GOP bill threatens parties’ cooperative tradition for first-in-the-nation caucuses

April 25, 2023 10:21 am

(Photo illustration via Canva)

It is difficult to discern whether the Iowa Republican legislative majority is attempting to stand with the Iowa Democratic Party on maintaining their co-status as first in the nation in the presidential nominating process, or very adroitly trying to either diminish the effect of the caucus or eliminate it all together.

Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann introduced legislation that would allow only in-person participation at caucuses. The Iowa Democratic Party is considering allowing members to register their preference for president in 2024 via mail or online.

Kaufmann said he was doing so because the use of absentee ballots would cause New Hampshire to jump over Iowa and hold its primary first. Kaufmann, the son of Republican Party of Iowa chairman, Jeff Kaufmann, said he was concerned because he was communicating with the New Hampshire secretary of state but Democrats were not and needed to start.

Let’s start with the first point. Republicans, led by their national committee, have rarely shown any intention to change or challenge the calendar, which is the order in which states hold their nominating process, whether caucus or primary. It is only the Democratic National Committee that has continually focused on which states are allowed to go early.

In the Democratic Party, Iowa and New Hampshire have been allowed to hold their events “outside the window,” which is before the rest of the states are allowed to commence their selection process. This time, the first-in-the-nation status was stripped by the DNC from both Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina was given the leadoff spot.

Here is the first place the legislator is wrong. Democrats in both states and the New Hampshire secretary of state have been talking for 40 years. It all started in 1982, when Vermont decided to seek a presidential straw poll the Sunday before New Hampshire’s primary. The Granite State announced it would move its primary back a week.

The Iowa Democrats then stated that, to preserve the eight-day gap between the two contests, they would move back a week as well. It was quite a battle, with the national party threatening not to allow the two states to attend the national convention.

But George Bruno, the New Hampshire state Democratic chair and I had a secret plan. We had all the presidential candidates sign a letter pledging to seat us. Since the national convention is the highest authority in the party, their pledge enabled us to withstand the lawsuit the DNC representatives filed in federal court to stop us.

This relationship has continued successfully ever since.  Not that there haven’t been conflicts over process, but the gentlemen’s agreement that we will not get into a contest of jumping over each other has remained. Because when we start fighting, both states lose.

On yet another front, the Legislature is considering restricting who can cast a preference ballot at both party’s caucuses. Under the proposal, you will have to show that your party’s registration was obtained more than 70 days before the caucus. If not, you may attend, but the voter won’t count.

Setting aside the First Amendment protection of the right of free assembly and association, which such an edict would clearly violate, it would effectively lessen the turnout for the Democrats. How many show up at a caucus is the foundation of party building. Since Republicans are the more stable population, the impact would be felt most by the more mobile voter and college students, who are more likely to vote Democratic.

If they succeed in combining the two — the no absentee preference casting and the 70-day registration requirement — Republicans will have achieved a great political victory. They will have made it harder for Democrats to organize their political foundation. They also will have dried up a potential source of funding and done it all in the name of good government.

I hope these revisions were made in good faith, but I am somewhat skeptical. The two Iowa parties, despite their vast differences in political philosophy, have always worked together on our first-in-the-nation position. This would be the first time one has tried to gain an advantage in the fight to remain first.

More important, both sides need to remember it is not about Iowa or New Hampshire. It is what we offer to the nation. Iowa and New Hampshire are the only two states that offer the long-shot candidate a chance to state their case why they should be president of the United States. The groundwork that is successful for the ambitious office seeker is the willingness to meet voters face to face without the need for a bankroll of wealthy donors already in the fold.

In Iowa, simply put, a Citizens United tarmac-to-tarmac and staged rally campaign will not do. Plus, Iowa  is the most rural state in a prominent position in the presidential nominating process. For both parties, small towns and farmers deserve to have a voice.

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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.