Rep. John Delaney of Maryland flew into Sioux City, Iowa, on the back of a full blizzard last weekend and rolled into Storm Lake at 9 a.m. the next day to spend an hour at our little newspaper. He made it to Des Moines by lunchtime to meet with the Des Moines Register’s editors, and then headed back to Washington, where the Democrat is about to give up his seat to devote himself full-time to running for president.
Delaney, 55, has been to Iowa 20 times over the past year. He was first to announce and first to have paid staff in Iowa — 16 people in six field offices. Delaney is paying mostly from his own pocket from the fortune he earned as a health care finance entrepreneur.
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California was another early bird. He rode shotgun last summer with Democrat J.D. Scholten in a Winnebago camper named “Sioux City Sue” in Scholten’s quixotic quest to unseat Rep. Steve King, the Republican immigrant basher who gave President Donald Trump the playbook. Iowa’s long-ignored rural Democrats took note.
Swalwell has been a pen pal for a couple years. He was a prosecutor and then congressman from the San Francisco Bay Area. He serves on the intelligence and judiciary committees, and is bound to be on cable news 24/7 once any report by special counsel Robert Mueller comes out. Swalwell is button-down and underestimated, and he, or the likes of Delaney, might be just the moderate that former Gov. Tom Vilsack says Iowa Democrats want.
Is that what they want? It’s hard to know. Out here, where you sometimes wonder if the Lord overlooked you under a sheet of ice, there are enough Democrats — and frustrated independent farmers losing a buck on every bushel of soybeans they harvest because of Trump’s trade wars — that it is worth the time of the early contenders to see if they can solve the rubric that rural areas are lost to them. Democrats don’t need to win here, but they do need to perform well if they want to carry the state in 2020.
Before then, though, we’ll have caucuses, and the marquee names have been by, trying to walk on the frozen water. Joe Biden arrived just before the midterms for Abby Finkenauer of Dubuque, helping her unseat Trump acolyte Rep. Rod Blum. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., packed them in at Iowa State University for Scholten — together, they campaigned for Medicare-for-all and got cheers, not brickbats. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., drew raves at the state party fall fundraiser.
We’ve had other visitors: Sen. Kamala Harris and fellow Californian Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (who brags Iowa family roots); former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington; and Tom Steyer of the impeachment movement. I sat with Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon in a local cafe shortly after he got the bum’s rush from a San Antonio police officer for attempting to visit a child detention center in Texas for Latino refugees. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was a favorite at the North Iowa Wing Ding fundraiser a while back. She loves to pop down from Minnesota to chat Iowegian anytime, temperate and friendly. Michael Bloomberg hit the capital city this month to promise a climate-change campaign. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana is rooting around for rural votes. Julián Castro of Texas spoke Spanish in Storm Lake, where half the town is meatpacking Latinos.
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No Elizabeth Warren. Yet. Or Beto O’Rourke. We do get regular emails from Republicans Ted Cruz and John Kasich, just in case.
The sheer number of candidates this round could put a real crimp in our social schedules. “Most of us like to meet the candidate three, four or five times at a minimum,” said State Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids. “This next 14 months is going to be one of the most unusual caucus processes because it looks like we’ve got anywhere between 35 and 40 people who are thinking about running for president. So I’m clearing my calendar ... We take that really seriously.”
We listen to Delaney and Swalwell over coffee in groups of five or six. The candidates say we are hungry for integrity, and for healing — that is, after Swalwell is through prosecuting Trump. So they show up. Hillary Clinton did not. The key to winning Iowa is here, west of I-35, red but willing to listen to an honest voice.
• Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times and author of, “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.” His column first appeared in the Washington Post.