Delayed decision on caucuses could hurt Iowa Democrats, some party members say

By: - August 16, 2022 4:55 pm

Some Iowa Democrats worry a delayed decision on the state's first-in-the-nation caucus status will hurt party candidates. (Illustration via Getty Images)

The Democratic National Committee’s choice to delay finalizing the presidential nominating line-up until after the midterms could hurt Democratic candidates’ chances in Iowa, some party members said.

Potential Republican presidential candidates are coming to Iowa for the Iowa State Fair this week, and many will come back regularly ahead of this year’s midterm elections in support of GOP candidates like Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Sen. Zach Nunn. These trips come as no surprise: Iowa candidate events during midterm election cycles often serve as testing grounds between presidential election cycles.

In the months following the Nov. 8 election, visitors like former Vice President Mike Pence or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan may announce 2024 presidential campaigns and start holding official campaign events in Iowa. Hogan visited the fair last week and Pence is scheduled to campaign with Sen. Chuck Grassley on Friday.

The Republican National Committee has confirmed that Iowa will hold the party’s first-in-the-nation caucuses in 2024. But Iowa’s role in the next Democratic presidential nominating process has not been decided.

The DNC has delayed its decision until after the midterms on how to restructure the early state voting schedule. The DNC Rules and Bylaws committee was scheduled to meet in early August to decide which five states or territories would be allowed to hold early voting contests. Iowa was one of 16 states, alongside Puerto Rico, to present arguments to the committee in June on why their state should hold a primary or caucus first.

Republicans say the DNC’s move to push back the decision means that Democrats plan to change the calendar, potentially stripping Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina of their long-held positions. Republican National Committee chairperson Ronna McDaniel said at the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner Wednesday that Democrats are abandoning Iowa.

“The Democrats are walking away from Iowa,” McDaniel told reporters Wednesday. “It is a very clear signal. They do not want to come here anymore.”

Dave Nagle, a former Iowa congressman, said Iowa Democratic candidates may suffer from the call to not affirm that Iowa will keep its early spot this year. While Iowa Republicans have garnered many high-profile supporters on the campaign trail, he pointed to the lack of surrogates for Iowa Democratic candidates.

“We’re depriving our candidates… we’re depriving them of a resource that’s readily available if somebody would make clear that we plan on going first in the event the DNC doesn’t grant us our first favored status,” Nagle said.

Even if denied, Iowa could still go first

But Iowa may still choose to go first regardless of what the DNC decides. Nagle said Iowa Democrats should openly say the state will continue to hold the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Nagle served as state Democratic Party chairman in 1982, when federal party leaders denied Iowa’s request to go first in the next election. Iowa and New Hampshire moved their 1984 nominating contests earlier by a week after Vermont decided to hold a nonbinding straw poll on the same day as New Hampshire’s primary. A federal judge ruled in 1984 the two states were allowed to change their contest schedule and have results accepted.

That lawsuit shows that the Iowa Democratic Party has final say on when the caucuses are held, Nagle said. The case also established that the state party still must follow the procedures of the DNC and seek an exemption for early voting before independently deciding to hold their contest early, he said.

“When we confront this situation again, … almost two decades later, it doesn’t matter what the DNC says on the rules committee,” Nagle said. “We can go ahead and go first alongside the Republicans.”

But state party leaders have not indicated they intend to hold Iowa’s caucuses first in 2024 if the DNC committee does not approve a waiver. When asked in a press conference about what would happen if Iowa is not given a waiver, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn reiterated that Iowa remains committed to working with the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

“No decision has been made,” Wilburn said. “No calendar has been presented to the committee. We are still in this fight.”

Delay could hurt Democratic presidential hopefuls

Scott Brennan, former state party chair and current rules committee member, said it’s hard to know how a DNC decision to strip Iowa from it’s first-in-the-nation position would impact Democrats’ chances in Iowa in the future. But, he said, it may be difficult for the DNC to make a quick decision after the midterms.

It’s unlikely that the DNC will be able to push through a complete approval for the presidential nominating process schedule before the end of the year, he said. After the election, Nov. 8, the rules committee must convene to approve a calendar. That line-up must also receive approval and ratification from the entire DNC. This would require calling additional meetings, Brennan said, which may be difficult to fit in during end-of-year holidays.

Typically, he said, presidential candidates start leaning into the campaign season during the midterms. The DNC may not be concerned about how their delay affects potential candidates because President Joe Biden has said he plans to run for re-election, Brennan said. But not having an early state line-up decided could mean a late start for any Democratic presidential candidates seeking to challenge Biden.

“That’s a pretty short time frame for running a presidential campaign,” Brennan said.

Less than a quarter of Iowans, 23%, said they think Biden should run again for president in 2024, according to the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll in July. Of Democrats alone, the poll found only 37% say he should run again.

Winning approval of Iowa voters should be an important step in the presidential campaign season, Michelle Bailey, 56, said. She came with family members to the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake Thursday, and said Democrats should pay attention to what’s happening in Iowa.

Regardless of the final voting calendar, Democrats need to win over moderate, rural and working-class voters, she said, and Iowa caucus results reflect those voters’ preferences.

“We need to be pragmatic to win these elections,” she said.

Brennan said he does not think the future of the caucuses will impact Democrats’ chances in Iowa this year.

Retired Navy Adm. Michael Franken, who is running against Grassley, said his campaign is doing fine without national surrogates. He told reporters at the Iowa State Fair it would be “favorable” if Democrats gave Iowa more attention this election cycle, but that Iowans are proving their races are competitive without outside support.

“Iowa has done really fine in getting us the closest that anyone has ever come to (Grassley),” he said.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.