vision 2020

In Iowa, a Collision of Campaigns Before the Caucuses

The end of the signs is nigh. Photo: Stephen Maturen/AFP via Getty Images

No matter how often you’ve experienced Iowa during caucus season, the bizarre scale of the political scene strikes you every time.

On Saturday, I went to a multi-candidate event in a West Des Moines pizza joint hosted by AFSCME — the most politically powerful union in the state. I was there to catch Tom Steyer’s live (non-televised) act. When I arrived, Representative Ayanna Pressley was speaking on behalf of Elizabeth Warren. After Steyer did his pitch (“Labor was my first and best partner, and will be my last partner”), Dr. Jill Biden was on tap, with former governor Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, in tow. The AFSCME folks made some quick calculations to include Representative Anthony Brown — there to represent Pete Buttigieg. And as I chit-chatted with the Vilsacks, there was a big stir at the door and in walked Bernie Sanders, who did a quick five-minute hit-and-run.

That’s Iowa.

In a small, cordoned-off corner area of the restaurant, a group of AFSCME workers (chosen because they are still undecided going into Monday’s caucuses) sat and quizzed the candidates and surrogates, mostly on labor-relations issues. Iowa is one those states where unions, especially public-sector unions like AFSCME, have been under siege by Republican office-holders.

Outside this area, candidate staff, volunteers, and actual members of the voting public milled around, being periodically shushed by AFSCME folks. A lot of the people know each other from prior campaigns and from daily life in this part of the world. When the national political circus moves on from Iowa in a few days, some of them will move on to other states, but most will still be dealing with each other. That is one of the reasons for the Iowa-Nice tradition of stopping short of maximum viciousness during the run-up to the caucuses.

When Tom Vilsack steps up to introduce Jill Biden, he’s welcomed warmly as a guy who had been elected governor as “the labor candidate” before eventually ascending to Iowa’s favorite cabinet position, Secretary of Agriculture. When Vilsack was a young lawyer in Mount Pleasant, he’d been an active supporter of Biden’s abortive 1988 campaign. Sure, there are operatives and activists in any campaign whose allegiances are cold and mercenary. But for many of them, there is a backstory that goes back decades.

After Vilsack pitches Uncle Joe as the candidate best able to beat Trump and “heal this country,” the Biden entourage is swept out and Minnesota’s state auditor, Julie Blaha (introduced as a “sister” thanks to her labor background) stepped up to speak for Amy Klobuchar.

This campaign jumble is going on all over the state in these final few days.

When the presidential campaigns were done, Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic front-runner to take on potentially vulnerable Republican senator Joni Ernst, offered brief remarks. No preassembled audience goes to waste here.

As my wife, who spent some time in Iowa in politics and government, likes to say: “This time of the cycle, you can’t stir the candidates with a stick.” The winnowing of the Democratic field will soon begin, but for now, there is still plenty of hope to go around.

In Iowa, a Collision of Campaigns Before the Caucuses