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In Iowa, Democrats Are Already Campaigning Ahead Of Presidential Caucuses


Part of the calculus for Democrats on whether to move forward with impeachment proceedings is assessing how it might affect the outcome in the 2020 elections. In Iowa, the campaign already feels like it's in full swing. That's despite the fact that the field of presidential candidates is not complete. Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to officially enter any day now, and others could still jump in.


NPR's Don Gonyea says those who have declared their candidacy are making visits to less-well-trod campaign stops, including in rural and solidly Republican parts of the state.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Denison, Iowa, the hometown of Academy Award-winning actress Donna Reed, has a population of just over 8,000. It's in a county that gave Donald Trump 2 of every 3 votes cast in 2016. Nevertheless, the Democrats are coming to town.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fine. How are you?

GILLIBRAND: Kirsten Gillibrand. Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nice to meet you.

GILLIBRAND: How're you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Doing good. You traveling all over?

GILLIBRAND: I sure am, doing the hard work.

GONYEA: That Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York on a stop at Cronk's Cafe in Denison. About 30 people were waiting for her in the back dining room on Friday, one of them noting that this is also the district of one of the nation's most conservative members of Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Got to congratulate you on coming to Western Iowa - Steve King Country. There are Democrats. We are out here. So - and that's brave.

GONYEA: Two weeks earlier, Democratic hopeful Beto O'Rourke was in this exact same room. Gillibrand took questions, did interviews, posed for selfies, talked rural issues and said Trump has not been good for these voters.

GILLIBRAND: And he's created a trade war with China, which is particularly crippling, especially for farmers in Iowa.

GONYEA: But a day earlier on a morning when there were no candidates dropping by, my conversation with some customers at a table near the front windows underscored how steep of a climb Democrats have in this part of the state. Meet 70-year-old Sonny Sonnichsen.

SONNY SONNICHSEN: Not a diehard Republican, but I'm following Trump. We needed a change. And if they'd just give him a chance, I think he'd do wonders, if he hasn't already done some great things.

GONYEA: But he says the Washington establishment won't give Trump any credit. He says they still can't get over the fact that Trump won. Seated to his left is 68-year-old electrician Jerry Bryan. I ask if he's a Republican. He prefers this description...

JERRY BRYAN: Conservative.

GONYEA: You're a conservative.


GONYEA: Bryan voted for Trump. He acknowledges that Trump often gets his facts wrong and that he lacks polish and that he relishes picking a fight. But he says the media, which he labels the left-wing media, jump on him no matter what. Then I ask Bryan to look ahead to the 2020 election.

BRYAN: Not to be humorous in a situation that needs some real serious concentration, but I'm probably going to vote for the lesser of the weasels, all right?

GONYEA: So you put Trump in that category.

BRYAN: Yes, yes.

GONYEA: But ultimately he thinks Trump has the skills as a businessman that the country needs right now. As for the trade fight so many farmers complain about, including those retaliatory tariffs by China on soybeans and other Iowa commodities, Bryan says it's not a permanent situation.

BRYAN: We'll get through it. But someplace along the line, you've got to have a little pain for a little gain.

GONYEA: Democratic candidates are hoping to both win votes here in next February's caucuses and send a message that they can get votes in rural America, something that could make the difference in the general election in battleground states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that Trump carried narrowly. Recently the northwest Iowa town of Storm Lake hosted five Democratic candidates at something called the Heartland Forum, focusing on ag policy. Sixty-four-year-old Chris Petersen of Clear Lake, Iowa, was there.

CHRIS PETERSEN: Been a family farmer all my life, traditional family farms.

GONYEA: But he says it's getting harder and harder to survive. Petersen is a Democrat.

PETERSEN: You know, it's not only the trade stuff. It's the flood stuff. It's the price of the grain. Everything is bad right now. And I tell you what. The Democrats need to stand up.

GONYEA: Do enough Democrats understand what's happening here?

PETERSEN: Well, that's the problem. A lot of them don't. Of course Trump doesn't either, you know?

GONYEA: Also at the forum was Beth Henning, an independent who votes Democratic. She has deep family roots in farming. She says in 2016, Democrats seemed to write off rural areas, which cost them in a close election.

BETH HENNING: I think that's true. I think that a lesson has been learned that you can't ignore the rural Midwest.

GONYEA: So far, that's not a problem this election season, though some Denison residents did complain, saying it's way too early for this. But for rural Democrats used to being forgotten, they are relishing the sudden attention. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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