated scrutiny of the predominantly white state’s role in the nominating process and calls to rework the caucuses.
Critics slammed the state’s lack of diversity and electoral competitiveness. And national Democrats complained the caucuses are too opaque and inaccessible.
Brennan and state party officials made a pitch — and hired a consultant to assist — to simplify the state’s presidential selection process that would allow Democrats to express their preference for president by mail or in person ahead of the precinct caucuses.
But the caucuses faced too many headwinds.
Some have said Iowa Democrats would have had a stronger case if had they made caucuses more inclusive one or two cycles ago.
Brennan argued party officials have reformed the caucus over time, and even had proposed a virtual caucus system to expand access to the 2020 caucuses. But the plan was rejected by party leadership over security concerns.
“And the ultimate process that was put together, failed,” he said.
Brennan is an Indianola native and Des Moines lawyer who got his start in Iowa Democratic politics working as a staffer for Democratic former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. Brennan served as Iowa Democratic Party chair twice, from 2006 to 2009 and 2013 to 2014.
One of his fondest caucus memories is standing on a table in a school cafeteria while running a precinct caucus in Des Moines in 2004 to ask participants to pause so his insistent young son could get a kid’s meal from McDonald’s.
“And they’re Iowans so of course they said, ‘Sure,’” Brennan said. “It just proved the collegial nature” of the Iowa caucuses.
He served as state party chair during Barack Obama’s historic caucus win in 2008 that propelled his rise to become America’s first Black president. Brennan was in “the boiler room” watching returns. He was getting calls from precinct officials, including his wife, that they had run out of registration forms because of record turnout.
“I said, ‘Get a legal pad and sign people up,’” Brennan recalled. “Literally, that’s what we did. It’s not elegant, but so many people showed up that it was just overwhelming — the enthusiasm. … It was just a great field and such an incredibly exciting night.”
Brennan was first elected to the DNC roughly 12 years ago, after stepping down as Iowa Democratic Party chair in 2009, to fill a vacancy after an Iowa DNC member was forced to resign for not attending meetings. He was subsequently reelected by state party convention delegates in 2012, 2016 and 2020.
Brennan’s seat on the DNC will be up for election at the state party convention in July 2024.
“I had thought that if this White House wanted to get rid of the Iowa caucuses, a good signal to Iowa would be not to put an Iowan on the Rules & Bylaws Committee,” Brennan said of again being selected by DNC members to serve on the committee. “Instead, they put me on and then I got to sit there through it.”
Brennan argued Democrats were weakening their ability to compete in rural, Midwestern states by eliminating Iowa from the calendar. Iowa Republicans have seized the opportunity to feed the narrative that Democrats have turned their back on middle America.
Both Iowa and New Hampshire state law, however, require that their nominating process go first.
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn has said the party still intends to hold its caucuses as prescribed by law, which requires political parties hold caucuses at least eight days before any other state’s presidential nominating contest. It does not say how those caucuses must be conducted.
Iowa Democrats could choose to hold two separate processes — a party-organizing caucus and then a separate presidential selection contest.
New Hampshire state party officials have likewise said they will follow their state law and hold a first-in-the-nation primary, whatever the consequences.
The national committee has put in place new sanctions for states that try to leapfrog each other on the calendar. If Iowa holds its caucuses earlier than the DNC allows and uses them to select delegates to the national convention, the new rules dictate the state will lose half its delegates to the national convention — and the DNC can take a vote to bar all the delegates.
The rules also give the DNC chair leeway to strip delegates and debate access from presidential candidates who campaign in unsanctioned states. The chair also has the power to unseat state delegations from the nominating convention if they defy party rules.
States would have to submit delegation selection plans to the DNC for approval by May 3, 2023.
The result, Brennan said, could be a year of extended uncertainty as states navigate conflicting laws and jockey for a better spot.
“So long as Joe Biden runs for re-election (and is effectively unopposed), it’s a little easier to do,” he said.
Should Biden not run again, it’s likely to draw a crowded field of candidates, “all of whom are going to say, ‘What’s the process? What’s the calendar?’ And nobody will be able to tell them,” Brennan said.
Brennan noted the DNC also plans to revisit the nominating calendar before 2028.
“Meaning we’re going to do this whole show over again,” he said. “I can see Arizona supplanting Nevada in the West. Maybe Georgia supplants South Carolina … because they’re a very red state. There’s a lot more that’s going to happen.”
Asked if he’s got enough left in the tank to continue to make the case for the Democratic caucuses in 2028, Brennan said: “I will always fight for Iowa.”
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