Iowa Democrats had their biggest night of the year on Monday, both in terms of importance and size. Around 3,000 people turned out to see Alec Baldwin and the seven Democrats running for governor, an encouraging sign of excitement and resolve for the party hoping to regain power in 2018. If Democrats are successful next year in ousting Republican Governor Kim Reynolds, they may look back on this night as a major turning point. (Side note: apologies for getting this write-up done so late, my schedule got blown up yesterday.)
The evening also served as one of the last big chances for the seven Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls to make their mark in front of their largest crowd yet before the race enters its next phase in January. For months the candidates have jockeyed with each other for early endorsements and activist support, with Fred Hubbell and Nate Boulton emerging as the leading contenders in that time. The speeches were a chance for Cathy Glasson, Andy McGuire and John Norris to light a spark and break out into top tier (or for Hubbell and Boulton to solidify their positions).
So how did everyone do? Here’s what Starting Line thought.
Welcome Alec Baldwin To The Democratic Speaking Circuit
A lot of people weren’t sure what to think when Iowa Democrats announced the famous actor would headline the party’s biggest fundraiser. It was a big departure from the usual selection of an up-and-coming national political figure who might run for president. Comedians often come with their own baggage, though Baldwin has delighted the left with his Donald Trump impersonation on SNL. And would he be funny? Serious? Is he thinking of running for office?
It turns out he did a little bit of everything on Monday night, and he ended up being one of the most effective and entertaining speakers Iowa Democrats have had in years.
It started off with a monologue on fake Trump University classes, played a recent SNL skit, mocked Trump with impressions, but then turned personal, with Baldwin describing why he’s a Democrat and what the party has to do going forward. Baldwin was particularly effective at doing something many candidates and party leaders can’t or won’t do from a stage like that: be brutally honest about the party’s problems. And he finished with a great call to action, telling the crowd that being a Democrat isn’t something you are, it’s something you do, adding a few criticisms of those who don’t volunteer enough.
His best and most helpful pitch of the night was insisting that everyone in attendance make a pledge that night to support whichever gubernatorial candidate wins the primary, whether it was their preferred choice or not.
Iowa Republicans enjoyed dinging Democrats for bringing “Hollywood values” to their big stage, but whatever. It’s not like Baldwin is going to be barnstorming the state or showing up in ads for Democrats. Sometimes it’s just nice to have something fun and different at political functions. And Baldwin’s appearance was a fitting gift to all the new activists who got newly engaged in Iowa politics this year, many of whom might be more familiar with a comedy TV star than some politician with presidential hopes.
Baldwin’s performance did ensure one thing: Democrats should be seeing a lot more of him at fundraisers and party events around the country in the months to come. Maybe there’s some sort of ambition there for something bigger, but you did get the sense last night that he just wants to help out the party.
The Gubernatorial Field
There won’t be another crowd this large for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates to address before the primary in June, so each campaign came to play. The huge pre-event rallies by Nate Boulton and Fred Hubbell were stark reminders of just what a massive undertaking these kind of campaigns are. Both resembled presidential-level efforts at past Jefferson-Jackson dinners, organizing bands, glow-in-the-dark signage, distributing t-shirts and tickets, planning chants and leading big marches into the convention hall. About half of the record turnout for a non-caucus party fundraiser was generated by the two front-runners. Boulton led close to a thousand chanting supporters, including many labor members and younger Iowans, into the main event.
John Norris also held a get-together for supporters before the event, and Norris, Cathy Glasson and Andy McGuire’s campaigns bought smaller sections of the bleachers for their cheering supporters. Many campaigns had creative, lighted signage to show up in the dark hall.
Norris suggested the big showings for Boulton and Hubbell were manufactured momentum, adding in his speech, “Our campaign’s not about buying expensive tables and seats at the table. It’s about providing a seat at the table of government for every Iowan.” He’s right that the winning campaigns will have a lot more to do with their message to voters in the final weeks of the primary than one impressive night at a party fundraiser. Still, the evening was a reminder of the kind of organizational lead the other candidates will have to overcome if they hope to surpass Boulton and Hubbell down the stretch.
Thankfully, everyone came with fresh versions of their campaign pitches (it’s been odd in the past when many of the candidates kept giving their introductory speech to activists who’ve seen them many times before).
In terms of those speeches, Boulton seemed to stand out the most with a combative delivery that previewed his opposition to Republicans’ plans for the upcoming legislative session, while Norris likely did the most to help himself move up in the competition. It was a little difficult to tell just how well any one speech won over the audience considering that well over a majority of the crowd had already chosen their candidate.
Boulton’s theme was “stand up” and “fight back,” weaving the call-and-response throughout his pitch, which worked well since about a third of the audience was supporting him. In doing so he helped position himself once again as the leader of the party’s resistance up at the Statehouse. That will pay dividends once he starts to own news coverage in Iowa politics again from his speeches on the Senate floor.
“While we have been proud to stand up to their agenda, to win in 2018 we must talk about our plan to fight back, and I’m introducing a plan of action in the Legislature to do just that,” Boulton said. “When they try to dismantle IPERS for hundreds of thousands of Iowans, we fight back to not only protect IPERS, but offer more Iowans access to pensions.”
He also made a notable appeal to party unity, trying to focus activists’ attention on the important outward fight over the internal party divisions.
“This is more important than who you caucused for in 2016 or even who you choose in this primary in 2018,” he said. “Because we are all Iowans. When we stand up and fight back as a united Democratic Party, we not only win in 2018, we deliver a victory for our state’s future.”
That sounds good to party activists tired of the vitriol that continued to hamper Democrats after the 2016 election and who are more interested in recreating the successful elections of earlier this month. It’s also key to Boulton’s success in a primary – drawing from all corners of the Democratic base to build a coalition of labor, young people and Clinton and Sanders supporters to get to a win.
