The Iowa House Party

Reps. Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, and Cheri Bustos are headlining the revival of the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry.

Reps. Seth Moulton (left) and Tim Ryan (right) will be among the speakers at the Polk County, Iowa, Democrats' steak fry on Saturday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Hanna Trudo
Sept. 28, 2017, 8 p.m.

Iowans tend to get fired up for big-name Democrats, especially at the decades-old steak fry, set to be held Saturday at Water Works Park in Des Moines.

In 2006, Barack Obama met an adoring crowd and stoked speculation about his presidential intentions. Plenty were ready for Hillary Clinton on her return trip in 2014.

This time, now two years out from the run-up to the presidential caucuses, party leaders in Polk County opted for a trio of House members to fill coveted speaking slots at their September event, long considered a magnet for Democrats seeking a national stage.

It’s no doubt a “testing ground for national leadership,” Sean Bagniewski, the event’s organizer and chair of the county’s Democratic Party, said of Saturday’s event.

It’s been awhile since the political cookout, started in the early 1970s to help Tom Harkin’s first congressional campaign, featured headliners without much national clout yet. Since Harkin launched a presidential bid in the early 1990s, progressives from Joe Biden to John Edwards have signed on to speak. Bernie Sanders made the trek from Vermont just a few years back.

But this isn’t Harkin’s gig anymore. The event was left dormant after he gave up hosting in 2014, just before retiring from the Senate—leaving room for a “big old-fashioned political revival” to emerge, Bagniewski said.

Saturday’s slate includes Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a Rust Belter who challenged Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last November; Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a Harvard-educated former military officer; and Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a journalist-turned-politician set on flipping red states blue.

Still angered over last year’s presidential loss—when Iowans chose Donald Trump over Clinton by nearly double digits—some Democrats suggest residents may no longer flock to establishment favorites, creating an opening for lesser-known politicians to shake hands years before the next national race.

Democrats “will come buy a ticket for somebody they haven’t heard of” over “the same people they’ve heard for the last 20 years,” Bagniewski said. They’re “really hungry for new names, new faces, new ideas.”

In an interview with National Journal, Ryan said he’s excited to see younger Democrats “moving into positions of power and influence.”

“There’s a lot of excitement in Iowa right now,” he said.

Ryan’s district went for Clinton last year but has moved sharply to the right since 2012, in part over economic issues. Ryan said he plans to “focus like a laser” on that during his speech. “I’m trying to provide some leadership in the party,” he said.

Iowa is another stop on Ryan’s travel log. He was in New Hampshire last month and will soon head to battlegrounds Wisconsin and Florida for Democratic fundraisers, he told National Journal.

Back in Polk County, party leaders had courted Bustos for five months, angling for someone who could speak about red-to-blue state issues, before they nailed down the slot.

“The fact that Donald Trump won the state of Iowa—I can relate to that because he won my district,” Bustos told National Journal.

Like Ryan, Bustos plans to push a jobs message in Des Moines. “It gets down to people feeling left behind,” she said. “It’s viewed that our party hasn’t focused on economic issues. That’s the trust that we have to win back.”

Bustos, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chair of heartland engagement and the cochair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, knows how to translate issues to a broad audience. Still, she suggests Democrats want something more from Washington. “They’re tired of people talking and not doing anything,” she said.

Ahead of Saturday, organizers said they are already expecting several hundred more attendees than anticipated. Before selecting the final “freshman class” of speakers, as Bagniewski calls them, party officials considered 60 people. They talked to a handful for months.

Some of the names initially floated come with early presidential speculation, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Chris Murphy. “We sought out some of the prominent 2020 folks,” Bagniewski said.

But ultimately, he made a different call: “Let’s stop the back-and-forth and just do the three people that we want,” he recalled saying.

Like Ryan and Bustos, Moulton was high on the newcomer list. A former Marine Corps officer who served four tours in Iraq, Moulton has grabbed national attention by focusing on veterans’ issues, a favorite subject of Trump’s during the election. And using his military influence, Moulton has personally recruited several strong House challengers this cycle, many of whom are veterans themselves.

“He’s just really smart,” Bagniewski said.

Moulton has thrown cold water on all presidential talk. Still, a trip to the steak fry could reignite rumors. He’s said “he wasn’t going to run for president this time and now he’s coming to Iowa,” Bagniewski said. “So, there’s some fun parallels there.”

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