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Iowa Democrats have made their final pitch to keep the caucuses first

IDP Chair Ross Wilburn makes a case to keep the Iowa caucuses first in the nation before the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee in Washington D.C. on June 23, 2022.
Clay Masters
IDP Chair Ross Wilburn makes a case to keep the Iowa caucuses first in the nation before the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee in Washington D.C. on Thursday.

Iowa Democrats have made their final case to keep their caucuses first in the order of nominating a presidential candidate. The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee had states apply for the early window and the committee that sets the calendar heard their presentations this week.

Delegations from 16 states and Puerto Rico made their pitches before a large group of powerful national Democrats. Some brought high-profile politicians from their states; others had produced videos and a couple even brought bags of souvenirs.

The traditional early states of New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina were there. As well as new Midwest states trying out like Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, where Democrats have performed better than Iowa for top-of-the-ticket Democrats in recent elections. When it was Iowa’s turn to present, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn told the committee that it was time for the caucuses to change.

A time to change the caucuses

“We recognize that the caucuses as they have been conducted since the 1970s are no longer aligned with a vibrant and just 21st century democracy,” Wilburn said, flanked by former IDP chair Scott Brennan and House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst. “In order to continue growing our party, we need to make changes.”

Throughout the year, members of this committee have been panning the caucuses in their meetings for not being as inclusive as a primary election. The debacle of the delayed 2020 Iowa caucus results only added fuel to their fire. Wilburn highlighted the fundamental changes they’ve proposed. A caucus-goer would request a presidential preference card and then have 14 to 28 days to either mail it back or return it in-person.

The explanation of the new caucus process brought forward a lot of questions from members.

“Does New Hampshire believe that just because you say it's a caucus, it is a caucus?” asked RBC member Elaine Kamarck , who noted what they were describing sounded a lot like a primary election. “Because if it looks like a primary, traditionally, the state of New Hampshire is said, no, no, no, you can't go first.”

Scott Brennan, who also serves on the Rules and Bylaws Committee told her that Iowa has a state law that says it has to hold the first caucus in the country, just as New Hampshire has a law that makes it the first primary state.

“We're constrained by Iowa code Senate Bill 43.4 and Nevadais apparently constrained by its new state law,” Brennan said. “We are focused on complying with our state law, which mandates we are a caucus and we believe that what we have proposed meets the requirements of Iowa code section 43.4.”

More competitive states early in the process

But this DNC committee’s hunger for shaking the calendar up isn’t just about how votes are cast. They also want states going early that are competitive in the general election. Iowa has been trending Republican over the last decade. Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst pointed out Iowa’s voter registration remains a third Republican, a third Democratic and a third no party.

She noted that three of the state’s four congressional districts are consistently toss-ups and that the GOP are holding their caucuses first in Iowa, and that affects the state’s competitiveness up and down the ticket.

“Every time a Republican candidate comes to Iowa and visits the district of one of my members or one of my candidates, they're building an organization on the other side,” Konfrst said. “And they are building enthusiasm and engagement among voters that isn't going to change.”

In fact, Republicans are already testing the presidential waters are in Iowa.
The Iowa group also talked about the cheap media markets that make it easier for lower profile candidates to run for president.

Other Midwest states make the case for their more diverse population

A big hurdle for Iowa making the cut is its lack of racial and ethnic diversity. While they talked about the pockets of diversity within the state's overwhelmingly white population, other Midwest states in the running like Minnesota had the upper hand.

“We are proud that Minnesota is home to the world's largest Somali diaspora, the nation's largest Liberian and Karen populations, and the second largest Hmong population in the country,” said Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan. “As well as 11 federally recognized tribal nations, which represent some of the largest Native populations in the Midwest.”

Flanagan also noted she’s the highest ranking Native American woman to serve in elected office in the country.

Michigan’s Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist also highlighted his state’s diversity.

“The reason that it’s the best is because we are the most representative and what you do in Michigan can and will translate and scale nationally,” Gilchrist said during his state’s presentation.

Expect a decision later this summer

How did Iowa stack up against all this competition?

Committee member Mo Elleithee has been one of the sharpest critics of Iowa. He says he gives them a lot of credit for reimagining the caucus process and coming up with something different.

“Whenever there is something new, the devils in the details, and that raises a lot of questions about the execution and what it really looks like and all the details,” Elleithee said. “And I think the line of questioning today from some of my colleagues on the committee reflects that.”

But there is not a lot of time between now and when they need to have a recommendation of which four or five states should start. While members on this committee seem ready for a change, Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn told reporters after their presentation the current window still works.

“We’re not just talking about tradition for tradition’s sake, we're talking about effectiveness,” Wilburn said. “And the four early states with Iowa have been a great barometer for how the country feels and has been effective at getting candidates elected for president and that trickling down to other offices.”

A final decision from this committee is expected later this summer and any new state in the mix would likely have to work it out with their Republicancounterparts. The RNC is keeping the calendar status quo. The Iowa Democratic Party says they’re committed to keeping Iowa first but no matter what happens, they’ll find out if the case they made this week was strong enough to keep Iowa early or lose their prized place they’ve had in American politics this last half-century.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.