Iowa’s latest test for democracy: Fighting for the Iowa caucuses

January 25, 2023 10:30 am

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)

The greatest moments in our nation’s history do not happen on a schedule or timeline. They often arise in obscure places utterly unaware of the true consequences of the event. Take, for example,  an unknown hill outside of Boston called Bunker. That almost unintended battle was the first step to the United States becoming a free nation.

Consider the fates dictated to the residents of Adam County in Pennsylvania when Generals Meade and Lee found each other at a town known as Gettysburg.  When three bloody days of battle were over, we pretty much knew a restored United States would not exist “half slave and half free.”

Pivotal events kept reoccurring — at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the calling out of Joe McCarthy at a Senate hearing, JFK’s surprise pledge the U.S. would be first to place a man on the Moon, and at a lunch counter and on a bus in the deep South.

Now Iowa and New Hampshire, not without anticipation and certainly not with life and death consequences, face a serious moment — and an opportunity. We can preserve, protect, and defend a crucial linchpin of American democracy — the future of our presidential nominating process. This is not about two states individually. It is about the joint service we provide our country.

The Democratic National Committee’s recent plan to oust Iowa and New Hampshire from their traditional place as leadoff states will greatly and irrevocably harm the openness of choosing America’s presidents.

The single largest threat to Republicans maintaining first-in-the-nation standing going forward is the Democrats losing it this cycle.

Few applauded the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs FEC.  The ruling held that it was a violation of the free speech rights of corporations and unions  to limit the buckets of money they spend calling for the election or defeat of a political candidate.

Therein lies the reason Iowa and New Hampshire are important. These two small, independent states represent the only presidential election process in this U.S. where open spigots of millions and billions of dollars in political money do not work.

For the cost of a couple of plane tickets, a candidate can arrive in Des Moines or Manchester, be taken seriously, talk with and listen to real voters. If this individual has a compelling presence, a thoughtful message, and the character to persevere, he or she can earn a strong showing and the famous “one of three tickets” to New Hampshire. That possible future president can then attract funding resources and compete in subsequent, more expensive primaries in larger states.

If Iowa and New Hampshire are shunted to mid-calendar, we are left with the stacked deck nominating method given us by President Joe Biden. “Citizens United” big money, special interests, and single-issue voters will dominate primaries and caucuses, as happens in general elections.

There is another important element Iowans need to appreciate. Ours has been the only mostly rural state with a significant role picking Democrat and GOP nominees. Thus, this issue is not just about Iowa, but also 20 states with fewer people, many of them rural.

Because of our current spot, Iowa has a seat at the table. One-on-one access to candidates allows us to ask hard questions and not settle for simple answers, spin, and slick ads.

Iowans in both parties — and independents who can caucus in either party if they register for one of them — speak for farmers, ranchers, small businessmen and women, and seniors in other states who share concerns about health care availability, broadband access, schools and safety, among others.

The proposed Democratic National Committee change shuns America’s Heartland. Michigan is not a farm state and not in the Heartland.

Iowa’s Democratic Party response to the DNC plan is unclear now. Fortunately, Republicans are working hard to hold their caucuses as scheduled, thanks to Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, Gov. Kim Reynolds, Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann, and others. The Republican National Committee has listened to them, respects precedent, understands Iowa’s level playing field value, and is keeping Iowa first, at least for the 2023-24 cycle.

The single largest threat to Republicans maintaining “first-in-the-nation” standing going forward is the Democrats losing it this cycle. National Democrats can destroy Iowa’s role today and it’s a short hop to some national big state Republicans going after Iowa in 2027-28.

As the Iowa Democratic Party decides whether to stand up to the DNC, it should first determine repercussions of a decision to surrender. People who are parts of our culture and fabric who would be impacted should be consulted and allowed to express their concerns.

Commercial interests such as agriculture that feed people and our future prosperity should not be overlooked. Leaders and advocates for causes like the rural elderly, conservation, and other heartland conditions should be consulted.

Again, Iowa as “first in the nation” represents tens and tens of millions of people and America’s core values.

This is a heavy responsibility. If Democrats and Republicans together stand up for Iowa, we stand up for rural America. In a modest way and with New Hampshire, we can follow and honor the decidedly more courageous citizens of colonial Massachusetts 250 years ago.

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Dave Nagle
Dave Nagle

Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa.

David Oman
David Oman

David Oman, a businessman from Des Moines, and formerly of Cedar Falls, is a former chief of staff for Iowa governors Robert Ray and Terry Branstad. He served four terms as Iowa Republican Party co-chair from 1985-1993 and was a candidate for governor in 1998.