In Iowa, small fry, big friends

State’s early pri­mary lets lo­cal law­mak­ers get a boost from pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Seema Mehta

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA — Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker en­tered a fundraiser in a cav­ernous barn on a re­cent sunny Satur­day af­ter­noon to the f lashes of cell­phone cam­eras and throngs of peo­ple seek­ing a hand­shake and a selfie.

The front-run­ner in Iowa among those seek­ing the GOP nom­i­na­tion was the guest of honor, but he wasn’t rais­ing money for a White House bid. The haul would go to Chad Airhart, the recorder for Dal­las County in cen­tral Iowa.

“Thanks for let­ting us come by and join with you; thanks for your lead­er­ship,” Walker told Airhart as the recorder’s sup­port­ers ate bratwurst and baked beans, sur­rounded by hang­ing cow hides and sad­dles. “I’m hon­ored to be here to­day.”

In much of the na­tion, a top pres­i­den­tial prospect wouldn’t bother show­ing up to raise money for a lo­cal of­fi­cial who han­dles pa­per­work for a county of 66,000 peo­ple.

But in Iowa, lo­cal politi­cians are show­ered in love for one im­por­tant rea­son: They are gate­keep­ers to vot­ers and party ac­tivists who will pro­vide ac­cess to their net­works and com­mit time to White House can­di­dates hop­ing to make a splash in the state that holds the first pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing con­test.

“I don’t know if ‘spoiled’ is the right word,” said Airhart, who has en­dorsed Walker even though the gover­nor has not for­mally an­nounced his can­di­dacy. “I would say we’re blessed in Iowa to have this op­por­tu­nity.”

Repub­li­can Rep. David Young, a fresh­man Iowa con­gress­man, was more blunt.

“I use them, they use me,” Young said.

This year, he has raised thou­sands of dol­lars for his re­elec­tion cam­paign at a dessert re­cep­tion head­lined by for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a pizza par­lor fundraiser with for­mer Texas Gov. Rick Perry and a gath­er­ing at a farm-themed restau­rant with Walker. In turn, the prospec­tive can­di­dates got to meet hun­dreds of Young’s sup­port­ers.

“It’s mu­tu­ally un­der­stood and it’s ac­cepted,” Young said. “It’s all OK be­cause we’re unique here in Iowa be­cause we’re first in the na­tion.”

In the lead-up to the 2012 Iowa cau­cuses, can­di­dates such as even­tual GOP nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney an­nounced dozens of new sup­port­ers who in­cluded state­house lead­ers and the mayor of De Soto, a town of 1,050 peo­ple. Court­ing lo­cal lead­ers also oc­curs in the other early-vot­ing states of New Hamp­shire, South Carolina and Ne­vada.

An­other way White House hope­fuls curry fa­vor is through po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees. Bush’s Right to Rise lead­er­ship PAC, for ex­am­ple, has an­nounced con­tri­bu­tions of more than $240,000 since be­ing formed in Jan­uary. Can­di­dates and par­ties in the four early states have re­ceived onethird of that.

Cal­i­for­nia, which is un­likely to play a role in the nom­i­nat­ing con­test be­cause of its late pri­mary, has Repub­li­can can­di­dates swarm­ing the state rais­ing money, but they rarely hold public events or court small-town may­ors.

“We are for­tu­nate! Put as many ex­cla­ma­tion points af­ter that as pos­si­ble,” said Jeff Kauf­mann, chair­man of the Iowa Repub­li­can Party. “I can’t ex­press how for­tu­nate Iowa is to be a carve-out state … but with that comes some pretty sig­nif­i­cant re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Airhart, a sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion Iowan, grew up poor; his par­ents were teenagers when he was born, and his fa­ther spent time in jail. He said his up­bring­ing on the East Side of Des Moines never sug­gested that he would be­come an elected of­fi­cial who min­gles with pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

“We’re re­ally for­tu­nate. We have an op­por­tu­nity to meet all the can­di­dates, to go through the vet­ting process and hope­fully pick the next pres­i­dent of the United States, whether you’re a Repub­li­can or a Demo­crat,” Airhart said shortly af­ter Walker spoke at the an­nual Blue Jean Bash fundraiser. “We have that op­por­tu­nity in Iowa that re­ally no one else in the coun­try has.”

