Government

Burgeoning 2020 field leaves Iowa Democrats playing coy

A year of decisions awaits as first-in-the nation caucuses loom

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, who has formed an exploratory committee but not officially announced she’s running for president, nonetheless draws a big crowd Jan. 5 at a campaign event at Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City. (Justin Wan/Sioux City Journal)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, who has formed an exploratory committee but not officially announced she’s running for president, nonetheless draws a big crowd Jan. 5 at a campaign event at Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City. (Justin Wan/Sioux City Journal)
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By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — Like fish fry fans on a Friday during Lent, Iowa Democrats will have an overwhelming number of choices for the biggest decision they will make over the next 12 months.

In almost exactly one year, assuming the political calendar does not change, Iowa Democrats will begin the process of selecting their party’s nominee for president by conducting the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

In the 12 months between now and then, those Democrats must sift through what’s becoming an expansive field of hopefuls.

Ultimately, they will have to choose one candidate to support as they begin their party’s process of choosing who will take on Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

As of Friday, 10 Democratic candidates have declared their candidacy or say they’re in an exploratory phase. The size of the field could grow to two dozen or more.

Some of the more well-known are jumping into the race and visiting Iowa. The past month has featured declarations and visits from candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

Choosing a candidate to support will be a daunting challenge, Iowa Democrats say, because they expect the field to be great not only in quantity, but also — and more importantly — in quality.

It’s a good thing Democrats have a full year to make up their minds.

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“It’s going to be exhausting, fun, interesting,” said JoAnn Hardy, chairwoman of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats in Northern Iowa. “I’m looking forward to it.”

WIDE-OPEN FIELD

Because they are pleased with the ever-growing field of candidates, Iowa Democrats are keeping their options open and doing some candidate shopping.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to up here in Woodbury County is really open-minded about it. I don’t think anybody’s picked anybody that they’re going to caucus for yet,” said Jeremy Dumkrieger, chairman of the Woodbury County Democrats in Western Iowa. “I think everyone’s excited about the challenges.”

In past years, many Iowa Democrats went into the caucuses having a good idea who they would support. A smaller share of party activists was truly undecided up until the last minute, Democrats say.

That’s not the case this time.

Some of the campaigns are frustrated because they have been unable so far to secure endorsements to accompany their candidacy announcements, said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Central Iowa.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches. All B.S. aside, there are a lot of really good candidates,” Bagniewski said. “Unlike past years when people kind of went in knowing who they were going to be supporting, I would say 75 to 85 percent of Democrats who are going to be caucusing have no idea who they’re going to end up supporting. That’s pretty rare. ...

“I think that’s a reflection of how many people are in the race, but also the quality of people who are in the race. There are a lot of rock stars this time.”

Those “rock stars” are drawing crowds. Candidate events regularly have drawn dozens and often hundreds of people, even though the caucuses are a year away.

Bagniewski said he helped Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign put together an event, and on short notice with only an email blast and a Facebook notification, an event that was expected to draw roughly 50 people was attended by 200.

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Dumkrieger said the morning Kamala Harris announced her candidacy, he was getting phone calls before he heard the news himself.

“People are super excited,” he said. “Hopefully we can maintain that throughout the general election.”

CAUCUS CRITERIA

So how will Iowa Democrats make such a difficult choice?

Bagniewski said the successful candidate will have to be different from previous winners, some of whom leaned on policy and others on personality, he said. The successful candidate will need both, Bagniewski said.

“In the past you had people who tapped into the passion, like Howard Dean. And you had people who tapped into more of their record and policy and leadership traits (like) John Kerry and Hillary Clinton,” Bagniewski said. “I think the people who will do well this time, and you kind of see the leaders already going toward it, is people want somebody who is experienced, who is a leader, who has policy chops, but who also captures the fire of the moment. ...

“You can’t have somebody just firing bombs all day, but you can’t have a candidate from central casting, either. They have to be both, and that’s harder than it sounds, for sure.”

Because many of the candidates will have similar policy proposals that most Democrats will be able to support, personality and an ability to deliver that message will be crucial, Cerro Gordo’s Hardy said.

“I think a lot of them are going to say sort of the same thing. (So) they’ve got to be somebody who can spark some excitement,” Hardy said. “They’ve got to inspire. ... I think it’s related to their personality. There are people who want to be like that, but it’s innate. You can either do it or you can’t. I don’t think it can be trained.”

On those policy issues, one topic comes up most: health care.

It’s a broad topic. But there is no doubt Iowa Democrats want to hear their presidential candidates talk about health care issues.

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“I think the take-away from the 2018 election is the Democratic base, and really all Democrats, are motivated by health care,” Bagniewski said. “I think what we’re discovering really quickly is what we mean by health care is very much up for debate.”

Bagniewski noted the discussion over myriad types of so-called universal health care plans the candidates are proposing. Some include lowering the age to qualify for Medicare, others call for a hybrid of both public and private insurance options for everyone, and others may push for a Medicare-for-all system that eliminates private insurance.

The health care discussion also could include issues like prescription drug prices, Democrats said.

“The main focus is still the same ol’ same ol’. It’s jobs and it’s health care,” Dumkrieger said. “We all know people who have been through (health care issues). My wife had thyroid cancer and lost her health insurance before Obamacare. ... I think that’s a big worry for a lot of people.”

TAKING ON TRUMP

Iowa Democrats also know part of their calculus will be to nominate someone they believe can beat Trump in a general election.

That means different things, Bagniewski said, including trying to win over Trump voters who had previously voted for Democrats, and going head-to-head with Trump throughout a campaign on the debate stage and social media.

“The desire to defeat Donald Trump is all-encompassing at this point,” Bagniewski said.

But at the same time, the Democratic candidate’s campaign cannot be all about Trump, Hardy said.

“Donald Trump cannot be the focus. And the reason he can’t is he’s a shape-shifter. He has this position today and tomorrow you can’t nail him down. He can’t be the focus,” Hardy said. “(The focus) has to be the people of this country, the regular, working people, the middle class, and the lower (income) class. ...

“We need to encourage unions, better prices for medicines, build up schools, no tax breaks for millionaires.”

SETTING THE FIELD

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Democrats officially declared as of Friday: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang

Democrats who have formed exploratory committees: Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren.

Democrats believed to be considering: Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Sherrod Brown, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Jeff Merkley, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Howard Schultz (as an independent), Eric Swalwell and others.

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