Kamala Harris looks to make her play in Iowa with bus tour
MOUNT PLEASANT, Ia. — Meredith Hinson picked a spot along the rope line in Iowa and waited for Kamala Harris.
The 64-year-old florist decided last month she would caucus for the U.S. senator from California. After a Sunday night rally in the small southeast Iowa community of Mount Pleasant, Hinson would get to tell her in person.
As Harris approached, Hinson blurted it all out: Her plans for next February, how she had followed the Democratic presidential candidate for months, and how she appreciated everything Harris stood for, particularly her new health care plan.
Harris listened to Hinson intently, eyes locked on her.
“Thank you,” Harris said, holding Hinson’s hands up between them. “That means the world to me.”
Seconds later, Harris turned to the next person in line and locked eyes again. Harris was soon heard saying, “Thank you, that means so much.”
As Harris finished a five-day bus tour across Iowa on Monday, these are the one-on-ones she’s encountered along the way that could help determine her outcome in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 3.
The tour could also dispel any lingering notion that Harris is not paying enough attention to the state.
“I am absolutely committed to doing very well here,” Harris told the Des Moines Register in her traveling bus, decorated with the words KAMALA in yellow, purple and red on the exterior.
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Not as many Iowa visits before but ‘getting a good start now’
In recent months, some Iowa party organizers haven’t always felt sure about Harris’ strategy in the state. There’s been a similar sentiment in New Hampshire, as Harris tries to make in-roads in other early voting states like South Carolina and Nevada among a crowded 2020 field.
“At least in Polk County, we haven’t seen as many visits from the Harris campaign yet,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats, where Des Moines is located. “The bad news for her is that some might complain about that. The good news is that people really want to see her. It’s a good problem to have, but definitely something she needs to figure out.”
According to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker, Harris will have held nearly as many events in Iowa during her five-day trip than she’s had in total in the state before August.
“My sense of it is that she has alleviated some of those concerns,” said Penny Rosfjord of Sioux City, a Democratic operative. “She’s really been on the ground quite a bit now.”
In Henry County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats, Jeff Fager said Harris’ visit to Mount Pleasant on Sunday night will go a long way with residents. Fager, chair of the Henry County Democratic Party, said top-tier candidates like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden had already stopped by to meet with potential caucusgoers.
“There have been some other candidates who have come a little earlier, but she’s getting a good start now,” Fager said.
In a Des Moines Register/CNN/Medicacom Iowa Poll conducted in early June, Kamala Harris ranked fourth among candidates in first choice selections. But the poll also showed underlying strengths for the California candidate, who tied with Warren in being named most often as respondents’ second choice for president.
Harris says she’s building an Iowa campaign ‘foundation’
Speaking to the Register, Harris noted she has more than 65 staffers and seven field offices in Iowa. On Thursday, as Harris held a rally in Sioux City, she became the first top-tier candidate of the cycle to start airing a television ad in Iowa.
“Since I entered the race, it has been about building up a foundation that is meaningful and strong and sturdy, to be able to connect with as many people as possible in the state,” Harris said.
Those connections paid off during her recent swing through Iowa. The Asian & Latino Coalition, which had been courted heavily by the Democratic candidates for months, on Monday night endorsed Harris. Days earlier, Sue and Bob Dvorsky, political heavyweights in state politics, also endorsed her.
By the time her bus pulled into her last rally in Davenport on Monday afternoon, Harris had traveled more than 650 miles, stopped formally in 11 counties and held 17 events.
The itinerary included presidential candidate staples: An appearance at the Wing Ding dinner in on Friday in Clear Lake, a meeting with the Register editorial board, along with pork flipping and retail politicking on Saturday at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
But in between, she hosted a roundtable with teachers in Fort Dodge, a meeting with renters in Waukee who have been impacted by rising housing costs, a farm visit in Lacona and a health care event in Burlington.
Harris said she wants to elevate kitchen table issues on the trail, like affordable health care access, providing a tax cut for middle-class families, giving teachers a raise and ending the gender pay gap. She’s adapted amid the national conversation over gun control: Her recent mentions of a policy she rolled out months ago aimed at curbing gun violence repeatedly got some of the loudest applause.
Harris said she’s enjoyed the trip, even though the days often included more than 12 hours of campaigning daily.
“The thing that I also enjoy about doing it this way: It’s not just going to places that are near airports,” she said. “It’s going to places where there aren’t airports but there are people. And being able to listen as much as I talk about the things that they care about and the way they’re living life.”
‘What position is she going to be in after Labor Day?’
Some Democratic operatives said Harris had early stumbles in Iowa, including with a July town hall in Sioux City in which attendees were turned away because the venue was too small. Months earlier, she scrapped plans for a church visit because of winter weather and cancelled a planned campaign swing to cast a key vote in the Senate.
Other candidates, including U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, decided to hold events in the state on the day following the vote.
“It was a missed opportunity,” said Tim Bottaro, a Sioux City attorney and former chairman of the Woodbury County Democratic Party.
Harris said people will have different perspectives about her strategy. She said it’s challenging to do extensive, dayslong visits to places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada because she still must do her job in the Senate. The chamber’s current recess gave her the window to make the five-day trip. Harris noted she hasn’t been home since the late-July debate.
“I would like to spend more time in the state,” she said. “This is one of those things where there’s just not enough time to do everything I’d like. But it is important to me to do as much as possible, and that’s why I’m doing this tour.”
John Norris, a longtime Iowa political operative, acknowledged Harris had not spent as much time in Iowa as some others. But he said Harris nevertheless appeared to be “in the thick of it” with caucusgoers. Norris said Harris might have been in more trouble if this was the 2004 or 2008 cycle. But, Norris said, this cycle is different.
“There are so many candidates and so many people taking their time to decide,” he said. “She has the opportunity to make a great first impression.”
Matt Paul, a veteran strategist who ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Iowa in 2016, said like others, that there is “no question” that Warren has built the strongest operation in Iowa so far. But, he said, all of the candidates must build their operations out from where they are now.
“The question is, what position is she going to be in after Labor Day?” he said. “That’s the opening of primary time.”
But dynamics can shift quickly. Clinton was consistently leading in polls around Labor Day in 2008. She ultimately came in third in Iowa that year.
“Don’t forget that Barack Obama didn’t become a star until November,” said Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic operative. Brazile offered a warning for the entire field, including Harris.
“The key for Iowa is presence,” she said. “Being there.”
Hinson, at the Mount Pleasant rally, literally waved her hand aside when asked if Harris had spent enough time in the state.
“She’s doing just fine,” Hinson said. “It’s early.”
Pamela Daws, a 68-year-old retiree from West Burlington, saw Harris speak at the health care roundtable. She recalled having coffee with a Harris staffer several days ago, and watching the staffer take notes on Daws’ top concerns. The staffer told Daws she planned to share her notes with top staff for Harris. That impressed Daws, who is undecided but is leaning toward Harris.
“I haven’t seen any other of the candidates’ representatives doing that,” Daws said.
Mary McAdams, chair of the Ankeny Area Democrats, said she had received three phone calls from Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, in recent months — an indication that the campaign is taking seriously the kind of relationship building with party insiders that could prove critical next year.
“Maybe some people felt at the beginning of the race that some people weren’t giving Iowa its deserved due,” she said. “I don’t think I felt that way.”
As Harris wrapped up her final event in Davenport, she added a new line to her familiar stump speech.
“Please join me on caucus night!” she said.