The Democratic gubernatorial primary may very well have ended today when the Des Moines Register published a story of three women’s accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior they experienced from Senator Nate Boulton. The report from Brianne Pfannenstiel detailed encounters that three women had in bars where Boulton allegedly touched them in a sexual and unwanted manner.
Two incidents occurred when Boulton was in law school, one of which was with a fellow classmate, and was out at a bar. The other happened in 2015. Some situations involved Boulton allegedly being drunk, while others did not. The quotes and descriptions from the women will be particularly disturbing to many who read them.
The news will come as a shock to Boulton’s supporters and could drastically reshape the primary in the closing stage of the campaign. It will also add one more instance of an Iowa male politician coming under fire and facing consequences for past alleged inappropriate actions with women.
Boulton was asked specifically about a potential #MeToo moment in an interview with Dave Price on WHO-TV just recently.
“Can you tell Iowans that you can assure them that you would not face any kind of inappropriate accusations, credible allegations as a leader?” Price asked.
“Right, no, there’s nothing like that,” Boulton replied. “Though I will say that I have taken the extra step of making sure I stood up for victims. I’ve done that as a worker’s rights attorney for twelve years for victims of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.”
As a brief personal aside: I was friends with Sharon Wegner, one of the women in the story, in college and have known her for about 15 years. I personally don’t think people should be questioning these women’s stories in the first place, but if you want to know: Wegner is one of the most professional, credible and trustworthy people I know. She only takes a risk in telling this story. There seems to be no ulterior motives here, just someone who thought her experience with a candidate should be known to voters.
Boulton was quoted in the piece and responded in a statement.
“I want to clearly and unmistakably apologize to the women who have come forward,” said Boulton. “Regardless of the difference in my memory or the context of the situation, it is not my place to disqualify what these women felt at the time or in hindsight. While this is an embarrassing conversation for me to have today, I think it is important we have it, and I hope young men can learn about gauging conduct in social settings and continue to learn about and engage in the discussion.”
He and his campaign also made a point to stress that they believed behavior in social settings like at bars differ from some of the inappropriate behavior in work settings or where the man has some sort of power over the woman. He also vowed to continue campaigning for the June 5 primary.
That might be enough for some of Boulton’s most ardent supporters, who may question if some past incidents in bars is equal in offense to the sins that felled major Iowa Republican officials recently. To many others, it will not.
Impact On The Primary
In the immediate political picture, it’s an incredible development that comes two weeks before the Democratic primary for governor, a race in which Boulton has consistently polled at a solid second place. While Fred Hubbell enjoyed an 11-point lead in the latest Des Moines Register poll, no candidate broke 35% in it, the number needed to win outright on June 5 and avoid going to a state convention.
It wouldn’t take much for Hubbell to still get to that magic number, but Boulton had been seeing some real momentum in this final stretch. Over 70 people turned out to a rally for Boulton in Ames on Monday night, one in a series of statewide events that have brought out crowds of union members, young people and party activists.
This Register story will certainly halt that. Holding events and conducting press interviews will be very challenging with this cloud hanging over him. And it essentially ensures he will not secure the nomination, even if it does yet go to convention.
The #MeToo movement has become deeply intertwined in the larger progressive and Democratic community, and this situation will be a deal-breaker to many primary voters for the allegations alone. Those who are unsure may still worry there are other shoes to drop. That, of course, is an impossible situation for Boulton. How do you convince people there is nothing else to it, even if that may be the truth?
Others will wonder how much the story would hurt him in the general election. Democrats can afford few mistakes in their must-win matchup against Kim Reynolds, and a candidate with a story like this out there would be a liability going up against Iowa’s first female governor. Many Democratic primary-goers like several candidates. Today’s development may be enough for them to switch to someone else.
Others may want to stick with Boulton despite the news, and it will be interesting to see what the reactions are to it. It may take his supporters some time to process it all, as the details will come as a surprise to them. The general public saw little indication of character concerns in Boulton’s persona.
This news also means a contested convention is pretty much off the table at this point. Hubbell was already nearing 35%. Any fewer candidates – or significantly weakened candidates – means a less-fractured field, making it considerably easier for someone to win outright on June 5.
And Boulton’s support was more of a coalition of voters rather than some very specific subset of the party that might uniformly go toward one candidate. Instead, it’s more likely that Boulton’s voters will fragment among the remaining candidates. If Hubbell is able to pick up even a decent fraction of Boulton’s base, he should handily clear 35%.
On the other hand, an exodus of Boulton voters could boost some other candidate’s chances of emerging as the alternative to Hubbell right at the end. Fed up with scandals involving men, Democratic primary-goers may favor either of the two female candidates. Or John Norris, who is often referenced as many people’s second choice in the race, could quickly consolidate support and pitch himself as the unifying alternative.
Still, going from 5% or 12% to leap-frogging Hubbell and winning outright in the primary seems very difficult. Even more so considering nearly 12,000 Democrats have already voted early. Boulton’s campaign and union supporters have run an aggressive early vote push, so a good portion of those ballots may already be for him.
The immediate question is whether Boulton stays in the race after a day or two of tough press coverage on the topic. The next big matter after that will be what Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen will do. She has been out front on the the issue of sexual harassment at the Statehouse like none other, lambasting Bill Dix and Senate Republicans in her first address in the Senate as leader.
Democrats still hope to make Republican complicity in the Kirsten Anderson situation a major campaign issue for November. The Dave Jamison mess at the Iowa Finance Authority has given them a new line of attack on Kim Reynolds. Failing to react when one of their own legislators is accused of misconduct – even if it’s in a different setting from those Republican scandals – could undercut Democrats’ arguments.
The Register report will also be a warning sign to all other men in power in Iowa government, whether they be elected officials or staff. Past transgressions against women could be revisited at any time, even with just the stories of a handful of women who decide to go public.
Other news outlets may make a more concerted push to root out misbehavior from either elected officials or the taxpayer-paid staff who serve them. That could include, just as a completely random example, a scenario like top Statehouse staffers having an infamous night out at a Des Moines bar that was witnessed by many other patrons.
Regardless of all that potential fallout, the race for governor has changed substantially from where it was early this morning. Boulton’s chances of winning are gone, while Hubbell may well have cemented his victory today. And a promising newcomer to Iowa’s political stage, one who generated considerable excitement in his first years in the Senate, likely saw his rising star come to a halt.
Today is also Boulton’s birthday.
by Pat Rynard