In a high-stakes midterm election year, with just 18 months until Iowa holds its caucuses to help decide each party’s nominee for president, Paul DiNino is “desperate” to find would-be Democratic presidential candidates to visit Iowa.
A veteran of Iowa politics who worked for Sen. Tom Harkin, DiNino has seen countless presidential wannabes beat a well-worn path through the Hawkeye State. But not this year.
It’s significant, if not altogether surprising: Few presidential candidates have had so commanding a lead as Hillary Clinton does among Democrats this year, and that's distorting a dynamic that has long helped boost local Democratic candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“They come with money, they come with attention, and they usually leave a field staffer behind to help,” DiNino said. But, for Democrats, DiNino added, “That is not happening this time in Iowa.”
Meanwhile, Republicans continue to be overwhelmed by a steady flow of potential presidential contenders to Iowa.
Just this week, Rand Paul, the rising-star Republican senator from Kentucky, appeared at Rep. Steve King's tiki bar fundraiser in the state — an odd political match, to be sure, but making nice with King and other Iowa Republicans might help Paul’s nascent presidential campaign.
Recently, Iowa has been saturated with other Republican presidential hopefuls doing the same, benefiting candidates from the local level to Joni Ernst, the Republican nominee for Senate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be back in Iowa this weekend to campaign for congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will be making another swing through the Hawkeye State beginning Friday.
“The biggest benefit for us has been the attention,” said one Iowa Republican campaign operative, who asked not to be identified as the campaign season ramps up. “You jump on that star with your candidate and raise their profile.”
But as would-be Republican presidential contenders have lined up to profess their support for Ernst, Democrats including her opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, have had difficulty snagging surrogates.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has said he is considering running for president, vouched for Braley during a speech to the Iowa Democratic Party state convention in June. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has said she would support Clinton should she run for president, plans to campaign for Braley in Iowa later this month. So far, that’s about it.
The sparse roster pales in comparison to the cavalcade of potential presidential candidates who traveled to Iowa to back Braley during the 2006 midterm election, when he was running for his first term in Congress.
By this time during that election cycle, Vice President Joe Biden, former Sen. John Edwards, and Sens. Chris Dodd, Mark Warner, Evan Bayh and Tom Daschle had all lent their names to Braley’s cause, taking trips to Iowa for fundraisers on Braley’s behalf or attending public events with the candidate. By the end of September 2006, even then-Sen. Barack Obama, who continued to insist he would not run for president, was campaigning with Braley in Iowa.
This year, Braley’s Senate race is among the most competitive in the country, and Iowa remains fertile ground for Democrats to test a presidential bid while ingratiating themselves with state party activists.
But no one is showing up — and it’s not just for Braley. All the way down the ballot, Democratic candidates are being left to fend for themselves. With the imposing specter of a Clinton presidential bid hanging over the Democratic Party, few national Democrats are eager to venture into early-primary-state territory.
The trend holds true in New Hampshire. Later this month, O’Malley will return there for a county Democratic picnic fundraiser, his third trip to the Granite State since November. But O’Malley is the most prominent national Democrat so far making inroads in New Hampshire — despite the lure of a competitive Senate race between Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican.
Meanwhile, nearly the entire roster of potential Republican presidential candidates has appeared in New Hampshire: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Perry, Jindal, Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, Rubio, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — who is weighing a run for president but has been cautious about traveling to early-primary states — has endorsed Brown and helped raise money for him.
Democrats in New Hampshire insist that the lack of support from party surrogates who might run for president hasn’t been a major drag on the party, nor has it benefited Republican candidates a great deal.
"Campaigning with Christie or [Mitt] Romney or Perry hasn't given any of the Republican candidates any help,” said Julie McClain, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, pointing out that Brown still trails Shaheen by about 10 points in recent polls.
And although would-be presidential candidates can help raise money or even redirect their staffers to work on a campaign, they risk overshadowing the candidate they’re trying to help — another potential downside Democrats have cited.
“The New Hampshire candidate is always a side story, a footnote to the media coverage,” said Kathy Sullivan, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “It’s always, ‘Chris Christie is in New Hampshire — oh, and he's with whoever.’ ”
For Democrats, at least for now, that’s not a problem.