Hubbell took the stage to cheers from a large contingent of fans in the stands and at tables, but wasn’t able to match Boulton in delivery. It was still a productive speech, positioning himself once again as uniquely qualified with his managerial experience to take on all the messes Iowa finds itself in.
“In these troubled times, Iowa needs a governor who has demonstrated leadership success in the public and private sectors,” Hubbell said. “A governor with a proven track record of delivering results for people. And a governor who is a lifelong progressive with a commitment to transparency and fairness.”
He had a couple fun lines as well, calling on Democrats, “hinged and unhinged,” to come together (a reference to Reynolds’ much-maligned quip), and noting that it would be the first election with Terry Branstad not on the ballot. Hubbell also stressed unity themes, though his was more about statewide cooperation for the general election, rather than the primary. His pitch seemed more designed to show off his potential appeal to the whole electorate, though he still needed to hit some of his applause lines with a little more oomph to get the party’s faithful more excited for him in the present.
Norris gave what seemed to be a well-received message. He, Glasson and McGuire are all trying to break into the top tier of competition with Hubbell and Boulton, and Norris made some improvement in that effort. His speech was part personal (noting his father passed away this year and talking about how he saw politics), part experience (relating his work on social justice causes) and part policy (listing off wages, healthcare and education priorities).
“I lost my dad this year,” Norris said. “He never had wealth, but he taught me to lead a rich life. Be grateful for what you have, fight for those less fortunate. Those with wealth will be just fine. But greed – greed made him angry. It makes me angry too. And greed controls our government today.”
Cathy Glasson did what Cathy Glasson often does – give a high-energy barn-burner with plenty of progressive policy ideas stuffed in it. This one emphasized a “We hear you” line repeatedly, trying to show how her candidacy could help Democrats rebuild trust among working Iowans distrustful of politics. It was also a particularly well-written speech, with a couple nice flourishes near the end of it.
“I’m running for governor to be your voice,” Glasson said. “So your demand for change carries from this room and echoes through all 99 counties. So it rattles the windows in the corporate suites, rumbles through each chamber of the state house, and roars into the Governor’s mansion. A thundering wake up call.”
Glasson’s performance was another good example of how she’s completely dominated the furthest-left lane in the primary in both policies and tenor. That message will either win over the party’s primary-going base or it won’t, but she’s certainly owning that part of the race.
McGuire, who was leading nights like these just a year ago as IDP chair, gave one of the most amped-up speeches she’s done at an event, hoping to pick up some momentum as the year comes to an end.
“Right now I am disgusted with our government,” McGuire said. “Governor Kim Reynolds and Bill Dix have taken no ownership for their part in an unacceptable culture of harassment, discrimination and retribution. Iowa taxpayer’s are on the hook for $1.75 million. How many of you have felt the sting of harassment in your life? I too have felt the pain of not being valued. As Governor I will change a culture that says it’s okay to harass and abuse another and get away with it.”
McGuire ticked off a long list of Democratic issues in her five-minute speech, looking to find something every activist cares about. The placement of the event’s teleprompter underneath the stage made the delivery a little awkward at times.
The two long-shot candidates, Ross Wilburn and Jonathan Neiderbach, bookended the gubernatorial speeches. Wilburn had noticeably improved as a speaker in just the several months he’s been running, giving a strong speech that related the perseverance that Iowa City showed after a tornado and how those values should guide Iowa’s government. He was also one of the few who specifically criticized school voucher programs. Several people after the event said Wilburn impressed them enough to learn more about him. Neiderbach’s performance was fine, but didn’t bring much new material from his past speeches. Though he has some specific issues like legalizing cannabis, he hasn’t done enough to convince left-leaning voters why they should pick him over the more fiery Glasson (who is just as far to the left on almost all of the same policies).
Contrast Messages Come Out
The night also saw several of the candidates taking subtle and not-so-subtle swings at one another. Boulton put in a few jabs at his competition on both sides.
“Like you, I didn’t wait for Terry Branstad to leave town to fight back. When others were on the sidelines, I was there to stand with you and fight for you,” Boulton said, which seemed to contrast the senator’s leadership on legislative fights during session to Hubbell and possibly Norris’ later entrance into the race this year.
“No amount of frustration, of shouting, no protests will matter if we don’t deliver a victory in 2018,” he added, seeming to knock Glasson on his left.
Norris made the aforementioned hit on the Boulton and Hubbell campaigns’ huge presence at the dinner, suggesting the competition was trying to buy out the race before most voters began to pay attention.
And labor union members seated at dinner tables near the stage also made this dislike of Hubbell clear, holding up spoons as he spoke (suggesting the “silver spoon” criticism). It was an odd protest as it seemed to take aim at Hubbell simply for his wealth. Yes, Hubbell was born into a wealthy family, but he’s conducted himself in life much as any Democrat would hope a rich businessman would – by using that money to help the less fortunate through funding environmental, mental health and women’s reproductive health causes. Typically, Democrats are skeptical of the rich because with that wealth often comes greed and an anti-worker mindset. But no one has made the case that Hubbell’s businesses mistreated their employees or that he’s going to advance conservative, anti-worker policies if elected.
A Successful Event
By simply attendance alone, the IDP’s Fall Gala was a considerable achievement. It was the largest crowd outside of the presidential caucus years. Aside from some hiccups with the audio and a sign language interpreter that could’ve been better displayed on the screen, the event flowed well. Feedback from most attendees afterward was that it was one of the most enjoyable Fall Gala/JJ Dinner in many years. There were a few critics, which Starting Line will have more to say on shortly.
by Pat Rynard