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Iowa congressional campaigns try to tap presidential energy

Both parties use gatherings to collect signatures, enlist volunteers for House and Senate battles ahead

Theresa Greenfield’s Senate campaign is launching a digital ad targeting Democratic Iowa caucus-goers and deploying volunteers to gather petition signatures for her bid to challenge Republican incumbent Joni Ernst. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Theresa Greenfield’s Senate campaign is launching a digital ad targeting Democratic Iowa caucus-goers and deploying volunteers to gather petition signatures for her bid to challenge Republican incumbent Joni Ernst. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats scrolling through their social media feeds at Monday night’s Iowa caucuses may encounter an ad for “Caucus Trivia Night,” a game where they can answer trivia questions via text message.

But the game wasn’t devised by a presidential candidate hoping to make a last-minute voter connection. It was the work of Democrat Theresa Greenfield’s Senate campaign.

She won’t be on the ballot until the state’s primary in June, but Greenfield’s team knows that a crowded Democratic presidential field could mean a record number of Iowans at caucuses, and that’s a prime opportunity to get petition signatures and campaign volunteers.

And even though there is no contest on the Republican side, President Donald Trump is also encouraging his supporters to attend caucuses as a show of strength.

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So while the presidential campaign will dominate the networks, Greenfield’s ad is just one example of how congressional campaigns, in both parties, will also use the caucuses to connect with their party’s faithful.

“Every viable congressional candidate is going to have some trace of them at these caucuses, whether it be materials, themselves, a surrogate, a place for [volunteers] to sign up,” Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann said. 

Congressional campaigns are also hoping to remind caucus-goers that the battle for control of the House and Senate will go through Iowa this November.

GOP Sen. Joni Ernst is facing a competitive reelection, and all four House seats could be in play. Those races have so far been overshadowed by presidential candidates who have crisscrossed the state and blanketed the airwaves with ads. But politicos in both parties said Iowans are well-aware of down-ballot races, and anyone who expects them to be done with politics after Monday does not know the state.

“This is Iowa,” said Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who represents the state’s 1st District. “That does not necessarily apply to folks here, that sentiment of just being tired of it.”

Early organizing

House and Senate campaigns will mostly use Monday’s caucuses to gather the signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot. Senate candidates need to gather more than 3,000 signatures, while House hopefuls need between 1,200 and 1,800, depending on the party and the district.

They also need signatures from a variety of counties to qualify for the ballot, so having voters gathered in one place Monday gives campaigns a chance to reach those thresholds in one night.

The Iowa Democratic Party has stuffed packets for precinct captains with down-ballot candidates’ petitions. Retired Navy Vice Adm. Mike Franken, who is vying against Greenfield and others for the Senate nomination to challenge Ernst, had 10,575 petitions printed for those packets, campaign manager Kimberley Boggus said. Franken’s supporters will also be at caucuses in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, donning T-shirts from the Iowa-based store RAYGUN that say “Iowa’s admiral.”

Greenfield’s campaign recruited nearly 130 volunteers to collect additional signatures at the caucuses and to spread the word about the Senate race. Eddie Mauro, another Senate candidate, will be traveling to various caucus locations to speak with voters, and his campaign is reaching out to supporters who could speak on his behalf.

Finkenauer, who has been campaigning in the state for former Vice President Joe Biden, said some her campaign’s own precinct captains will be out on caucus night gathering petition signatures for her reelection. Finkenauer and 3rd District Rep. Cindy Axne, a fellow freshman Democrat, are top GOP targets since they represent districts Trump carried in 2016.

Axne, who also endorsed Biden, will be speaking at her own caucus location, according to a source familiar with her campaign. She likely faces a rematch this November with former Rep. David Young, whom she unseated in 2018. Young’s campaign is organizing supporters to read a letter from Young at each of the 3rd District’s caucus locations.

“Much has changed since November of 2018 where we suffered losses in Iowa and nationally,” Young writes in the letter, according to a copy obtained by CQ Roll Call. “We know 2020 is different already. And we can’t take anything for granted.”

Young is among the slew of Republicans who will be speaking in support of Trump at Monday’s caucuses, according to his campaign. Young was not on the original lengthy list of surrogates circulated by the Trump campaign. Trump’s team did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has been encouraging his supporters to make a strong showing on Monday, but Kaufmann, the state GOP chairman, isn’t expecting a high turnout, estimating it will be in the thousands instead of tens of thousands. In 2016, the crowded field was on the Republican side, and about 187,000 Iowans voted in the party’s caucuses, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz narrowly defeating Trump. Nevertheless, the GOP caucuses this year could benefit the party and down-ballot candidates by connecting them with dedicated volunteers.

“Those are the hard-core folks,” Kaufmann said. “We’re asking them to show up at a caucus when they already know who’s going to win. … These are the people that are going to go out and actually work.”

‘Dry run’ for November

By connecting with dedicated voters, both parties are looking to reap benefits that extend beyond caucus night. 

Kaufmann said the caucuses are a “dry run” for the general election since it’s an opportunity for the Trump campaign, the national and state parties, and down-ballot campaigns, including Ernst’s team, to test their coordination. Ernst’s campaign has already begun organizing for the caucuses, and its volunteers will making targeted phone calls to boost caucus turnout. 

Democrats don’t benefit from the same unified effort with their presidential and Senate primaries still in flux, but party organizations are engaged. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has three organizers on the ground in Iowa, and voter information collected by the Iowa Democratic Party on caucus night can be used by candidates up and down the ballot.

“One of my volunteers, he said, ‘This is just our warmup to keep going for you in 2020,’” Finkenauer said.

But others noted that congressional races have been overshadowed by the presidential primary. Axne said it’s time to shift Iowans’ attention.

“I love having Iowa first in the nation, but it is time that they leave,” she said of the presidential candidates. “We need to be focused on other races.”

But for months, Iowa Democrats, particularly passionate activists and campaign volunteers, have been divided by the presidential contest. Finkenauer was confident, though, that Democrats could unite to support down-ballot campaigns like her own.

“There’s so much we have to keep fighting for here in Iowa,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you support for president. It’s about our values here in Iowa that are on the line.”

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