There is no better place to explore a presidential run than Iowa. Or to sit one out.
The state that has long attracted national aspirants is emerging as a magnet for Democrats eager to ride an early wave of attention in 2018 without going all out for 2020 in the process.
Following Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign, leaders have frequented Iowa with one thing in mind: the White House. But as the lead up to November continues to attract widespread activity from Democrats, some insiders say the old end goal may be shifting, and that an earlier and bigger flurry of activity is a testament to that.
“It’s like an ongoing mini national convention,” Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist in Des Moines, said about the state's changing role in politics. “A lot of people go to the national convention not to be nominated for president.”
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a progressive with strong working-class roots, is the latest to join a little-watched group of more than a dozen Democrats who are challenging the conventional wisdom that leaders only touch down in the Hawkeye State with plans to seek the highest office.
Walsh, whose second term ends in 2022, is scheduled to appear at the state fair in Des Moines—one of seven events he plans to log while in town.
"It's interesting that Marty Walsh would pay a visit to Iowa,” said Dan Kennedy, a Boston-based media and politics critic. “By all accounts, he wants to be mayor of Boston for some time to come.”
“Perhaps he has a future run for governor in the back of his head, but president? Highly unlikely.”
Before Walsh, news broke that another New England leader, first-term Sen. Maggie Hassan from neighboring New Hampshire, would be the featured speaker at an Iowa Democratic Party event in Dubuque later this month.
Hassan, a former two-term governor who successfully ousted Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016, will speak at “Back to Blue Women for Iowa” on Aug. 26.
But strategists caution against reading too much into her trip.
“This is the first time I remember people coming who you really didn’t think were running,” said Andy McGuire, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman.
“I know Maggie pretty well and I certainly don’t think so,” she added about Hassan exploring a presidential campaign.
With dozens of trips logged over the past 18 months by Democrats from both wings of the party, Walsh, Hassan, and a growing slate of others—from members of Congress to Alec Baldwin—are giving credence to the thought that in a changing political climate, not running could be the new running. And Iowa may be the right place to do it.
Among elected officials, Reps. Adam Schiff and Ro Khanna of California, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii may also fit that mold.
“Cecile Richards falls into that category” too, Link said about the former Planned Parenthood president, who headlined the Polk County Democratic Party's annual women’s event in downtown Des Moines last month.
Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and a cable news mainstay, traveled to Cedar Rapids in May for a Back to Blue event, while Khanna, a young progressive, headlined a Des Moines fundraiser for Pete D’Alessandro, who is running in the 3rd District.
Bustos, a cochair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, headlined the state’s annual Steak Fry in Polk County nearly a year ago but didn’t receive the same 2020 speculation as fellow Reps. Seth Moulton and Tim Ryan, who have taken steps typically associated with presidential runs.
Like Khanna, Gabbard is a progressive who aligns with Sen. Bernie Sanders. She drew some attention in October when she keynoted the Central Iowa Democrats’ fall barbecue, but the congresswoman, who easily won the primary last weekend for a fourth term in the House, has not attracted widespread speculation about national plans and has made only one trip to the state.
"It’s one thing to visit and it’s another to actually put it together," McGuire said.
Perhaps the starkest example of benefitting from the spotlight is Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state who broke with Iowa’s conventional orthodoxy when he announced a bid for Kansas City mayor after taking overt steps toward exploring a presidential campaign.
Kander, who told reporters he was considering a 2020 run, trekked to the state well over a dozen times, set up a Des Moines field office for his organization, Let America Vote, and poached one of the state’s top political reporters to serve as an aide. He enjoyed large-scale media coverage, with reporters chronicling his emphasis on Iowa since 2016.
But strategists note that his moves underscore the unpredictability of visiting the state now, especially in a riled-up Democratic landscape opposing President Trump.
“Maybe it’s just about the spotlight,” McGuire said. “You get a lot of use out of it. Your name gets a lot of places. Other people want to talk to you.”
The latest Democrats to test that theory recently flew in for a series of famed political events this month, including the Wing Ding and the state fair.
Three-term Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who has visited Iowa 10 times in the past year and a half, has left some wondering what he’s looking to do. Attorney Michael Avenatti, best known for defending porn star Stormy Daniels, fired up a crowd last week and said he was considering a 2020 run.
“It will be interesting to see if he’s in one category or the other,” Link said about Avenatti, who met with party leaders while he was in town, and is headed to New Hampshire later this week.
Still, if nothing else, operatives agree on one thing: It’s all good public relations.
“Usually before, if they came, they probably were running,” McGuire said. “I think there’s something different this time.”