The Wing Ding Factor and the Year of “Keeping Hillary Honest”

Today’s Wall Street Journal piece by Reid Epstein and Peter Nicolas reporting widespread disgruntlement with Hillary Clinton among local Democratic leaders in Iowa will probably make mouths water throughout the progressive commentariat and in the ranks of political writers looking for future stories:

Interviews with more than half of Democratic chiefs in Iowa’s 99 counties show a state party leadership so far reluctant to coalesce behind Mrs. Clinton. County Democratic officials also voiced qualms about Mrs. Clinton’s ability to win a general election and her fundraising ties to Wall Street firms and corporations, which remain a target of liberal ire.

Now I don’t doubt that there are worries in Iowa (and elsewhere) about HRC’s ideology and (to a somewhat lesser extent) electability. Were a truly serious lefty rival to emerge, like Elizabeth Warren, we could see some genuine excitement develop in the early states. But I strongly suspect a factor mentioned far down in the WSJ story is a much bigger deal than you’d guess from the headline or the lede:

State Democratic officials also want a contested race because that boosts the party apparatus and fundraising. Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign attracted scores of volunteers who remain active in the party. Various presidential hopefuls, moreover, serve as star attractions for fundraising dinners and barbecue cookouts across the state.

John Stone, party chairman in Cerro Gordo County, throws the annual Wing Ding supper in Clear Lake in August. When Mr. Obama spoke there in 2007, he drew nearly 700 people, with attendees paying $25 a ticket to benefit local candidates in 17 northern Iowa counties. Without a big name, the dinner draws closer to 400 people, Mr. Stone said.

“When we have these candidates out here running for office, we invite them to county dinners and the numbers swell at these events,” said Tom Henderson, chairman of Democratic Party in Polk County, which includes Des Moines. “So it is a great, great service for the Democratic Party to have these candidates running for office.”

No kidding.

You have to appreciate that candidates in both parties for state and local office in Iowa (and to a lesser extent, in other early states) are accustomed to enjoying the benefit of world-class mailing lists, state-of-the-art campaign infrastructures, and top-shelf campaign staffers from all over the country. These goodies come to them courtesy of presidential candidates, proto-presidential candidates, people who want to work on presidential campaigns, and people who want to influence presidential campaigns. This is why Iowans so fiercely protect their first-in-the-nation-caucus status, and also why they hate uncontested presidential nomination contests. So of course they don’t want HRC to win without a challenge.

The “Wing Ding” factor is something you should keep in mind when reading about the fertile soul Iowa offers to anyone contemplating a challenge to HRC. It’s one of several complications in the Democratic nomination “story” for 2015, the largest one being that the weight of grassroots Democratic opinion is almost certainly in favor of a Clinton nomination after she’s been “kept honest” by a primary challenge. So the two big initial questions are whether anyone formidable can be talked into playing this important but ultimately thankless role in the nominating process, and whether Team Clinton can figure out a way to preempt this whole dangerous game by repositioning her in a more aggressively progressive direction.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.