If Fred Hubbell emerges Tuesday night as the Democrats’ nominee for governor, it will not simply be because he had the most money. His win won’t only be thanks to 2nd-place candidate Nate Boulton’s exit from the race two weeks out. Nor because the legislative session went late, the negative attacks on him were few or a convention never happened.
All of those things certainly helped shape the dynamics of the race. A lot. But what may have gone unnoticed by activists in social media circles, the county party crowd and others is just how extensively Hubbell traveled the state throughout the campaign.
He’s visited all 99 counties and has gone on over a dozen multi-stop statewide tours, hosting meet-and-greets, touring businesses and colleges and holding roundtable discussions. Every week for months he’s been on the road, visiting all those small, rural communities that Democrats complain their candidates don’t show up to enough.
This wasn’t guaranteed to be the case. When a wealthy businessman who could self-finance got in the race, some Democrats wondered if Hubbell would just sit back and let an overwhelming financial advantage do all the work. Many still accuse him of “buying” the primary with the over six million dollars he’s spent on the race so far (about half of which is his own; the rest he raised through donor calls and events – again, something he didn’t have to do if he didn’t want).
But Hubbell would likely not be in the position he’s in now had he not committed to a full, comprehensive campaign where he himself showed up for events with 10, 25 or sometimes 100 people and tried to win them over one at a time. Or, at the very least, this would be a much closer race.
Hubbell certainly got his fair share of flak from local activists who were upset that he skipped a decent number of forums and county party events. But his absence wasn’t because he was holed up in his Des Moines campaign office.
Instead, Hubbell had the capacity to hold his own events around the state, and so he did. With ten field organizers stationed around Iowa, Hubbell’s campaign could make all the calls necessary through a county’s Democratic base to invite them out to a Hubbell meet-and-greet. Some of the other candidates needed to go to pre-built party events to draw a large crowd in the smaller, rural counties. Hubbell could make his own crowds.
There’s pros and cons to such an approach, of course. On the plus side, you’re the only candidate there. You can engage with people on your vision, answer more questions and listen to voters’ stories and concerns. You’re not just limited to a five-minute speech or a dozen one-minute answers in a forum.
On the other hand, you may upset local party folks whose event you skip, sometimes you draw a lot of people who are already supporting you to your personal events and you miss the training for tough questions in public forums.
But the strategy fit Hubbell’s strengths. He can be very warm, engaging and thoughtful in smaller settings where he has conversations with people. He’s a much more compelling candidate there than the times where he reads from notes in forums. And he’s not exactly the best rah-rah speaker at a rally, to put it nicely.
It also just slowly built up his message and visibility with voters. Every small town stop usually had the local newspaper and radio reporters out at it. Those small press hits add up over time.
Starting Line followed along with several of those Hubbell events this past year. Early on, they were effective in locking in key local activists and community leaders. Roundtables he held over things like women’s healthcare access, water quality plans and Medicaid problems brought in issue leaders to show he cared about learning more about their topics. And the knowledge he picked up in those meetings better informed his stump speech elsewhere; he wasn’t simply rattling off poll-tested lines, but instead sounded like an informed, well-rounded candidate.
“I know what I don’t know,” Hubbell has often said at events around the state.
And things he didn’t know at first included how a lack of quality housing was badly hurting small towns’ efforts to grow and attract new residents. When he visited Iowa Falls back in November and took a tour of the local community college, the provost informed Hubbell it took him 15 months to find a decent house in town to buy. Hubbell also got a lesson on precision agriculture, with several students showing him how farmers were starting to use drones now to inspect their fields and detect infestations through infrared readings from the sky.
“These are pretty cool jobs these days. If you thought farming was always going to be the same, you were just going to be walking the beans all the time, it’s changing,” Hubbell said in a later interview. “But now you can go out there and it’s like a huge computer program you’ve got. Most of the students don’t know that. It’s the state of manufacturing. Welding jobs these days are very technical and require a lot of high math skills.”
Now when he visits small towns around the state, he’s a Democrat who actually sounds like he understands what rural communities are dealing with.
On one of his final trips of the primary campaign this past weekend, Hubbell stumped in Dubuque, Clinton and Davenport in an Eastern Iowa swing on Saturday.
“You have a candidate here who is not trying to be all things to all people,” State Representative Chuck Isenhart said as he introduced Fred and Charlotte Hubbell in Dubuque.
And while Hubbell is not always the most exciting speaker at these events, that authenticity has come through at most points. In his Dubuque and Davenport events, though, the vast majority of the crowd was older and consisted largely of the local Democratic establishment and long-time activists.
“The first governor I voted for was Harold Hughes,” one older woman proudly told Hubbell in Davenport.
He’ll need to expand that base for the general election to include younger Democrats and progressive activists, but it’s been enough for now in the primary. So too has been his main message of reversing Kim Reynolds’ actions and focusing on job training.
“We need Iowa to be known as the state that can attract the jobs for the businesses of the future because we have a well-trained, highly-educated, productive workforce, good quality of life and clean water,” he told the Davenport crowd. “Not just a bunch of big tax credits that we don’t need. We need to make sure that Iowa is known again as one of the states that has the best educational systems in our country … Now we’re known for stripping collective bargaining rights from our teachers.”
Hubbell saw good crowds at his final stretch of events. But those people didn’t turn out to see him simply because he had more TV ads or was filling their mailboxes every day with fliers. It’s because he built up a ground game for months and months, through personal visits and staff efforts that won Democrats over, one vote at a time.
And obviously, none of this is to say that other candidates’ travels weren’t important and effective or that they didn’t do just as much. Indeed, some of the remaining Democrats would point out they did even more local events.
But the point is that this race could’ve looked much different had Hubbell just stayed in Des Moines, let his ads do his work for him and taken it easy. Instead, he extensively traveled the state, learned a lot and made personal connections with local leaders and activists. That supplemented his paid advertising and solidified his advantage in the primary.
“Let’s get started early Wednesday morning taking on Governor Reynolds and winning this general election,” Hubbell closed his Davenport speech with.
If he’s the party’s nominee come tomorrow morning, a lot of Democrats who were very skeptical of him – thinking he was too out-of-touch, too distant, too moderate – will give Hubbell a new look. What they find may surprise them.
by Pat Rynard