HRC’s Big Wallet To the Rescue of Iowa Democrats

Anyone who thinks I’ve been smearing Iowa Democrats in arguing that their anxieties about a potentially uncontested HRC nomination have a lot to do with concerns remote from ideology or electability should read Emily Schultheis’ fine piece at National Journal today about the healing balm being applied by HRC’s appearances in and preparations for an Iowa campaign.

Hillary Clinton’s aides started calling activists here early this month, asking for support—and advice. What they heard was the same thing over and over again: We need help getting the state party back on track.

After bruising Senate, House, and gubernatorial losses last year, Iowa Democrats are reeling. Bruce Braley could have won the Senate seat, they lament. They now hold just one of the state’s four congressional seats. The number of voters registered as Democrats has dropped.

Now, state party activists think they need Hillary Clinton—to recruit candidates, to encourage voters, and to raise money.

“The best way if there’s not a competitive caucus is to have your lead singer, the thing that the ticket’s going to ride on, invest the energy,” said Kurt Meyer, chairman of the Tri-County Democrats in northern Iowa.

Clinton’s team is listening. State lawmakers left a closed-door meeting with Clinton last week convinced of her desire to help rebuild the state party, and her advisers have indicated the same priorities in their outreach to local activists and county-level leaders.

It could have been a lot worse for Iowa Democrats in 2014. Despite not having a competitive gubernatorial candidate, and despite Bruce Braley’s troubles, Iowa Republicans once again fell short of their overriding goal of winning control of the state Senate and thus obtaining “trifecta” control of state government.

Still, Iowa Democrats see their state slipping away from the brief period of Democratic dominance that had emerged in 2006 and 2008. And they are convinced that Caucus-generated resources are what has been and might still be lacking:

The 2008 Iowa caucuses generated a great deal of enthusiasm and interest among Democratic voters, helping to boost voter turnout both that fall and in the 2010 midterms. But 2012 was a different story. That year, Obama—running as the incumbent president—had no opposition in the caucuses, which veteran Iowa operatives cite as a major reason for the lower 2014 turnout and ultimately in Braley’s Senate loss.

“The change in turnout really mirrored the change in voter registration between 2010 and 2014,” said Jeff Link, who advised Braley’s 2014 campaign. “And if that trend continues, which I have every reason to believe it will, we’ve got to do something about voter registration.”

With all due respect to Link, I’d say Braley could have weathered initially poor registration numbers if he hadn’t made those fateful remarks to Texas trial lawyers about Chuck Grassley, or if a “friend” hadn’t idiotically uploaded them to YouTube. It also didn’t help that the MSM in Iowa and nationally decided early on that Joni Ernst was going to be the poster candidate for the renewed ability of the GOP to hide its extremism behind platitudes. But in any event, Iowa Democrats are naturally nervous right now.

But HRC’s wallet is coming to the rescue:

“The caucus is about party-building,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Andy McGuire said. Though the state party doesn’t take sides in the primary, she said Clinton’s Iowa hiring spree can only help. “Certainly as they hire staff and they get people to volunteer and get excited about the caucuses, that really helps us in the general.”

Another big benefit of Clinton’s sizable Iowa operation and the resources the campaign will invest here is the impact for Iowa-based staffers in the general election—and even to the 2018 midterms.

“What they bring is cutting-edge techniques: how to organize, how to engage voters with cutting edge tactics,” said Norm Sterzenbach, a longtime Democratic operative in the state and former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. “They teach our potential staff members, teach our volunteers and that translates down to down-ballot races in 2016 … That also then helps longer term for the 2018 cycle: everybody’s gone, but we’ve got a group of staff and volunteers in the state that know how to run modern campaigns.”

Meyer echoed that sentiment. “Hillary Clinton has more talent in her field program than probably all the other efforts combined,” he said. “More money, more talent, more savvy—so all our campaigns can learn.”

Obviously if the Caucuses turned unexpectedly competitive, they’d pull in money and other national resources, if only because HRC would spend more. But now that she’s shown up in Iowa and is helping out, I suspect most Iowa Democrats will keep any hopes for an O’Malley or Sanders Surge to themselves, or behind blind quotes.

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.