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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 15, 2018

It’s early, it’s crowded: Iowa’s Democratic race for governor

Aug 28, 2017

Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times


DAVENPORT — A few weeks ago, at Jeno’s Little Hungary, a tavern in northwest Davenport, about 20 people were talking about their worries.

They had plenty. Since Iowa Republicans won complete control of state government in last year’s elections, GOP lawmakers have moved aggressively. The results have thrilled conservatives and angered liberals.

On the list of worries at the Jeno’s gathering: low wages, poorly funded schools, dirty water and cuts to collective bargaining rights for public workers.

At the front of the room was Brian Shepherd, campaign manager for Cathy Glasson, the union leader from Iowa City who is soon expected to announce her campaign for the Democratic nomination for Iowa governor.

The meeting was intended to begin organizing the area for Glasson’s campaign, but Shepherd added: “If people have policy questions, I’ll stay here till the bar closes.”

The meeting ended after about an hour. But in these dwindling days of summer, when most Iowans are paying attention to their county fair or preparing for the start of another school year, gatherings like it are beginning to proliferate.

The campaign for the Democratic nomination for Iowa governor is beginning to pick up speed.

Pushing back

So far, seven Democrats have said they’re in the running.

The June 2018 primary is about 10 months away, and it’ll be six months before candidates can even file nomination papers. But the departure of former Gov. Terry Branstad and the raft of changes made by the state Legislature have sprouted a garden full of Democratic challengers.

These Democrats have focused on the Legislature and the state’s budget shortfalls.

They have complained about new laws that restrict collective bargaining rights, cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, implement a voter-identification requirement, limit abortion rights and roll back minimum-wage increases in several counties.

The fast-moving changes have taken Democrats aback, and they’re readying for a fight.

At a party gathering in Clear Lake a couple weeks ago, Kurt Meyer, a party leader in north-central Iowa, likened the legislative actions to igniting a fire under Democrats.

“By abandoning all reason, the other party has given us tinder,” he said.

It’s that tinder that Democrats now are trying to ignite.

The early stages

Democrats know the stakes in next year’s race for governor. Winning back majorities in the House or Senate will be difficult. Republicans hold a 29-20-1 edge in the Senate and 59-41 lead in the House.

But the party says it’s still working to gain control in the Legislature. And Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, acknowledges, “The governor’s race is critically important.”

Right now, the Democratic campaign is fairly new. Much of it has centered so far on candidates traveling the state, touting their backgrounds, early endorsements or fundraising prowess.

John Norris, a former top aide to Tom Vilsack and chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a long history and a lot of friends in Democratic politics, has been crisscrossing rural roads, trying to carve out a niche.

State Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, who turned activists’ heads with an impassioned speech opposing the collective bargaining bill, has lately racked up a series of union endorsements, including AFSCME Council 61, the state’s largest public employee union.

Andy McGuire, the former state party chair and physician, has emphasized health care and criticized the cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood.

Fred Hubbell, a wealthy Des Moines businessman, is drawing attention to his business experience, including as chairman of the Younkers department store chain, and as an official at the Iowa Department of Economic Development. He’s also sent an early message about his financial capabilities, announcing in July that he already had raised $1 million from Iowa donors.

Glasson has promised to be a “bold progressive” who will demand a $15-per-hour minimum wage with a short phase-in period. “I would prefer that we do it right away,” she said in Davenport this month while taking part in an anti-hate rally.

Jon Neiderbach, a former policy analyst at the state Legislature, says he swims outside the political mainstream. He has proposed legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenue to fund health care.

Another recent entrant is former Iowa City Mayor Ross Wilburn.

So far, the audiences for these candidates have been relatively small. Most of them have held small gatherings in the Quad-Cities, soaking up opinions and sharing their own stories.

Some activists have made commitments. State Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, and Scott County Democratic Chair Thom Hart have said they’re backing Hubbell.

Bev Strayhall, a longtime party activist, is supporting Boulton. “This guy gets it; this guy cares,” she said.

Most others, however, are just watching.

The next steps

“People are kind of sizing everybody up,” said Norm Sterzenbach, a former state party official who had been advising Rep. Todd Prichard’s campaign.

Prichard suspended his campaign a couple weeks ago.

That it’s early in the campaign is pretty clear. But with so many in the field, campaigns also are mindful that they need to step lively in the event the nomination fight goes to a state convention. (A candidate needs 35 percent of the vote to win outright.)

A convention would make the party’s caucuses next February more important than usual. The caucuses are the first step in picking delegates to the state convention, which is scheduled for June 16, 11 days after the June 5 primary.

Those delegates, if nobody reaches 35 percent in the primary, would pick the eventual nominee.

Already, campaigns are thinking about the necessity of mobilizing supporters for the February caucuses.

At the meeting at Jeno’s, Shepherd challenged volunteers to reach out to 15 people apiece in an attempt to widen the campaign’s circle of contacts. Boulton’s campaign also held a grass roots organizing meeting in the Quad-Cities this month.

Opinions vary on whether a convention will be necessary. They rarely happen, but the race generally doesn’t include seven candidates, either.

At the same time, it’s not clear how long the sizable field will hold. Three people already have dropped out, citing difficulty raising money.

Runoff potential

The first fundraising reports aren’t due until January, so it’s difficult to compare the field.

But money will be an important factor in the race, along with the first polls. A poor showing in either or both could lead to campaigns being weeded out by activists and donors looking to focus on a narrower set of viable candidates.

“You could (have people) say, ‘Why would I throw away my vote at somebody who looks like they’re only going to get seven percent?’” said Meyer, the party leader from north-central Iowa.

If there is significant weeding, it would affect the chances of a convention.

The last prominent race in Iowa to be decided at a convention was the Republican 3rd Congressional District contest in 2014. David Young placed fifth in the primary but won at the convention. He went on to win the seat and is in his second term.

In fact, that convention could have an effect in this year’s Democratic race.

The top vote-getter in the 2014 primary, state Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, has proposed legislation to shift Iowa to a runoff system in the event of an inconclusive primary. His bill passed the Senate last session but wasn’t taken up in the House.

That could change next session. The Des Moines Register reported in June that the bill has been assigned to a House subcommittee and that Zaun wants to amend it next session, so it would apply to the 2018 campaign.

His plan would make it so the two top vote-getters in an inconclusive primary would move to a runoff.

That type of system, if implemented, would likely not affect the Republican primary campaign, which so far is limited to Gov. Kim Reynolds and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. But it could upend a Democratic race that already is underway.

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