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Republicans have had most of Iowa's attention all year. Democrats want to change that

Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman walks onto stage in his trademark Carhart hoodie and basketball shorts Saturday night at Prairie Meadows Casino in Altoona, Iowa. Fetterman was the featured speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration on Nov. 4.
Clay Masters
/
Iowa Public Radio
Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman walks onto stage in his trademark Carhart hoodie and basketball shorts Saturday night at Prairie Meadows Casino in Altoona, Iowa. Fetterman was the featured speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration on Nov. 4.

ALTOONA, Iowa — Iowa Democrats looked to boost spirits among the party faithful at their sold-out Liberty and Justice Celebration which featured party up-and-comer Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa.

"You might agree that the GOP is not sending their best and brightest to Iowa," Fetterman said to laughs from the audience wearing his trademark hoodie and basketball shorts.

Republican presidential candidates have been spending the better part of the year campaigning in Iowa ahead of its first-in-the nation caucuses on Jan. 15. The fundraiser also comes following Iowa Democrats' abysmal midterm where the party lost its only Democrat left in Congress and two longtime statewide officeholders were also taken out.

To add insult to injury, the Democratic National Committee then did not pick Iowa to be the first to vote in 2024 after the debacle of Iowa's 2020 caucuses where the Associated Press never announced a winner.

So, Fetterman's trip to the state was a way to counter-program the constant Republican presence and give Iowa Democrats some hope amid an otherwise challenging landscape.

Four years ago, the fundraiser drew thousands to an arena to hear speeches from the crowded 2020 field. Former President Barack Obama used his 2007 speech at the event, then called the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, for a breakthrough moment in his race against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

While trips to Iowa from an up-and-coming Democrat might turn heads about a potential challenge to an incumbent president, Fetterman was instead there to bolster support for President Biden.

"If you are a Democrat that wants to criticize and go after Joe Biden, our president then go ahead and write a check for Trump," Fetterman said. That was a shot at Minnesota U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips who is running against Biden. He also took a swipe at California Gov. Gavin Newsom who has not said he's challenging Biden but has been raising his public profile lately.

Democrats in Iowa need a lot of people to turn out and caucus for Biden if they want a chance to ever be first again. Iowa Democrats will still hold a caucus on Jan. 15, the same night as Republicans, but they will only conduct party business that night. They're doing the presidential preference portion of the caucuses all by mail and results won't be released until Super Tuesday, March 5.

The DNC has said they'll reopen the nominating calendar every four years. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart says the mail-in system will increase turnout because it will make it more accessible for people who can't make the in-person caucus. The lack of voting access has been a major criticism of the Iowa Caucus by national Democrats.

"If we have more participation [and] more representation from all walks of life that exist here in Iowa that just puts us in a better position to make that case in 2028," Hart said.

Every speaker at the event Saturday tried to give Iowa Democrats some hope. Tax examiner and former military police Jordan True came specifically to hear Fetterman.

"I'm trying to show up as a young voter," True explained. "I probably have much more progressive views than most people in this room."

True says he considered changing his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican so he could have more impact in the political process in his home state. Ultimately, though, he's going to stick it out.

"I want to help bring that change to the party and it's not going to come if we keep abandoning it as young people," he said.

Meanwhile, the Republican caucus is still former President Donald Trump's to lose. However, Trump has been coming to the state more often in the last month. The caucus has a way of surprising people and Trump wants to win — he didn't in 2016.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is picking up a big endorsement in the state. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will endorse him at a rally in Des Moines Monday night.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.