WATERLOO, Iowa — Eric Giddens is trying to tick through all of the presidential candidates who have offered him their service. But the list has gotten too long: “You’re going to have to maybe help me,” Giddens said, turning to a staffer on Saturday morning.
Giddens is the most in-demand Democrat in Iowa — at least until Tuesday. The Cedar Falls school board member is running in a special election this week, following a Democratic state senator’s resignation earlier this year. And 2020 candidates are all but lining up outside his office hoping to build a little goodwill by lending their star power to Giddens’ campaign.
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Just this weekend, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar sang Giddens’ praises alongside their own stump speeches. Sen. Cory Booker will join the chorus on Sunday, when he’s scheduled to headline a canvass launch here. Sen. Elizabeth Warren kicked off Giddens’ three-week campaign sprint with an event of her own, while Montana Gov. Steve Bullock — who hasn’t yet launched a presidential campaign — sat down with Giddens for a beer. And when weather forced Sen. Kamala Harris to cancel her event with Giddens, the pair made sure to exchange phone calls.
“A special election during caucus season — and a very active one at that. I am in a unique position right now,” Giddens told POLITICO, minutes before Klobuchar introduced him at the Black Hawk County Democrats’ headquarters.
Indeed, while the political media trained its attention on O’Rourke’s just-launched campaign this week, O’Rourke turned his eye to Giddens, cheering his education credentials from the bed of a red Ford Ranger. In fact, word of O’Rourke’s first trip to the first caucus state — and thereby his imminent presidential run — leaked with the news that he’d be stumping alongside Giddens this weekend.
On Saturday, the pair followed up their rally — scheduled for the county party headquarters but spilling into the nearby parking lot instead — by surprising voters at their doors.
“What a great candidate you’re giving the world,” Klobuchar told a standing-room-only crowd Saturday morning, as the assembled Democrats munched on donuts. “I know he’s going to win.”
The help from 2020 contenders has gone beyond stump speeches. Booker helped to raise more than $40,000 for Giddens’ and Iowa Democrats’ war chest, according to two people familiar with the figure. Sen. Bernie Sanders sent out a get-out-the-vote email this week, and Booker and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sent their staff to knock on doors for the special election. Harris’ Iowa campaign chairwoman, Deidre DeJear, appeared in a video posted to Twitter “slippin’ and slidin’” on a snow-packed street to “spread the word” about the special election. Former Rep. John Delaney hustled down sidewalks to canvass for Giddens on Saturday.
The deluge of media attention and high-powered surrogates is “more in line with Jon Ossoff and Conor Lamb than your typical state Senate special election,” said Jacob Becklund, director of the Iowa Senate Majority Fund — referencing two big-money special congressional elections that captured national attention in 2017 and 2018.
The stakes are high for Iowa’s state Senate Democrats, who hold just over one-third of the chamber after losing two seats in 2018. “This could set the stage, emotionally, for what’s going to happen over the next year,” said Giddens, who faces former GOP state Rep. Walt Rogers on Tuesday.
“If we win, we’ve got that momentum, then that rolls into caucus season and into another general election,” Giddens added.
The state Senate seat is also “demographically representative” of the kind of districts Democrats must win in 2020 to regain a foothold in Iowa, said Kurt Meyer, chairman of the Tri-County Democrats of Iowa. President Donald Trump won the state by more than 9 points in 2016 after former President Barack Obama carried Iowa in the previous two presidential elections.
The district’s “got a little bit of everything — small towns, a university campus, part of a metro area,” Meyer said. “That’s why I expect this to be so close and why it’s so competitive.”
That means all of the presidential candidate attention comes with some degree of risk for Giddens, who has focused much of his campaign on local issues like education and “the state’s water quality crisis,” he said.
Iowa Republicans, meanwhile, have eagerly painted Giddens with the “socialism” brush Republicans in Washington have wielded of late. Giddens is “running around with far-left Democrats” and “stands arm-in-arm with D.C. socialists,” Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann in a statement. Rogers, Giddens’ opponent, called him “an avowed socialist.”
Iowa Democrats, including Giddens, brushed off those concerns.
“It’s a risk when a race gets nationalized, but in this case, it’s probably good for Democrats,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist. “Trump has been somewhat resilient in Iowa, but he’s still underwater here, so if the race gets nationalized, we still have the wind at our backs.”
The biggest upside of all the 2020 attention? “People actually know that there’s an election on Tuesday,” said Iowa state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, who voiced concern that the special election was scheduled during the University of Northern Iowa’s spring break. “That knowledge is courtesy of all these 2020 candidates showing up and reminding them, and that’s what really matters in special elections, the turnout.”
Iowa voters, meanwhile, have shrugged at all the attention on one special election.
“It’s not surprising,” said Marnell Lyle, a Democrat from Cedar Falls, who sat at the back of Klobuchar’s canvass launch Saturday morning, “because it serves both entities.”