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Iowa Democrats are finding a way forward despite losing first-to-vote status

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Republican presidential candidates have been visiting Iowa for months ahead of the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses on January 15. But the national Democrats did not pick Iowa to vote first in 2024. So what was a high-profile Democrat, Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, doing there last night? Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters joins us with some answers. Good morning, Clay.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: And I should say I almost called you Iowa just now and dropped the Clay. But that would've been appropriate.

MASTERS: That would've worked.

RASCOE: (Laughter) OK, so why was Senator Fetterman in Iowa last night?

MASTERS: So he was counterprogramming the nonstop ads and attention Republicans have been giving Iowa. Fetterman was the featured speaker at the Liberty and Justice celebration. This fundraiser for the state party has been, like, this marquee event in past cycles ahead of the caucuses. Barack Obama had a breakthrough moment there in 2007. Four years ago, thousands packed an arena to hear from the crowded 2020 field. So Fetterman, dressed in his trademark hoodie and basketball shorts, told the audience he was sure that they were just sick of all the pandering Republicans have been doing in the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN FETTERMAN: And I don't do that. But by the way, I love ethanol.

MASTERS: So he's joking there about one of Iowa's top commodities, gasoline made with corn. Fetterman also had a warning of sorts for the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FETTERMAN: If you are a Democrat that wants to criticize and go after Joe Biden, our president, just go ahead and write a check for Trump.

MASTERS: So Fetterman called out Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips, who is running against Biden. The senator also took a swipe at California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has not said he's challenging President Joe Biden but has been raising his public profile lately. And Democrats here need a lot of Iowans to caucus for Biden if they want a chance to ever be first again.

RASCOE: Why the emphasis on Biden doing well in Iowa, especially since Democrats did strip Iowa of its first-in-the-nation status?

MASTERS: Yeah, I mean, it's pretty confusing, right? I mean, Iowa Democrats will still hold a caucus on January 15, the same night as Republicans, but they're doing a caucus by mail where the results won't be released until Super Tuesday, March 5. The DNC has said they'll reopen the nominating calendar every four years. And Rita Hart, who's chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, tells me she thinks this new system will actually increase turnout.

RITA HART: If we have more participation, if we have more representation from all walks of life that exist here in Iowa, that just puts us in a better position to make that case in 2028.

MASTERS: And every speaker at the event last night was trying to give Iowa Democrats some hope. Republicans control the governor's office, the legislature, and their last Democrat in Congress lost last year. Jordan True came to hear from Fetterman. He's a tax examiner and former military police.

JORDAN TRUE: I'm trying to show up as a young voter with probably much more progressive views than most people in this room. And I want to help bring that change to the party. And it's not going to come if we keep abandoning it as young people.

MASTERS: So you heard True say he's pretty progressive, and he's considered actually registering as a Republican to have more of an impact in a race with higher stakes for the Republican presidential nomination with the caucuses. But he says it's important for him to stick with Democrats.

RASCOE: What about Republicans? Where does the Iowa race stand for them?

MASTERS: So the race is still very much Donald Trump's to lose, as it's been all year. He's been coming to the state more often in the last month. And right now we're kind of watching this race for second place among Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. There was a poll that came out this week from The Des Moines Register that showed them kind of tied at 16%. So that's a - still a pretty low number compared to what Donald Trump has among support here in the state of Iowa. So we always say Iowa is not about picking a winner but winnowing the field of a - many times, a very crowded field. And I'm sure we'll see that again here in 2 1/2 months.

RASCOE: That's Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio. Thank you so much.

MASTERS: Yeah, my pleasure. You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "THE MAN WHO TOOK MY SUNGLASSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.

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