In Iowa, Cory Booker's early work sets him apart

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker speaks at the RiverCenter in Davenport, Iowa, on Oct. 8. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Sen. Cory Booker joined President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton in the pages of a children’s book earlier this week.

As he mingled for selfies and hugs after delivering a speech on the stoop of a small home in a Des Moines suburb on Monday, a woman handed Booker a copy of “Woodrow, the White House Mouse” and asked him to sign it. She explained that the book was a gift for her child and that it had been signed by various politicians she met as they passed through the state.

The family’s unique political keepsake was evidence of the special status Iowa enjoys as the traditional home of the first presidential primary contest.

Booker spent Monday barnstorming the Hawkeye State. In four appearances campaigning for local Democrats, he drew large crowds and standing ovations. The response was likely a reflection of Booker’s reputation as a charismatic speaker and of widespread interest in next month’s midterm elections. But it also was boosted by the extensive groundwork Booker has begun in the state far ahead of many of the other high-profile potential 2020 hopefuls. And local politicians and political operatives are taking note.

Along with the public appearances he made in the past week, Booker has been working behind the scenes in Iowa. Yahoo News has confirmed that Booker has placed a number of allies and former staffers on campaigns in the state. He’s also helped Iowa candidates with fundraising, including during multiple events on his recent trip to the state, which stretched from Oct. 6 to 9.

One campaign operative working on a local Iowa race told Yahoo News Booker helped them find a staffer who had been a “huge help.” The operative praised the senator as “the only one of the tier-one candidates who’s made any sort of serious contribution to Democrats in the state up and down the ticket.”

Booker is not the first potential 2020 hopeful to visit Iowa during this cycle. Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who launched his presidential bid in July 2017, has traveled to the state 14 times. California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who has said he’ll make a decision about whether to run after the midterms, has made 10 trips to Iowa.

And Booker isn’t the only one who’s working behind the scenes in the state. Multiple local leaders and activists who talked to Yahoo News say a slew of national figures have touched base with them, including the aforementioned congressmen, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Cory Booker signs an autograph at an event in Adel, Iowa, on Oct. 8. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)

At Booker’s event in Boone on Monday, Peter Leo, a candidate for Iowa’s House of Representatives, rattled off all of the potential presidential candidates he’s seen in recent months.

“Sen. Merkley’s been here a few times, Gov. [Jay] Inslee from Washington, congressman Delaney has been here multiple times, he’s already toured all 99 counties in fact,” Leo said. “Congressman Tim Ryan has come to town; Andrew Yang, who has also filed papers, has been around quite a bit and his message on universal basic income… that’s turning a lot of heads in rural Iowa.”

But those visitors to Iowa, particularly Yang, an entrepreneur, are not among the candidates who are considered favorites in the early presidential speculation. The top tier of White House hopefuls is generally seen to include Vice President Joe Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Booker is also one of the leading potential contenders and, like the rest of them, has remained coy about whether he will officially enter the race.

But Booker is the member of this group who has gotten the most involved in Iowa. The local campaign operative said they had interactions with other potential presidential candidates, specifically Harris, who has written fundraising emails for local politicians. However, the operative said she was not offering access to her list of supporters and instead was simply providing a letter for the Iowa candidates to send out to their bases.

“In terms of the commitment to electing Democrats in legislative seats, statewide seats and certainly federal seats, Sen. Booker has probably had the most sophisticated and deeply invested operation of any of those tier-one candidates,” the operative said.

That experience was echoed by a campaign manager for a Democrat running a statewide race in Iowa. Both the campaign manager and operative requested anonymity to frankly discuss influential figures in the party. The campaign manager told Yahoo News that Booker helped them find a staffer and raise money for advertising “earlier in the summer when we were a one-man operation.” They contrasted Booker’s support with the contacts they had from other leading potential White House hopefuls, whom they described as interested in receiving something from the campaign rather than offering help.

“The only person who has called where the first thing out of their mouth was ‘What do you need help with?’ was Sen. Booker,” the campaign manager said.

Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines power broker who has helped Democratic presidential candidates navigate the Iowa caucus for over three decades, said several of the leading Democratic hopefuls have “done a nice job of being of assistance to the party and its candidates in Iowa.” However Crawford, who met with Booker during the senator’s Iowa visit, said the New Jerseyan had set himself apart by working with politicians at every level.

“Sen. Booker has probably been among the folks doing the most. … Over and above financial support, staff support, anything else, what Booker did was he did events from every single entity, from statewide to local, when he was here. He did events in a compressed amount of time. That was impressive,” Crawford said.

Indeed, during his public appearances on Monday, Booker stumped for candidates for Congress, the statehouse, Iowa agricultural secretary and county Democratic organizations. Last Sunday evening, Booker held a fundraiser for Iowa secretary of state candidate Deidre DeJear. His trip also included private meetings with state auditor candidate Rob Sand and with Cindy Axne, who is running in Iowa’s Third Congressional District. And on Saturday night, Booker headlined the Iowa Democratic Party’s fall gala, which was attended by over 1,000 people. Booker drew crowds of over 100 people at three of his events on Monday.

According to Crawford, Booker’s crowds were “incredible” for this stage in the process. He attributed this to “buzz” from the gala speech and Booker’s approach.

“I can’t remember many first swings that were quite as dramatic in terms of their success,” Crawford said. “He struck just the right tone — in talking about others and not himself.”

Cory Booker at a campaign rally in North Liberty, Iowa, on Oct. 8. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)

Along with appeals for local figures, Booker’s appearances included a few pitches tailored to Iowa audiences. He noted that his grandmother was born in the state and that he has more than 50 relatives remaining there. In rural Boone, Booker touted a bill he introduced to halt agricultural consolidation that he said could help farmers who are being “squeezed on both ends” by rising costs from suppliers and falling prices for their wares. Booker came to the state fresh from the Senate vote on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Saturday. Two days later he told an audience in North Liberty that he “came to Iowa with a broken heart,” but that the “fellowship” he found there had energized him.

I will go back to Washington tomorrow, and I’m going to tell folk I had the healing tour,” Booker said.

Presidential cycles typically begin in earnest following the midterms. While Booker has clearly taken an early interest in Iowa, his potential 2020 rivals aren’t just sitting by. Warren, the Massachusetts senator, has been similarly active in New Hampshire, where two of her staffers were sent to work for the state party. Warren staffers have also popped up in three other key states: Nevada, South Carolina and Ohio. Booker has also been active in other states. Harris, Biden and Booker are all due in South Carolina next week. And a source told Yahoo News that Harris also plans to visit Iowa before Election Day next month.

As the runner-up in the 2016 Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders has already established robust organizations in key states, including Iowa. Sanders lost the 2016 Iowa caucuses to Hillary Clinton by less than a percentage point, the smallest margin in the history of the contest. Pete D’Alessandro, who was Sanders’s Iowa state coordinator, said the senator could absolutely build on his prior work in the state.

“This was a movement. It still is a movement,” D’Alessandro said of Sanders’s candidacy. “Here’s where it’s different this time. … If you just look at the numbers… in Iowa we literally didn’t have one person above the position of county supervisor that was willing to endorse publicly, and yet we put this thing together going up against all of the electeds with no infrastructure .”  

D’Alessandro predicted Sanders could have an even stronger performance this time around since he’s no longer an insurgent going up against Clinton’s overwhelming establishment support. On Tuesday, Sanders announced he will head to nine states including Iowa later this month to support candidates running in the midterms.

All of this early activity is a sign Democrats will be in for an intense primary season — and it seems to be starting in earnest. In the year before an election, the Iowa Democratic Party’s fall gala is traditionally a showcase for the top primary candidates. Booker had the stage to himself this year, but local party officials are already acknowledging that the 2019 edition of the gala will be a unique challenge due to the size of the field.

“He was really the first big one to come in,” a state party official said of Booker. “For a lot of activists, it felt like the beginning of what is going to be a very long caucus season.”  

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