Democrats aren’t as ag­gres­sive this cy­cle in woo­ing Iowa’s politi­cians be­cause their field of can­di­dates is less com­pet­i­tive than the Repub­li­cans’.

There is a long tra­di­tion of the state’s most inf lu­en­tial politi­cians stag­ing events that at­tract na­tional can­di­dates. For­mer Demo­cratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s an­nual steak fry, which ran for 37 years and ended in 2014, was one that pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls didn’t dare pass up.

Repub­li­can Gov. Terry Branstad started hold­ing an an­nual birth­day fundraiser dur­ing his first term in the 1980s. The par­ties — in­clud­ing cup­cakes dec­o­rated with images of the gover­nor’s trade­mark mus­tache — are must-stops for White House can­di­dates.

Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers say that the prac­tice is get­ting in­creas­ingly com­mon among lower-pro­file politi­cians such as Young and fel­low first-term Rep. Rod Blum, nei­ther of whom has en­dorsed in the 2016 con­test.

“It is a fas­ci­nat­ing way for a first-term fresh­man mem­ber of Congress to get in front of a bunch of peo­ple who might not show up at any cam­paign event they might hold on their own,” said Craig Robin­son, pub­lisher of the in­flu­en­tial Iowa Repub­li­can blog.

Robin­son said it was un­clear whether neo­phyte politi­cians such as Young or Blum would emerge as “king­mak­ers.” “This is kind of new ter­ri­tory,” he said.

Blum has held events with nearly ev­ery 2016 GOP pres­i­den­tial prospect.

“For a fresh­man con­gress­man like my­self, ob­vi­ously the crowds that a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date at­tracts are good-size crowds for me. It lets me dive into the crowds, and I’m re­con­nect­ing with sup­port­ers and also meet­ing new peo­ple,” he said. “Some­times if it works out, we have a pri­vate event be­fore or af­ter the public event; we try to raise some money.”

Such courtships are not with­out risks. Bush, Perry, for­mer Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fio­r­ina and busi­ness­man Don­ald Trump have faced ques­tions about their sup­port of Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hamp­shire, who is em­broiled in a fundrais­ing scan­dal that has prompted fel­low Repub­li­cans to call for his res­ig­na­tion.

And some­times, the court­ing crosses the line. For­mer Iowa state leg­is­la­tor Kent Soren­son pleaded guilty in a pay-to-play scheme in fed­eral court last year, ad­mit­ting that he ac­cepted $73,000 from then-Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign af­ter drop­ping his en­dorse­ment of then-Rep. Michele Bach­mann in fa­vor of Paul shortly be­fore the GOP cau­cuses.

But for the most part, the re­la­tion­ships are pos­i­tive, and Iowa’s lead­ers some­times marvel at the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Kauf­mann re­called the 2008 nom­i­nat­ing con­test, when he was a state law­maker and Ten­nessee Sen. Fred Thomp­son — bet­ter known for be­ing a “Law and Or­der” star — came for a visit. Thomp­son wanted to cam­paign in Kauf­mann’s home county.

“We walked up and down the streets of Tip­ton and talked to busi­ness own­ers I’ve known all my life,” Kauf­mann said. “Here I am, lit­tle old me, in Tip­ton, Iowa, and I get to go around and in­tro­duce Fred Thomp­son. It was neat for me…. It en­hances a lo­cal leg­is­la­tor’s im­age.”

Getty Images

WIS­CON­SIN GOV. Scott Walker ad­dresses a fundraiser for Chad Airhart, recorder for Dal­las County, Iowa.

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