Republican caucus bill is offensive. Democrats should ignore it.

April 13, 2023 9:56 am

Hillary Clinton campaigns before the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses. (Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.I have some advice for the Iowa Democratic Party: Tell Bobby Kaufmann to buzz off.

Or, if you’d like, substitute a different four-letter word. Either way, he deserves it.

Kaufmann, a Republican state representative from Wilton, has proposed using the power of the state to dictate the inner workings of the opposing political party. Specifically, he’s proposed a bill in the Iowa House that would force Democrats to hold their presidential caucuses in person. The plan would forbid mail-in ballots, which Democrats have been planning to use next year.

Kaufmann’s meddling is not only offensive, but it’s arguably unconstitutional. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, let’s debunk the BS that Kaufmann uses to explain why he’s introduced this scheme.

He says he’s trying to protect the caucuses and be “helpful” to Democrats by distinguishing Iowa from the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Mail-in ballots, his says, would make the Democratic caucuses look more like a primary and prompt New Hampshire to jump ahead of Iowa.

This is nonsense. How Democrats run their caucuses has no impact on the Republican calendar. As for being “helpful,” no politician ever does anything to help the opposing political party when it comes to elections. So cross that off your list; it’s baloney.

Even if Kaufmann was trying to be helpful to the Democrats (he isn’t), this isn’t the 2000s. Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s former secretary of state, doesn’t control the presidential calendar. Besides, Democrats booted New Hampshire from its privileged spot in 2024, just like it did Iowa, so the Live Free or Die state is having a hard enough time defending itself; it’s in no position to dictate what other states do.

There may be some merit to the worry Republicans have that if Democrats don’t have to caucus in person, some of them could meddle in the GOP caucuses. But even if that’s a legitimate and substantive concern — and I’m not sure that it is — this bill is clearly overkill. The bill also requires that caucus participants register with a party 70 days ahead of time.

If Iowa Democrats are to regain a spot in the party’s early window in 2028 (which is a long shot, anyway), they’ll have to make it so more people can participate in the caucuses. This is why Iowa Democrats initiated mail-in balloting to begin with, to try to keep its leadoff spot in 2024.

Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work.

President Joe Biden, who has never been treated well by Iowa, upended the traditional calendar to prioritize South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan. He did well in those states — and he needs them next year — so he’s rewarding them accordingly.

That’s politics. When Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were president, it was in their interests to keep the calendar the way it was. Why do you think Donald Trump didn’t change things? Because he loves Iowa? Please. He got elected under the current system, so he kept it in place.

Notably, Kaufmann is also a senior Trump adviser for 2024. What do you figure the odds are that there’s an angle to this bill that helps Trump next year?

Here’s my second piece of advice for the Iowa Democratic Party: If the Legislature passes this bill and Kim Reynolds signs it into law, toss it in the trash. That’s where it belongs. Do the caucuses the way you want. If that means using mail-in ballots, then so be it.

Fortunately, IDP Chair Rita Hart seems to be leaning in that direction already. That’s good. Instead of fighting the DNC, fight Iowa Republicans. They’re the real threat. And if you want to tell Bobby Kaufmann to **** off again, feel free. It will probably be cathartic.

Normally, I don’t like the idea of disregarding the “law,” but in this instance, Democrats shouldn’t hesitate.

This scheme offends the conscience and probably the Constitution. Since when does a state government get to tell national political parties how they run their internal affairs like this?

Iowa does have a law that says the state’s presidential caucuses must go before the nation’s first primary, but its constitutionality has long been in doubt.

As former Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller wrote in a 1996 opinion: The US Supreme Court “has long recognized the rights of political parties to control their own internal nomination and delegate selection processes and has struck down state statutes that abridged those rights.”

This new proposal probably falls into the same category.

In other words, the Iowa Legislature has no business, and probably no right, to regulate in this area. (The party of small government, my sweet aunt.)

If Republicans do pass this nonsense, Democrats should eagerly challenge it in court. Or better yet, dare Republicans to try to enforce it. This would be good policy and good politics. If Democrats can kill the existing law, too, it would eliminate any doubt and give the party more flexibility for the future. A win over the Republicans also would help lift the spirits of Democrats who have mostly been on the losing end lately.

Here’s the truth: Kaufmann’s plan is just another effort by Republicans to tilt Iowa’s electoral playing field in their direction. The GOP has spent years making it harder for Iowans to vote by mail. They’ve shortened the voting window and added more complications in the hopes of tripping people up so they can exclude their ballots. And since Democrats rely on mail-in balloting more than Republicans, they know this helps Republican candidates.

Republicans also know that if Iowa Democrats were ever to regain a spot in the early voting window, it would help them in future general elections. We saw this in 2004 and 2008 when robust Iowa caucus cycles kept the Democrats stoked for the fall. In 2016, it helped Republicans in the same way. Eliminating any chance Democrats have of regaining an early spot in the calendar will only help the GOP.

Republicans may not need this advantage now. They are pretty much running Iowa from head to toe. Still, party leaders know that in politics, nothing is forever. It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans had total control in Wisconsin, but conditions have changed and just this month, liberals won a key Supreme Court race, a sign that even in the industrial Midwest, Democrats are still alive.

That pulse hasn’t yet made its way down the river to Iowa yet, but who knows what will happen in the future? Remember, it was only 15 years ago that Democrats controlled all the levers of state government in Iowa.

It probably never occurred to Democrats back then to mess around with the Republicans’ internal rules. But that’s no surprise. That’s been the tradition.

Unfortunately, those days are gone. For today’s Republicans, nothing is off limits, especially if it gives them an unfair electoral advantage. Such arrogance. (They’re even doing an end run around regular legislative rules to consider this bill.)

So, by all means Democrats, use your favorite invective phrase to tell Bobby Kaufmann and his crowd what they can do with this bill. Then, ignore it.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.