Gov. John Hickenlooper ventured to Des Moines, Iowa on Friday to lay the groundwork for a possible presidential bid in 2020. He is meeting Democratic state lawmakers, party officials, community leaders, and campaigning for Iowa’s Democratic candidate for governor Fred Hubbell on Saturday.
He also spoke at the annual international World Food Prize gathering at a downtown hotel, and discussed ways he’s tried to bring people together as governor, a message he hopes resonates here.
“They’re pragmatists, they want to see stuff get done, that’s encouraging to hear,” Hickenlooper said of Iowans. He told CPR News before the World Food Prize event that one thing he’ll highlight is the importance of good, effective government.
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“I’m not trying to make my name heard here. I’m not trying to get on TV or create news,” Hickenlooper said. “I’m really coming to try and, in a closer more granular way, understand where Iowa is in this moment in time. Is what we’ve done in Colorado and what I stand for something that would make a difference in Iowa? Would people respond to that message?”
He’s not the only Democrat trying to make inroads in Iowa right now. On Saturday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives, and on Monday California Sen. Kamala Harris will make her first visit. Earlier this month New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker headlined a Democratic dinner.
“It’s weather or politics, you know, the conversations you hear in this area. It’s a big thing,” said Iowa voter Denise Diaz. She owns the Ritual Cafe in downtown Des Moines. She backed Sanders in the 2016 Democratic caucus and while she said she still loves him, she’s keeping an open mind about everyone else. Diaz hadn’t heard of Hickenlooper, but believes whoever takes on President Donald Trump needs to talk about real issues in an authentic way.
“They’re going to need to stand strong and not back down,” Diaz said. “They have to be visible and come forth with a plan to change this country around.”
For her, health care, women’s rights and reproductive rights, and the country’s standing in the world are key issues.
Voter Scott Folsom, who stopped by the cafe for breakfast, said he hasn’t decided who he’d back.
“They haven’t really come up with anyone who can inspire anyone,” Folsom said. He’s lived in Iowa his entire life and works at a repair service call center for CenturyLink. He supported Sanders in 2016, but not now.
“In 2016 we had two candidates who were extremely inspiring for different reasons and this time I’m supposed to get excited about candidates who don’t have much of a background, or who have so much of a background we’re tired of seeing them.”
Folsom feels Democrats need to do some soul searching after the midterm election to find a candidate who can inspire both the grassroots and moderates. He had heard of Hickenlooper, “but that’s about it,” and thought he’d already need higher name ID to be successful in a crowded field with well known candidates.
Hickenlooper doesn’t have an obvious natural constituency in the Democratic party but he said he doesn’t think he needs one. He plans to draw on his own life experience to try to build support from different groups of voters.
“I was in the brewpub and restaurant business and it’s not a typical political constituency, but you learn lessons in the restaurant industry, and I know what it’s like to be a restaurant employee. I lived it. That’s a constituency,” he told CPR News. He said he also relates to people who have been laid off. He lost his job as a geologist in the 1980s.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs in the last 20 years and have been out of work for a while. If I can connect with them and explain what I think can be done differently and help people get back on track, in a quicker and more successful fashion, that’s a constituency.”
And politics is nothing if uncertain -- look no further than the prediction-defying election of President Trump.
“Colorado is a state that’s in the Great Plains, Midwest, middle America, so his message might resonate pretty well here in Iowa,” said Clay Masters, who covers politics for Iowa Public Radio. “There are a lot of people here that might connect with someone who is a Governor from Colorado versus a Governor from Washington or a Senator from one of the coasts.” But Clay adds, they’ll have to know who he is first.
Hickenlooper says he’ll make a final decision on whether to run for president next year, after he leaves office. The political action committee he’s formed to help explore the possibility has raised more than a quarter-million dollars in its first month.