Iowa Democrats fear losing first-in-the-nation status

By David Siders, Laura Barrón-López and Maya King

DES MOINES, Iowa — Bruised feelings from Julián Castro’s criticism this fall that Iowa is too white and too unrepresentative of the Democratic Party to go first in the nominating process have been replaced by spreading fears here that critics could get their way in 2024.

If a Democrat doesn’t win the presidency this year — or if Iowans throw their support next week to a candidate who does not go on to win the nomination — some party officials acknowledge that the backlash would jeopardize the state’s first-in-the-nation status.

In either scenario, the relevance of the state’s caucuses would be thrust further into question, an existential concern weighing heavily on state Democratic leaders and voters as they approach the caucuses.

“If our nominee doesn’t win the presidency, we’ll be on the mat again,” said Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa state Democratic Party chairman.

Or as Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats, put it: “I think we need to select the nominee. And I think we need to select a nominee who loves Iowa like Obama loves Iowa.”

Following a meeting of his county party on Monday, Bagniewski said concerns about Iowa’s relevance have added a new layer of anxiety to caucusgoers already torn over questions about which candidate they prefer and which candidate they think can defeat President Donald Trump.

“Now there’s a third layer to it: people thinking about who goes on to be the nominee,” he said, hoping for the state’s sake that person is the Democrat Iowans get behind.

The fear is not unfounded, with Democrats from out of state continuing to lambaste Iowa for its heavily white population after Castro dropped out of the race.

During a recent swing through South Carolina, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who serves as national co-chair of Elizabeth Warren's campaign, told POLITICO that the order of the primary states should "absolutely" change because it favors white and male candidates.

The call for a change diverged from Warren, who has said she’s “just a player in the game.”

Rachael Rollins, a district attorney in Massachusetts and fellow Warren surrogate, called Iowa and New Hampshire “two of the least diverse places on the planet Earth” when speaking to an auditorium in South Carolina last week filled with primarily black women. “Maybe not the planet Earth ... because there’s Norway.”

Iowa has weathered criticism about its lack of diversity every election cycle, always prevailing. The state’s small size is appealing to many Democrats because it forces candidates to interact with voters personally, benefiting contenders who do not start with large fundraising bases. Iowans famously show up to see even long-shot candidates at their events.

And for Iowa, the political stakes are more than a point of pride. Steve Gorman, a Council Bluffs firefighter running for a state Senate seat, said Iowa is so small that Washington might ignore it entirely if the caucuses weren’t held first here.

“To lose that status, we feel that we would lose our say in our government,” he said. “There’s nervousness around losing that because we know there’s a chance we could lose it.”

That possibility seemed more remote after Barack Obama won the caucuses — and the presidency — in 2008. Ever since, Democrats have pointed to his performance in Iowa as evidence that diversity has not suffered.

“We may not be diverse, but we vote diverse,” Nagle said. “One of the leading contenders right now is an openly gay mayor [Pete Buttigieg]. We’ve nominated a woman [Hillary Clinton], we’ve nominated an African American.”

Invoking Obama, Mark Smith, a former Iowa House minority leader who recently endorsed Joe Biden, said, “We had a senator from the neighboring state of Illinois who came over and had a theory of winning the Iowa caucuses, winning the nomination and winning the presidency. And Iowa gave him a big boost even though all minorities in the state are less than 3 percent.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. speaks during the House Oversight subcommittee hearing on deportation of critically ill children at Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Pressley rebuked Iowans who point to Obama as an example that Iowa and New Hampshire going first and second on the primary calendar doesn’t put candidates of color at a disadvantage.

"You know what, people use Obama for everything: 'This is supposed to be our evidence of a post racial America,'" Pressley said in an interview, referring to the arguments made after Obama was elected. "Ultimately, whether we're talking about racial justice or leadership parity or political representation, it's not about these exceptional anomalies and one-offs. It's about system change."

Iowa community organizer Chelsea Chism-Vargas, who is mixed race and of Afro Latin descent, praised Castro, now a Warren surrogate, for bringing the issue of Iowa’s status to the forefront this cycle.

“We shouldn't be first, this isn't fair,” said Chism-Vargas, who is running for the Des Moines City Council. “We want a better country and not just a better Iowa.”

Iowa is expected to have six Spanish satellite caucuses in preparation for roughly 20,000 of the 194,000 Latinos living in the state to participate. But Latinos on the ground and activist groups are concerned it still may not be enough.

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, both said it’s time for a more diverse state that reflects the party’s base and country’s makeup to go first.

“It’s an example of how imperfect our democracy is,” Sanchez Barba said. “The caucuses are totally intimidating and are not welcoming of communities of color, especially for Latinos and immigrants.”

At a recent Biden event in Ankeny, outside Des Moines, two voters pointed out the lack of diversity in the room, which was almost entirely white.

“Look at the crowd,” said Vernon Naffier, a Biden supporter. “We do not represent the nation very well. We’d like to see more diversity.”

But Biden himself has a different, more favorable view of the caucuses here.

“When I go around and people say, ‘Why Iowa, why Iowa first, Iowa’s not that diverse,‘ and it’s because y’all take it seriously,” the former vice president said at an event at the University of Iowa this week. “You look beyond what’s just happening in Iowa. You really do.”

And Castro? Now a surrogate for Warren, he is taking a measured tone.

“What I’ve said is that there’s going to be an opportunity after this 2020 process to think about how the DNC can improve the debate thresholds, the order of the states; we’re going to have that conversation after this 2020 process, right?" Castro said after an event for Warren in Ankeny this week. "But I think the people of Iowa take their role very seriously. I’ve always acknowledged that, and I believe that they’re going to take their role seriously again this time.”