National Democrats meet this week to decide fate of Iowa caucuses

By: - November 29, 2022 7:15 pm

Iowa Democrats used satellite caucuses in 2020, like this one at the Muslim Community Organization in Des Moines, to try to make caucuses more diverse and accessible. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Democrats are staying tight-lipped about their plans moving forward from this week’s Democratic National Committee rules meeting, where some predict national leadership will displace the Iowa Caucuses from their first-in-the-nation position.

Iowa Democrats could move forward with presidential caucuses with or without the national party’s blessing, as it has in the past. But state party leaders are not speculating about what they might do if the DNC tries to end Iowa’s reign as the first presidential nominating contest in the nation.

The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to recommend a new presidential nominating calendar during its meeting Dec. 1-3 in Washington D.C. The panel decided earlier this year to strip Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina of their traditional leading positions and require them to compete with other states for the coveted spots.

The committee heard presentations in June from 16 states and Puerto Rico about why they should hold early contests, which could set the course for the nominating cycle. The DNC has said it would evaluate states based on their diversity, competitiveness, and feasibility — criteria that present challenges for Iowa.

Some of the reasons the DNC chose to pursue potential changes to the lineup are specifically because of issues with Iowa. Some national Democratic leaders say that the caucus process, where Iowans physically gather and move about a room to express their presidential preference, limits participation especially with marginalized groups. The Iowa Democratic caucuses have also faced more scrutiny because of reporting delays in 2020.

In response to these criticisms, Iowa Democrats presented a new caucus system. Iowans would weigh in using a presidential preference card to be returned by mail or in person on caucus night.

“We proposed those bold changes to streamline the caucus process and keep our spot among the early states in the nominating calendar,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said. “So we feel the proposal we’ve made to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee demonstrates we’re committed to making the Iowa caucuses one of the most accessible contests in the country, and will allow us to grow our party.”

Wilburn did not comment on the next steps for implementing the new system outlined in the proposal, saying the state party was focused on the upcoming meeting.

Iowa and other states will have less time than initially expected to make any changes to their nominating processes. The final early state roster was supposed to be announced in August, but the DNC decided to delay its decision until after the November midterms.

Rules panel member and former state Democratic chair Scott Brennan said this meeting will not be the final step to approve a new calendar. The entire DNC needs to meet to approve and ratify the Rules and Bylaws Committee choice, which could be after the holidays.

“Delay is going to be a challenge for us as well as Democrats across the country,” Wilburn said. “But we’re committed to making our caucus process inclusive and accessible.”

As of Tuesday, Wilburn said he had still not received an agenda for the meeting scheduled for later this week. National Democrats are also questioning the lack of comment from President Joe Biden’s administration, Politico reports.

Regardless of hold-ups, many Democrats predict Iowa will not walk away with an early state waiver from the upcoming meetings. Minnesota and Michigan, where Democrats made key gains in this year’s midterms, are hoping to replace Iowa as the Midwestern representative in the early state process.

Midterm results increased Iowa’s challenges

Iowa Democrats’ tough charge was made more challenging by the midterm results. One of their central arguments during presentations to the DNC earlier this year was that Iowa remains a competitive state for Democrats even though Donald Trump won the state in both 2016 and 2020. Iowa Democrats noted Barack Obama won the state in the previous two cycles and Democrats made gains in the U.S. House in 2018.

But in this year’s elections, where Democrats fared better than expected in many parts of the country, Republicans kept their statewide and federal incumbents in office in Iowa, and unseated Democrats like U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald.

Brennan told reporters on Iowa Press that that the election was “clearly not (Iowa Democrats’) friend” going into the DNC decision, but that the same arguments presented previously on Iowa’s purple state status remain valid. Brennan said Democrats should think carefully before putting states like Michigan or Minnesota first instead of Iowa, because those states’ nominating picks may not give insights on working class, rural voters in the Midwest that the Iowa caucuses do.

“We can’t let the Midwest become a Republican monolith,” Brennan said. “If they all turn red, we can’t elect Democratic presidents because electoral college math does not work.”

Iowa has defied DNC before

While Iowa Democratic leaders are pushing for the DNC to keep the caucuses first, if the committee’s decision this week does not go in the state’s favor, Iowa may still have options to hold its position. In 1982, Democratic leaders denied Iowa’s request to go first in the upcoming 1984 election but the state held its contest earlier than allowed anyway. Dave Nagle, a former Iowa congressman, said the lawsuit from that election showed the Iowa Democratic Party has final say on when the caucuses are held.

But current state party leadership has not commented on potentially contesting the DNC’s decision. Ahead of the December meetings, Wilburn emphasized the need to keep rural, Midwestern voters represented in the early state nominating process, and said the DNC leadership promised a “fair process” in making the new line-up.

“We’re still in the mix, and we’ll see what happens this week,” Wilburn said.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.