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As Democrats look elsewhere, Republicans are keeping Iowa first

Former Vice President Mike Pence campaigns for Sen. Chuck Grassley at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa on August 19, 2022.
Clay Masters
/
Iowa Public Radio
Former Vice President Mike Pence campaigns for Sen. Chuck Grassley at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa on August 19, 2022.

A thunderstorm rolled over the Iowa State fairgrounds in Des Moines as former Vice President Mike Pence took shelter from the downpour in the Varied Industries Building.

Pence was in Iowa in August, repeating what politicians have done for decades – coming to the state well ahead of the next presidential election to draw speculation about a potential White House bid.

"After the first of the year, my family and I'll do as we've always done," Pence told a group of reporters when asked if he was running for president as storm clouds gathered. "And that is reflect and pray on where we might next serve, where we might next contribute."

Pence met several friendly Iowans while seeking shelter at the Iowa State Fair, excited to see the former vice president walking around and greeting fairgoers.

"I love the way [Pence] handled things on January 6," one of those fairgoers, Janet Gastineau, told NPR. "He protected himself but he wasn't willing to go that extra step that Trump wanted him to do for that election."

Pence and other Republicans like Sens. Tim Scott and Tom Cotton, former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all made early trips to Iowa to make inroads with potential donors and organizers and get in front of likely caucus goers.

So far, the only candidate who has officially announced a 2024 presidential run on the Republican side is former President Donald Trump.

Iowa voter Janet Gastineau thinks the Republican Party needs to be done with Trump but "Pence could easily fill those shoes."

Democrats move in a different direction

This commonplace scenario was playing out for Republicans long before a Rules and Bylaws panel within the Democratic National Committee voted to boot Iowa from the early states that will choose its 2024 presidential nominee. That's because the Republican National Committee unanimously voted earlier this year to keep the status quo calendar in place of Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

President Joe Biden, then running in a crowded field of Democrats, campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on August 8, 2019.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
President Joe Biden, then running in a crowded field of Democrats, campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on August 8, 2019.

The full DNC will vote early next year whether to ratify the changes proposed by the panel that would put South Carolina first, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day and Georgia and Michigan. This calendar supports the priorities laid out by President Joe Biden in a memo to the committee before its meeting. Biden struggled in early primaries in 2020, ultimately winning in South Carolina and turning his political fortunes around.

As Democrats move away from a calendar steeped in electoral tradition to one focused on political calculation, Republicans continue to eye the chance to make a big impact in the Iowa caucuses where grassroots campaigning can have a major impact.

Iowa's caucuses have been at the front of the line for both major political parties for the last half-century. That's why many Iowa Democrats fought to keep the caucuses first.

"I hold dear to the process of connecting with another human being to talk about our issues," said Ras Smith.

Former Iowa lawmaker Ras Smith poses for a portrait in downtown Waterloo on November 21, 2022.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Former Iowa lawmaker Ras Smith poses for a portrait in downtown Waterloo on November 21, 2022.

The former state lawmaker who endorsed Biden ahead of the caucuses launched a bid for this year's governor's race in Iowa but dropped out when he couldn't get support from his own party. He has a lot of problems with the Iowa Democratic Party but still argues the Iowa caucuses should be early in the calendar.

"If you lose that, then you're just paying for elections, and that's not representative of democracy," Smith said. "That's not a people-first government."

Smith and many Democrats in favor of keeping Iowa first point to the low cost of running for president in a small state as a big advantage. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 in the Iowa caucuses. Senator Bernie Sanders also gave Clinton a run for her money in Iowa in 2016.

The Iowa Democratic Party recognized the caucus process of making people spend hours in high school gyms and hotel ballrooms to vote was "no longer aligned with 21st century democracy." So, they proposed changes to the caucuses where Iowans would fill out presidential preference cards ahead of caucus night and mail them into their party precincts.

"I have the deepest respect for the President and his principles but the characterization of caucuses set forth in his letter did not reflect any acknowledgement of the historic changes we proposed to the Iowa caucuses," said Iowa DNC member Scott Brennan last week when he voted down the proposed calendar.

Republicans stick with Iowa to start in 2024

Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann (left) talks with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a fundraiser in Davenport on March 11, 2022.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann (left) talks with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a fundraiser in Davenport on March 11, 2022.

Surprisingly, one of the loudest supporters for the Iowa Democrats' caucuses remaining first has been the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.

"This makes no tactical political sense to pull Iowa," Jeff Kaufmann said. "It's just a matter of pure ideology, ideas, trumping something that is inherently an activist and action oriented endeavor."

In the proposed calendar, Democrats have kept every early voting state, albeit in different order. Iowa is the lone exception.

The delayed results of the 2020 Iowa caucuses because of a faulty smartphone app amplified the criticism lobbed at Iowa. The Iowa Democratic Party commissioned an audit of the 2020 caucuses that was released later that year which showed there were multiple problems that led to the fiasco but the DNC played a major role in the problems.

A former president runs again

Iowa Republicans were quick to back Trump once he became the nominee in 2016 but the party refrained from weighing in before the nominee was chosen.

Trump, who claimed Sen. Ted Cruz stole the caucuses when he came in second to the Texas Senator in 2016, announced he's running for a third time.Trump is still pretty popular with Republicans in Iowa and it is not clear which candidates, if any, will challenge him in the upcoming election.

Despite this, though, Kaufmann says the state party will remain neutral.

"If I'm going to sit here and criticize the national Democrats on behalf of my state, I need to also be neutral in action if I'm going to save the caucuses in 2028," Kaufmann said.

But the parties stand to enter new territory with two different calendars in 2024. Democrats will likely have a non-competitive first primary in South Carolina if President Biden runs for re-election. Rachel Paine Caufield is a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. She says President Biden has a major competitive advantage in the DNC's proposed map.

"I suspect this favors establishment candidates that can amass huge war chests of money," Caufield said. "It really unleashes a whole bunch of new legal and logistical questions about where resources will be deployed."

It becomes even more complicated if the DNC chooses to do what the president has suggested and have the DNC rework its calendar every four years. If that manifests, the order of states could become more of a political calculation than an ode to tradition. One thing looks certain, Republican presidential hopefuls will still be at that starting line in Iowa in 2024 even if Democrats are trying out a new course.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.
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