Just a couple months ago, Iowa Democrats were wondering if we’d have more than one or two candidates in the race for governor in 2018. Now, about one year out from the primary, we’re up to nine contenders who have either officially declared or have set up an exploratory committee. Of the four people exploring (Mike Matson, Fred Hubbell, John Norris and Cathy Glasson), Hubbell sounds certain to do a full run and Glasson is extremely likely. Norris should make an official decision very soon.
Where will this incredibly crowded field leave Democrats next year? Quite possibly in a contested state convention in late June that decides who the party’s top-of-ticket nominee is.
By Iowa law, a candidate must receive 35% of the vote in a primary to win their party’s nomination. If they don’t, a nominating convention made up of party activists elected through Iowa’s caucus process chooses them. This is how David Young became a member of Congress despite coming in 5th place in the 2014 Republican primary. Brad Zaun got 25% in the primary, but Young slowly climbed his way up at a special 3rd District convention. Steve King was first nominated in a similar manner in 2002, though he came in first in the actual primary with 31% of the vote.
As the Democratic field continues to develop, it’s not hard to see how the party could face just such a convention in 2018. Obviously, some of the nine candidates are going to stand out above the others and lead the pack. But many in the field are starting to develop a certain niche of support that is likely to stick with them throughout a long primary, making it difficult for anyone to hit the magic 35% number.
Nate Boulton will command the lion’s share of labor union support. He’s also quickly developed a loyal following among young professionals and has a lot of interest from the most-engaged activists paying attention this early.
John Norris’ old buddies may not run the party machinery anymore, but he has a lot more longterm support around Iowa than many people may realize. His decades in various Iowa government and political positions made him a lot of friends, and many of them are now in that age range of voters who turn out in primaries. Consider this: in the 2016 Democratic primary between Rob Hogg and Patty Judge, 79% of the vote came from people 50 years old or older. With higher interest and turnout in the 2018 race, it probably won’t be skewed that much, but it’s a reminder of how the electorate does not resemble Boulton’s youthful support.
Fred Hubbell’s huge personal financial advantage will ensure that every potential Democratic primary voter hears more from him than they do anyone else. There’s chatter in Iowa political circles this week that Hubbell could put in $12 million for the primary alone, more than enough for a massive field effort and to be on TV starting in January.
Todd Prichard should rack up some numbers in parts of rural Iowa as the only candidate currently living in a small town. His electability appeal will be convincing to Democrats across the state.
Andy McGuire is already making a strong pitch to female voters and Planned Parenthood supporters, penning an op-ed in the Register a few weeks back about anti-choice legislation that was signed into law. That, combined with her ability to self-finance at least a decent part of her race, gives her a base of support.
Newly-announced Cathy Glasson could cut into McGuire’s advantage with women, but that’s not actually Glasson’s angle in this race. She kicked off her candidacy with a clear appeal to the party’s left, and could draw a lot of attention from the former Bernie Sanders crowd. If she gets serious financial investment from SEIU (the healthcare workers’ union) and develops a full, professional campaign, she could be seen as the most progressive candidate with a real shot of winning.
Rich Leopold will be working the outsider lane as well, shooting for the Sanders and environmentalist vote. Mike Matson could make a big electability pitch, win over veterans and lock down part of Scott County. Jon Neiderbach is also aiming for the party’s left and policy wonks with his issue-oriented approach.
So as you can see, it’s quite conceivable how many of the candidates could come into the June primary with at least a 10% to 15% base of support. Add one or two who get up to 25% or even 30%, and it’s tough to see how the math works out for someone to win outright.
At this very early stage, Boulton and Hubbell seem like the best-positioned to win the primary outright, but we’re an awfully long way out with a lot of campaigning still to go.
Some believe the field will narrow by next year, with some dropping out due to a lack of funds or momentum, making it easier for someone to hit 35%. However, the longer this many candidates stay in, the more incentive each one has to stick it out through the primary. Because even if you don’t think you’re going to come in first, as long as it goes to convention, all bets are off – you have another chance where money is a much, much smaller factor.
So what happens then? A crowded convention hall of Democratic activists (usually somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 in past years) gather for the state convention and choose the nominee.
But first let’s back up and explain how they get there.
The 2018 state convention is set up much like the 2016 caucus convention. Precinct caucuses are held in either January or February where Democrats come together to select delegates to send up to the county convention level. In presidential caucus years, these see huge turnouts thanks to the presidential campaigns, attendees break out into preference groups, and the locations are spread out throughout each county. In non-presidential years, these caucuses are usually low-key, consolidated into a handful of locations in each county, preference groups aren’t necessarily used, and it functions more like a party organizational meeting where you find leaders to head up their local precincts.
This year will likely be much different. With the real potential of a contested convention, who gets selected at these precinct caucuses – both for actual delegate positions and for credentials and rules committees – could be the people who decide the party’s nominee. Boulton and McGuire’s campaigns are reportedly already working on caucus organizing plans, and Prichard’s operation is stocked with caucus veterans.
After delegates are selected at the precinct caucus, they go on to the county caucuses, typically held in March. That’s where the delegates for the next level – district and state – are narrowed down even more. Congressional district caucuses will occur in April, but those won’t have any bearing on the gubernatorial race.
And then comes the big one. The Iowa Democratic Party will likely hold the state convention in mid to late June, probably two or three weeks following the June 5th primary.
What process will be used to select the nominee? That’s up to the Rules Committee, whose members are selected along the same process as the delegates. Campaigns will want to line up their supporters for those slots as well in case they think a certain method of voting could give them an advantage. Nominations could simply come from the floor – meaning anyone could get nominated at that point – or the Rules Committee could restrict it to only people who competed in the primary. They could institute an Instant Voting Runoff style, or they could do a multiple round approach, where the bottom candidate is dropped and delegates re-vote.
But that’s not all!
It’s unclear at the moment how the lt. governor nominee would work out. In 2010 conservative activists tried to replace Kim Reynolds on Terry Branstad’s ticket at the Republican state convention. If a Democratic convention could vote on the running mate, that could complicate things as well. Perhaps a faction of delegates don’t get their preferred gubernatorial nominee and instead work to get him or her in the number two spot instead. Or candidates could make a deal on the floor to form a ticket.
That would make for weird considerations prior to the primary. In past cycles, some – though not all – of the gubernatorial nominees have announced and campaigned on a ticket several months out from the primary election. Andy McGuire was Mike Blouin’s running mate in 2006. Patty Judge was a gubernatorial candidate herself until dropping out and joining up with Chet Culver before the primary vote.
Would Democrats pair up before June 5th this time if there was a possibility their choice could get switched out by delegates at the convention? On the other hand, would not picking a lt. governor be seen as a sign of weakness, in that the candidate doesn’t believe they can win outright? Basically, who knows how that could play out.
The biggest danger in all of this is the potential for a nasty, divisive, behind-the-scenes backstab fest between all the state’s top Democrats. The party is still seeing the consequences of the bitter 2016 presidential primary. Most people will want to avoid that at all costs – and some activists will have to decide whether some of the top contenders are really that different on core issues from one another, especially considering that losing to Reynolds would likely mean the destruction of the Democratic Party in Iowa for decades.
The candidates will have to be mindful, too. Remember that David Young was credited with his surprising convention win because he essentially had the least enemies.
So play nice, folks.
by Pat Rynard