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Iowa Democrats warn that Kamala Harris’ ‘star is fading’

June 7, 2019
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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention in San Francisco, Saturday, June 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Tim Bottaro was ready to endorse Kamala Harris. He planned an event for the California senator in Sioux City, Iowa, buying balloons to match her campaign’s colors.

But the morning before Harris was due to arrive, her campaign called the former Democratic Party chairman in Woodbury County to cancel, blaming a crucial Senate vote on disaster aid. To Bottaro, it sounded like an excuse — Harris canceled both days of her Iowa swing, while several other senators were able to make the vote and still get to Iowa that weekend.

He’s now decided not to endorse Harris, illustrating the risk candidates face if they leave Iowa residents with the impression that they’re not paying enough attention to the state’s coveted caucuses. Harris returns to Iowa this weekend promising renewed focus. But her relatively small staff and frequent travel to other places suggest Iowa isn’t the linchpin in her strategy to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

That’s prompting complaints across the state.

“They’re doing the business of being a serious presidential candidate, and I don’t think she is, at least with the way she’s handling Iowa,” Bottaro said. “Her star is fading in these parts and other parts of Iowa.”

Harris’ campaign insists she isn’t writing off Iowa.

“Our state is so important in this process,” said Deirdre DeJear, the former secretary of state candidate who is now Harris’ Iowa campaign chairwoman. “Many Iowans are just starting to tune in, and we are connecting with them. ... Our campaign is being built to compete across Iowa, including all four corners of the state.”

In Polk County, home to Des Moines, where Harris has appeared before, local Democratic Party chairman Sean Bagniewski said there’s a hunger for more Harris.

“People are asking for appearances, asking for how to get involved with the campaign, asking how to support her, and they’re not seeing as much interaction as they might be seeing with (Cory) Booker or (Elizabeth) Warren or Bernie (Sanders), or some of the other campaigns at this point,” he said.

Indeed, that was part of what Penny Rosfjord said sparked “frustration” among Democrats when Harris canceled her western Iowa swing.

“It was a big disappointment because a lot of people were counting on getting to meet her,” said Rosfjord, the Democratic chairwoman for Iowa’s 4th District. “I feel like I want to get to know her better. I want Iowans to get to know her better. I really like her. I would just like to see her here.”

Some of this anxiety surfaces every four years as activists in the early voting states worry that candidates aren’t paying enough attention to them. Harris has faced similar criticism this year in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary.

The California senator is expected to ramp up her visits heading into the summer and fall, and the campaign plans a major hiring spree, adding to their staff of 35 paid staffers, which includes fellows. The campaign aims to increase its Iowa payroll to 65 by July 1.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker already have more than 50 staffers fanned out across the state. Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke have more than 40 — all building the kind of sustained support and relationships that help a candidate compete in the caucuses.

Some Iowa political operatives warn that with so many candidates in the race, it will be tough to find strong staff.

“If you wanted to ramp up your ground game in Iowa, I don’t even know if there are enough Iowans left to hire,” Bagniewski said.

Harris has ties to Iowa that date back more than a decade, when she campaigned for Barack Obama ahead of the 2008 caucuses. She was back in the state last year stumping for DeJear. And she’s expected to make three Iowa stops in the next five weeks.

But there’s no doubt that she’s also placing intense focus on South Carolina, which holds the first southern primary and is dominated by black women Harris hopes to win. This weekend marks her seventh visit to the state and only her fourth to Iowa.

She also hopes to win big in some delegate-rich states that vote on Super Tuesday, including her home state of California along with southern states that have large minority populations. As a sign of her priorities, she’s visiting Alabama and South Carolina this week ahead of her Iowa swing.

But Iowans warn that top-tier candidates take the state for granted at their own peril, and note that all of the party’s last four nominees won Iowa.

“If you’re not serious about getting in the top three, I’m not sure why you’d expend many resources here,” said John Norris, who ran John Kerry’s 2004 Iowa caucus campaign.

Still, the caucuses are about eight months away, and some Democrats said there’s still time for Harris to mount an aggressive Iowa campaign.

“It is still early, and there does not appear to be a wave of folks making their caucus decision at this point,” said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

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This story has been corrected to show that Bottaro’s event was scheduled to be in Sioux City, not Cedar Rapids.

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