After some quiet early months following the 2016 elections, the Democratic field to take on Kim Reynolds (or maybe Ron Corbett) is quickly taking shape. Last week Representative Todd Prichard officially launched an exploratory committee for governor and appears to be all-in. Senator Nate Boulton spoke at Scott County Democrats’ annual fundraiser this weekend and sounds increasingly likely to run. And Andy McGuire, who had perplexed some Iowa political insiders by not announcing already, has reportedly hired Maura Tracy as her campaign manager [update: or perhaps not. That didn’t last long] and is shooting an announcement video this week.
This weekend a new name emerged from Eastern Iowa: Mike Matson, a former Army Ranger, current JROTC instructor, local American Legion commander and a five-term alderman on the Davenport City Council.
That adds to Jonathan Neiderbach, who has already announced, and Rich Leopold, who has an exploratory committee.
But even with those potential additions, the field seems far from settled.
Representative Chris Hall has been making the rounds at several county Democratic events and on political TV shows. He’s getting strong encouragement from his Sioux City base to launch a statewide run, and has boosted his profile during this session by taking a lead on House Democrats’ messaging efforts.
Some people are bouncing around Jack Hatch’s name for another try at Terrace Hill. Hatch has been encouraging anyone who wants to enter the race to do so, but doesn’t appear to have ruled out a run himself. Unlike most others, he could probably wait until later on in the process to decide if he wanted to get in the race.
The former Bernie Sanders activist crowd may still be looking around for a standard bearer of their own, with Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry’s name coming up as a potential recruit. Neiderbach is hoping to win over that group, however.
And the biggest missing puzzle piece remains to be Senator Janet Petersen and what she decides to do. Encouraged by many Planned Parenthood supporters to consider a run after her defense of women’s healthcare this session, Petersen has been increasingly outspoken on several other key progressive issues on the Senate floor. But she hasn’t been making appearances in other parts of the state like the other possible candidates.
How could it all shake out?
Given the dynamics of the emerging field, Iowa Democrats seem to be hurtling toward a McGuire nomination. Not from a groundswell of grassroots support for the former IDP chair, but because it’s looking increasingly likely that she could be the only female candidate in a six or seven-person field.
If her opposition turns out to be Todd Prichard, Nate Boulton, Jonathan Neiderbach, Rich Leopold and Mike Matson, she could potentially claim victory with something like 37% of the vote, consolidating enough support from female voters. If her team is smart, she’ll file for the ballot as Andrea McGuire.
Also consider what the rest of the primary ballot may look like. Tom Miller and Mike Fitzgerald for their (likely) uncontested nominations. A primary for Secretary of State that could be between Nathan Blake and Travis Weipert. Rob Sand will probably run for State Auditor, and Des Moines activist William Rock may as well. There’s chatter that Tim Gannon, who worked in Tom Vilsack’s USDA, is considering a run for Secretary of Agriculture.
That’s a lot of men on the statewide ballot. Congressional candidates Abby Finkenauer (1st), Kim Weaver (4th) and Anna Ryon (3rd) will be options for many voters, but it’s still a male-heavy slate.
And McGuire will have plenty of funds to put together a serious operation. She’s expected to pitch herself as a doctor, a mother and a successful business executive.
While many activists weren’t happy with parts of her tenure as IDP chair, those stories aren’t well-known to the larger Democratic voting base. 152,000 Democrats came out for the last competitive gubernatorial primary in 2006 – the vast, vast majority of those people aren’t aware of the behind-the-scenes IDP controversies. Her primary opponents, however, will have plenty of other potential hits in their McGuire opposition research file that they can use over the course of the campaign.
For right now, the other Democrats with the best chance of success appear to be Prichard and Boulton.
Prichard has worked the early stage of the race the hardest, constantly on the road for Democratic events across the state. He’s put together an impressive team of advisers, including Brad Anderson, Marcia Nichols, Norm Sterzenbach, Troy Price and Sue and Bob Dvorsky. A significant amount of the political insider crowd in Des Moines has quickly coalesced around Prichard’s candidacy, seeing his rural and veteran background as the key to a much-needed statewide victory for Democrats. He’s also come off as a relatable and authentic candidate in his stump speech with his humor and comfortable speaking style.
But while Prichard’s early outings have encouraged activists and donors about his candidacy, he hasn’t blown them away to the extent that it’s frozen out other potential contenders. Now that he’s formed his exploratory committee, he can also work to prove himself on his fundraising ability. Prichard hasn’t needed to raise serious funds in his past runs for Iowa House, and there’s some who are waiting to see if he can put together the millions of dollars needed for a gubernatorial campaign.
The person who could quickly raise a lot of money is Boulton, possibly even enough to rival McGuire’s early commitments. He has deep connections to two of the party’s best donor bases: unions and trial attorneys. His father is a leader with the Iowa Steelworkers union. Boulton took the lead on both collective bargaining and workers compensation in the Senate this year, despite being a freshman legislator. Many of Iowa’s labor unions would probably fall in line were Boulton to run, and he could likely pull in significant national labor money.
He’s also getting a lot of encouragement from his fellow senators, to the extent that it sounds like most of the Senate Democratic caucus would endorse Boulton en masse soon after an announcement. They’ve seen his impressive oratory and leadership up close all year, and for people seeking a candidate that could get the base really excited, Boulton might be their man. Plus he has solid progressive credentials, and even got endorsed by CCI in his 2016 primary.
The big sticking point for some is whether this is the right year for him to run for governor. After Donald Trump carried Iowa by 10 points, some are worried of whether an attorney from Des Moines is the best profile. Others question whether his fast, early success in the Senate is proof of his potential long-term success or simply a case of luck and good timing to enter office right as his main issues are the most prominent.
But Boulton could run as the kid from Columbus Junction (where he grew up) who’s been fighting for working-class Iowans his entire life. Of course, Republicans still get a chance to define their opponents, and it might be a bit easier to go after Boulton’s profile than Prichard’s rural, veteran one.
If Democrats do like the veteran profile, they may get another option with Matson, who could emerge as an interesting dark horse contender if everything falls into place. Eastern Iowa doesn’t have a candidate yet, and Matson might be able to start off with a solid base of support in Scott County (coming at the expense of Davenport native Prichard). Still, with three other major candidates in the race, he’ll need to impress people in a big way in order to attract major donors and quality campaign staff.
Whether Matson moves beyond the promising stage will be seen as he starts to campaign around Iowa. Many political insiders were intrigued by Leopold’s chances when he first announced, but the interest around him has tapered off some. Several of the political operatives who were advising Leopold early on have since moved on to Prichard, and there’s questions of whether Leopold can raise significant money. Neiderbach already took himself out of that conversation by pledging to not accept any contribution over $500.
The race will really kick off in earnest once the Legislature adjourns for the year, probably in just a few weeks. Legislators will have ample time to travel the state to test out their message and gauge support, while McGuire’s official campaign will be finally underway. For a race that has no obvious or overwhelming frontrunner, the race could shift back and forth in these early stages – which will be fun to watch for activists, donors and reporters alike.
by Pat Rynard