WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — The quaint caucus process where voters meet in school gymnasiums, churches, and restaurants to debate the merits of their candidates would be a thing of the past under a draft plan by the Iowa Democratic Party to reinvent the state’s storied presidential nominating system.
Instead, the plan calls for a mail-in caucus in which registered Democrats would request presidential preference cards by mail or online and send them in.
The Iowa Democratic Party would hold its caucuses, per se, on the same night as the state GOP. In name, Hawkeye State Democrats would retain their first-in-the-nation caucus status that they’ve held for more than a half-century, but the plan calls for only conducting party business on caucus night. Results — the Democrat presidential candidate winners and losers — may not be announced until long after caucus night.
It’s the state party’s way of trying to stay in the good graces of a Democratic National Committee that has turned its back on Iowa while staying in compliance with state law that requires Iowa to be first in the presidential nominating line.
The DNC earlier voted to end Iowa’s leading position, asserting the Midwestern state isn’t diverse enough. Party officials reshuffled the lineup, putting South Carolina first and dropping Iowa down in the nominating process. Should state Democrats rebuff the national party, they could lose half of their delegates to the 2024 Democratic National Convention.
The Republican National Committee has kept Iowa No. 1 in the nominating game.
“While this draft has potential to change over the next month, the principles of this plan will not. It is still our intention to move forward with the most inclusive Iowa caucus process in history,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Rita Hart said this week. “You have heard me say ad nauseam since I was first elected chair of the Iowa Democratic Party that the presidential nominating calendar is not a done deal.”
Dave Nagle, a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from eastern Iowa, said the state party is miscalculating the degree of interest of Democrats turning out for a “caucus” that strictly deals with party business and not the business of selecting a presidential candidate.
“I’m old and I have trouble with changes, but if [the plan] passes muster and gets us through this year then, okay, we can live with it,” Nagle told The Iowa Star. “But if it is designed not to announce the caucus results on election night, we need to fight the biggest white flag we can because we’re giving up our place in the sun.”
All the changes and political maneuvering may prove to be moot.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is moving through a bill requiring in-person participation in caucuses. If an Iowa political party “chooses to select its delegates as part of the presidential nominating process at political party precinct caucuses” in a lead-off position, the caucuses must be held in person, the bill states.
“That effectively torpedos the Democrats’ plan,” Nagle said.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst (D-Windsor Heights) said she doesn’t believe the bill would preclude the party from moving forward with the plan to “make the caucuses more inclusive, early and a great representation of who the country should have as our nominee.”
Iowa and New Hampshire have long cooperated in keeping the first-in-the-nation status — with Iowa holding the first caucuses of the presidential nominating season, and New Hampshire scheduling the first primary. New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, however, has said the Granite State would preempt Iowa if the Iowa Democratic Party employs a mail-in caucus plan.
Scott Brennan, a Des Moines attorney on the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, told the Des Moines Register he expects the proposed legislation to end up in court.
“As a practicing lawyer, I would tell you that it raises serious constitutional issues that likely are going to have to be decided by a court,” he said.
The nominating plot has thickened since the DNC booted Iowa from the front of the line. President Joe Biden, who finished a dismal fourth in the 2020 Iowa caucuses, has officially declared his campaign for a second term. But the incumbent is being challenged for the Democratic Party’s nomination by Kennedy family scion Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an anti-vax crusader who is doing surprisingly well in the polls against an unpopular president. Iowa Democrats, Nagle has said, want open caucuses, not a coronation.
But the Democrats’ 2020 caucuses were such a debacle that long-time critics of Iowa’s leading position stormed the gates demanding a change in the lineup. An audit found mistakes by the state party and meddling by the DNC led to long delays in reporting caucus night results.
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Iowa 2020 Caucus Meeting” by Rbreidbrown. CC BY-SA 4.0.