Iowa Democrats say there’s a long road ahead finalizing presidential nominating calendar

By: - December 9, 2022 6:05 pm

A crowd at Hiatt Middle School waits for former Vice President Joe Biden to speak the night before the Iowa Caucuses. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

While many national figures have said the Democratic National Committee’s decision to remove Iowa from its first-in-the-nation position is final, state Democrats say the fight is far from over.

Soon after the DNC Rules & Bylaws committee decided to put South Carolina first in the presidential nomination cycle starting in 2024, Iowa Democratic Chair Ross Wilburn sent out a letter saying the state party will follow state law. Iowa has laws on the books requiring political parties to hold caucuses, and to hold those caucuses before other states’ nominating contests are held.

“When we submit our delegate selection plan to the Rules and Bylaws Committee early next year, we will adhere to the State of Iowa’s legal requirements, and address compliance with DNC rules in subsequent meetings and hearings,” Wilburn said.

The DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee, with support from President Biden, has given waivers to South Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan to hold primary elections before the first Tuesday of March, which marks the beginning of the traditional period for presidential nominating contests. The only members of the committee to vote against the new calendar were Scott Brennan of Iowa and Joanne Dowdell of New Hampshire.

Leaders in both Iowa and New Hampshire’s Democratic parties have vowed to hold their presidential nominating contests first in compliance with state law. In anticipation of such a response from Iowa and New Hampshire, committee members approved new sanctions on any state that holds its contests outside of DNC approval, automatically cutting half of the state’s delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

Presidential candidates, too, would face penalties for competing in those states’ contests. Those who campaign in states that have run afoul of the new DNC rules, or who run TV ads there, or who place their name on the ballot, would be unable to receive any delegates from those states, and they could be barred from participating in debates.

But these penalties have not deterred Iowa and New Hampshire’s Democratic parties from pledging to still hold their contests first. Dave Nagle, a former Iowa congressman, said the DNC’s decision is just the beginning of a very long process in Iowa’s fight to stay first.

“We got a long way to go,” Nagle said. “So don’t think this chapter’s closed. We haven’t even opened the book yet.”

So what are the next steps?

While the Rules & Bylaws Committee has approved the new calendar, it still awaits ratification from the full DNC in 2023. The committee approval is conditioned on five states’ showing the national party that they are moving their primaries to DNC-approved dates in 2024: South Carolina on Feb. 3, Nevada and New Hampshire on Feb. 6, Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan on Feb. 27.

This year, if an approved early state doesn’t meet the requirements outlined by the DNC panel, the full DNC will not approve its waiver and the state must hold its contest during the regular primary election window.

The DNC’s decision to impose specific dates for primaries is an attempt to stop the jockeying between early states for the top positions. In the 2008 presidential nominating cycle, Florida and Michigan’s decision to move their primary date caused other states to move the dates in an effort to secure a better position. That fight lasted until October 2007, less than three months before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. In the 2008 convention, the DNC refused to seat half of the delegations from both states for moving up their primaries without authorization.

Nagle, who served as state Democratic Party chairman in 1982, said Iowa was in a similar dispute in 1984 when New Hampshire and Iowa each moved their 1984 contests a week ahead of Vermont, which had decided to hold a nonbinding straw poll on the same day as New Hampshire’s primary. A federal judge later ruled that New Hampshire and Iowa were entitled to change the date of their contests and have their results accepted by the DNC.

That court case, and Iowa’s law requiring the state’s parties to hold their caucuses first, mean the DNC may have to challenge Iowa in court to enforce its new rules. Nagle said Iowa’s caucuses are constitutionally protected under the right to assembly and added that generally intraparty disputes are not resolved in court until “the remedies of resolution have been exercised and exhausted within the organization.”

That means any lawsuit the DNC could level at Iowa for setting its caucus before other contests would not be successful until all other routes to resolve any conflicts within the party structure are exhausted, he said.

“While the National Committee could say, ‘oh, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this to you,'” Nagle said. “Fine, but they can’t stop us from holding the caucus and they can’t stop New Hampshire from holding the primary.”

On the state side, the Iowa Democrats’ State Central Committee has to approve the calendar. Some Iowa Democrats, such as C.J. Petersen, the party’s Stonewall Caucus chair, support Iowa relinquishing its first-in-the-nation status to give another state a chance at kicking off the election cycle.

Iowa has other changes planned for the caucuses unrelated to the state’s position on the nominating calendar.

Earlier this year, while presenting their case to the DNC for Iowa staying first, the state’s Democratic leaders proposed a move toward absentee ballots instead of in-person caucuses in upcoming election cycles. Norm Sterzenbach, who served as the Iowa Democratic Party’s executive director for the 2008 caucuses, said that the new process would streamline Iowa caucuses by eliminating complicated systems like re-alignment and viability thresholds that are conducted on caucus night.

The proposed new caucus system would have Democrats voting by a presidential preference card, selecting only their top candidate. Those cards could be requested by mail and could be returned in person or by mail prior to caucus night. The changes are intended to fix the problems national Democrats have cited with the caucuses’ accessibility, Sterzenbach said.

“My guess is that we’ll end up going first and the process will be much more simplified, and more accessible,” 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.

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