'Only in Iowa': Presidential candidates, voters and media descend on Waterloo ahead of state Senate election

 eu.desmoinesregister.com  03/17/2019 01:38:00   Austin Cannon
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Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, speaks to around 200 voters on a Waterloo street corner. Austin Cannon, Des Moines Register

WATERLOO, Ia. — Iowa has long claimed a heightened responsibility when it comes to presidential politics, but the center of the U.S. political universe may have been even more specific over the weekend: Waterloo.

Democratic presidential candidates Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke stopped in downtown Waterloo Saturday to campaign for themselves and to promote Eric Giddens, who’s running in Tuesday's special election for state Senate District 30.

They weren’t the only ones. Giddens, a member of the Cedar Falls School Board, said that by Sunday, about 10 presidential candidates — declared or potential — will have offered some degree of help to his weeks-long campaign. 

“It’s so bizarre,” he said. “The whole thing is bizarre.”

Along with lending Giddens a hand to knock doors, local Democrats also got the chance to vet more of the expansive field of 2020 candidates. O’Rourke and Klobuchar were there to help, too — but they, of course, also embarked on the retail campaigning that’s made the state famous.

“Only in Iowa would a state Senate race attract all these national candidates coming in, so we need to take advantage of that and be as informed as we can,” said Al Hays, a retired political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa who was there to both knock on doors for Giddens and shop for a presidential candidate.

The Republican Party of Iowa noticed, too. Chairman Jeff Kaufmann released a Saturday morning statement criticizing the visits and promoting the Republican in the race, Walt Rogers, a former state representative.

“The contrast in this race is clear: Rogers stands with friends, neighbors, and the taxpayers of District 30, while Giddens stands arm-in-arm with D.C. socialists,” Kaufmann said.    

A panoply of presidential hopefuls

Former Maryland congressman John Delaney also led canvassing efforts for Giddens on Saturday, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was scheduled to stop by Sunday.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recorded a video on Twitter, urging University of Northern Iowa students to vote. California Sen. Kamala Harris planned to stop by but weather prevented a visit. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren held an organizing event for Giddens on March 2.

Businessman Andrew Yang campaigned on UNI’s campus earlier in the week. The week before, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who may enter the 2020 field, stopped at a Cedar Falls bar to get more UNI students to the polls early.

Some of Giddens' potential colleagues at the Iowa Capitol, including Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, also grabbed packets to help canvas. 

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More: Iowa special election will test party strength amid caucus race for White House

Local Democrats were hopeful the extra presidential-candidate muscle could help put Giddens in the Statehouse in spite of what they view as bad-faith scheduling from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. UNI and the local school districts will be on spring break, and students and other residents potentially out of town, on Election Day.

Despite all the attention, the race would not change Republicans' control of the Iowa Senate. If Giddens wins, he would replace a Democrat, and Republicans would still control the chamber. Republicans also control the Iowa House.

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said the influx of candidates was engaging voters, even with the short campaign that a special election entails.

“The more people that vote, the better off we are in our political process,” he said.

National, international media join in

The White House hopefuls also brought interested media. Both national and international outlets followed Klobuchar and O’Rourke, including reporters from the Wall Street Journal, NPR, the BBC, NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Showtime’s “The Circus.”

Even reporters from Switzerland’s public broadcasting service made the trip, offering Klobuchar the chance to expand on her Swiss philosophical connections. (“Switzerland is the neutral land, the place where you try to bring people together, which is what I’ve done in my career,” she said.)

Klobuchar attracted around 15 reporters. O’Rourke, riding the buzz of his official entrance into the race earlier this week, brought in even more.   

“It’s crazy to think that Waterloo, Iowa, has that kind of attention on it right now,” said Emily Burger, a UNI junior who listened to both candidates before canvassing for Giddens.

Klobuchar spoke before roughly 100 people inside the Black Hawk County Democrats’ headquarters. O’Rourke met his crowd of about 200 on the street corner outside, again taking his 6-foot-4 frame to an elevated surface — this time the bed of a pickup truck — in front of voters who chanted his name.

Both followed the same format: Offer an abbreviated pitch to the voters on themselves before turning the attention to Giddens, who didn’t mind the dual-campaigning. Special elections traditionally draw low voter turnout, so he appreciated the extra visibility.

“Mutually beneficial,” he said. “They’re in the state anyway. They’re here for their own campaigns. It’s not like they came here just because we’re here having a special election. They’re setting up shop in preparation for the caucuses.”

After the event, O’Rourke — with Gatorade, Listerine and snacks in his minivan’s center console — and the Giddens family drove to a north Waterloo neighborhood to knock on doors.

At the sixth house, they found freshman UNI political science major Alexandria Diehl, who greeted O’Rourke with an “Oh, my God” before covering her mouth in surprise. The other hand clutched a tiny white and brown dog.

“It is Iowa, yes, but it’s so early,” she said afterward. “He just announced three days ago, and he’s already campaigning. That’s extraordinary, I would say.”

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