Iowa Democrats, Republicans Gear Up to Protect 2024 Caucuses

January 29, 2021

By John McCormick, Wall Street Journal 

At a time when bipartisanship is in short supply, Democrats and Republicans are united in Iowa behind defending the state’s political golden goose: the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

The state receives international attention—and tens of millions of dollars in TV ads, hotel reservations and more—from being the initial stop on the road to the White House. That makes political leaders elsewhere envious, and every four years Iowa must defend its status.

A botched Democratic vote-counting effort almost exactly a year ago that marred the start of the presidential nomination race—and boosted skepticism about the complex process of holding caucuses instead of primaries—has left Iowa political leaders feeling vulnerable.

Members of both national parties are already strategizing about how to structure the 2024 nominating contests, a formal Democratic National Committee review is under way, and potential Republican presidential candidates are likely to spend time in Iowa and other early states this year.

Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa chairman, said he plans to meet soon with his newly elected Democratic counterpart, Ross Wilburn, and pledged bipartisanship in trying to keep both party caucuses first. “We will stand shoulder to shoulder in this fight,” he said.

Mr. Kaufmann, a seventh-generation livestock farmer and history and government professor, met with Republican National Committee members from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina earlier this month to discuss how to protect the status quo. Those four states hosted the first contests in recent election cycles.

“If we proved anything during the last election cycle, it’s the fact that caucuses don’t work,” said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who would like to see his home state of Nevada convert from caucuses to a primary and move ahead of Iowa on the calendar.

Iowa has clung to its caucus tradition in large part because that has allowed it to keep peace with New Hampshire, which has a state law that requires it to hold the first primary. Iowa’s advocates say the state’s tradition of retail politics allows less well-known candidates to make their mark even if they aren’t well financed.

The Iowa caucuses, which have been first since 1972, have also long been criticized for being held in a state that is more rural and has a bigger population of older and white voters than the nation as a whole. Iowa’s population is 85% non-Hispanic white, compared to a national average of 60%.

Mr. Wilburn, a state representative and former mayor of Iowa City who was elected last weekend to lead the Iowa Democratic Party, will be the first Black Iowan to lead either major party organization in the state. He endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris before she dropped out of the presidential race in December 2019.

Setting the nominating contest order can be a lengthy process involving negotiations between state and national parties, but the White House typically has considerable sway over its party’s decision.

Mr. Wilburn said after his election that he plans to focus on protecting Iowa’s status. “The caucus and Iowa being No. 1 in the nation, first in the nation, is a priority,” he said. “It’s going to involve reaching out to our new party chair, Jaime Harrison, and trying to connect with him about that."

Mr. Harrison was elected last week to lead the Democratic National Committee. He is a former party chairman in South Carolina, which gave President Biden a crucial primary win after disappointing finishes in earlier states.

Mr. Kaufmann said the four early states—sometimes referred to as “carve out” states because of their special status on the party calendars—are unified in their commitment to maintaining the status quo, at least on the Republican side.

“I am hopeful that the DNC chair, since he comes from a carve-out state, will understand that we’re not just talking about Iowa here,” he said. “We’re talking about four states, and we actually do have a diverse process: the African-American population in South Carolina, the Latino population in Nevada, we’ve got an Eastern state and a Midwest state.”

Besides Iowa’s two political parties, business leaders and groups in the state are also gearing up to try to help the state stay at the front of the line.

“I’ve seen great cooperation, not only among the party chairs, but I have also seen great cooperation at the staff level,” said Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council, a nonpartisan group that represents the state’s 22 largest employers.

Mr. Murphy said some of the state’s top employers are certain to weigh in on the lobbying process to keep Iowa first.

Mr. Reid said that while he thinks Nevada is more representative of the nation than New Hampshire, he would be comfortable with that state holding its nominating contest first instead of Iowa. He said he strongly opposes the idea of rotating early states every presidential election cycle. “One thing you need in politics—and life generally—is stability,” he said.

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