At first glance, Storm Lake, Iowa, doesn’t seem like the sort of place that would attract Democratic presidential candidates.
The town of 10,600 sits in the highly conservative northwest corner of the state. In 2016, Donald Trump collected 4,903 votes in surrounding Buena Vista County, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 2,856 votes.
But on Saturday, at least four of the major Democratic candidates will gather in Storm Lake for a candidate forum. While the event is billed as a way for Democrats to reconnect with rural voters after the trouncing they suffered in 2016, part of the appeal is also to share a stage with Art Cullen, the town’s Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor. Two HuffPost journalists will also moderate the forum.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., will be there. Also attending is Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who’s considering a presidential bid. Warren and Castro have already made campaign stops in Storm Lake.
“It kind of tells me who really cares about rural Iowa, frankly,” Cullen says. “And if you ain’t there, you’re square.”
Until now, Cullen says he has never received attention during a presidential campaign. But in 2017, Cullen won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials challenging corporate agribusiness, a potential message that the right Democrat might be able to use to woo some disaffected Trump voters.
“What I’m talking about is realistic, sustainable practices that can be encouraged by Congress to make farmers and the environment whole and we know how to do it,” Cullen says. “It’s just that the chemical companies have bought the process. They’ve bought the judicial process, and they’ve bought the political process.”
Storm Lake is a perfect microcosm of rural America’s challenges, says former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture.
It has a growing immigrant population (many work at the Tyson meatpacking plant). It’s home to Buena Vista University, a small private college that’s trying to attract and retain students while keeping costs affordable. The area’s farmers have seen difficult times amid slumping commodity prices and tariffs brought on by the Trump administration’s trade policies.
“If you’re not in a position to point out how government works and how government can work well for rural places, then the argument of less government, less taxes, less regulation is basically a winning argument,” Vilsack says.
The event comes as many Democratic candidates are trying to hone their pitch to rural America.
This week, Warren proposed appointing regulators to review and reverse some mergers among agribusiness companies and also looking to see whether some of those firms should be broken up on antitrust grounds.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won’t be attending the Storm Lake event, just published an op-ed in The Des Moines Register saying he’ll fight for farmers against powerful agribusiness if elected.
Klobuchar’s first campaign trip in Iowa went through small towns like Knoxville, where she pitched renewable energy and programs to combat climate change.
“There’s real gains for rural America if you do this right,” Klobuchar says. “I just don’t see this separate environment from economic gain.”
In a recent interview with Iowa Public Radio, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who won’t be attending Saturday’s forum, says rural America is not just about the food and fiber it grows.
“But in addition to that, it’s the military service that distinguishes this country and is found disproportionately in rural communities,” O’Rourke said.
“Beto? Where’s he at? Is he out in Taos or is he dancing with Oprah?” Cullen wondered aloud. “Joe Biden? He’s trying to make up his mind. Well, why doesn’t he come and make up his mind with a bunch of Farmers Union members in Storm Lake? They’ll help him make up his mind real good.”
Cullen says candidates who show up in rural Iowa have historically done much better in the caucuses, which means Cullen may be hosting more presidential wannabes between now and February 2020.