Frequent Iowa traveler Martin O’Malley lent Nate Boulton a hand this week in his gubernatorial bid, endorsing the senator on Tuesday and holding a fundraiser for him in Des Moines on Friday tonight. It was an expected move for the 2016 presidential candidate, who was supported by Boulton during his Iowa Caucus bid.
But will O’Malley’s endorsement be the first of many of White House hopefuls choosing a side in Iowa’s many large primary fields? It depends.
The O’Malley and Boulton connection is unique: O’Malley had a tight-knit, fiercely loyal groups of supporters during the Iowa Caucus, Boulton among them. Most of Boulton’s campaign staff worked on O’Malley’s caucus operation, and their old network was helpful in getting things up and running for the gubernatorial run. No other Iowa candidate has quite that kind of connection with a potential 2020 presidential contender.
And getting involved in another state’s primary obviously carries plenty of risks. You could end up alienating all the other candidates’ supporters – either in the state or with national groups backing those opponents. The person you endorse might fade in the final stretch of the primary and lose, hold little influence afterward and give you nothing in return for your investment.
But that calculus may change for the 2020 Iowa Caucus depending on how the presidential field shapes up. If it turns into a total free-for-all, with 15 candidates or more in the running, you might only need to get to 20% in the caucus to come in first. In that type of situation, having a specific niche loyal to you might be more important than appealing to the entire electorate.
Democrats looking forward to 2020 might try to align themselves with an Iowa candidate who has the same kind of coalition of voters they hope to appeal to. Cathy Glasson is making a big play to win over many of the former Bernie Sanders activists. If she’s successful in that, someone who hopes to position themselves as the next Sanders progressive might lend a public hand to Glasson. A 2020er deep in the labor movement or a younger one who wants to make a point about a new generation of leadership might favor Boulton. Alternatively, candidates like John Norris, who has lots of old friends in the political world who might be lining up with a presidential hopeful, could reel in some national names.
The 2014 Republican U.S. Senate primary saw their side’s presidential contenders get involved in the five-way field that included Joni Ernst, businessman Mark Jacobs, radio host and professor Sam Clovis and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker. Rick Perry endorsed Whitaker, Rick Santorum sided with fellow Christian conservative Clovis, while Marco Rubio backed the eventual winner in Ernst.
Rubio didn’t get a return endorsement from Ernst when the Iowa Caucus rolled around, but he did get very important assistance behind the scenes from Ernst’s political network, opening up doors to activists he wouldn’t otherwise have.
Any more endorsements in the gubernatorial primary, however, are probably a long ways off. While people who read Starting Line have been following the race closely for months, in reality the candidates are only talking to a few thousand engaged activists right now. Turnout next June will likely be over 150,000. So we still have a long way to go, and the field could move around significantly between now and then, which will cause many potential presidential candidates to sit back and watch for a while. Plus, aside from O’Malley, very few 2020ers have even visited Iowa much so far this cycle.
What’s more likely is that those national figures will do some “donor direct” action, in which they get their donors from back home to send checks to Iowa candidates. That might include every candidate in a primary to help spread the good will around and build up favors for the next cycle.
If the governor’s race doesn’t see any more endorsements from 2020 hopefuls, the congressional contests could. Abby Finkenauer in the 1st District seems the most likely to receive outside help. She has some ties to Joe Biden, and the support of EMILY’s List might bring in some extra national names that are close to the group. A Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand or Amy Klobuchar endorsement might make sense here.
If Tom Harkin gets heavily involved in his former staffer Thomas Heckroth’s campaign he could put in some calls to his old senate colleagues (although most of the senators considering presidential runs have only been in the Senate a couple years).
Depending on how the 3rd District plays out, a female 2020 hopeful might align themselves with Theresa Greenfield or Cindy Axne. Pete D’Alessandro could very well get an endorsement from Bernie Sanders. And Biden could help Jim Mowrer in his Secretary of State primary.
by Pat Rynard