Iowa Democrats Ready For Hillary

She hasn't even announced a campaign yet, but supporters in the early caucus state are gearing up for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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Jim Young / REUTERS

Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa, January 3, 2008.

In 2008, Iowa Democrats rejected Hillary Clinton to propel a freshman senator to the White House. This time, they can’t wait to jump aboard the Clinton train.

An overwhelmingly female crowd of nearly 100 gathered in Des Moines on Friday morning to help pave the way for Clinton’s as-yet-unannounced 2016 candidacy. The event, organized by the pro-Hillary women’s group EMILY’s List, was pegged — only half-jokingly — as the kickoff for Clinton’s campaign.

“Is she here?” asked EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, laughing.

While the former secretary of state wasn’t there in person, her presence hung over the gathering, like it has over the entire Democratic contest. It took one panel discussion participant, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, less than 60 seconds to bring her up.

“We have to have millions of people engaged and ready for what will be the pivotal race in America’s history,” McCaskill said. “And that is about getting everyone excited now for what I hope will be that moment in 2017 when we all get to say ‘Madam President’ to Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

McCaskill was the Obama supporter in 2008 who famously said she wouldn’t trust her daughter near former President Bill Clinton, and who in recent months has been working to repair her relationship with the Clintons.

As the failed 2008 campaign showed, the Clintons have few ties to Iowa compared to other early states like New Hampshire; Bill Clinton didn’t compete in the 1992 caucuses because favorite son Sen. Tom Harkin was seeking the nomination. And Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign demonstrated an initial unwillingness to go all-in in the state. After a the release of a memo outlining ways she could skip Iowa, Clinton’s team doubled down in the state, but it was too late. Clinton placed third in the 2008 caucuses, finishing with 29.5 percent, behind then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 37.6 percent and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ 29.8 percent.

McCaskill said she’s answered complaints that she supported Obama over Clinton for the last six years, saying, “It’s not like I’m voting for a good ‘ol boy.” But now, she said, Iowa Democrats have the opportunity to “make history twice in a row.”

Iowa is just one of two states — along with Mississippi — that has never elected a woman to Congress or governor. But an EMILY’s List poll in April found Iowa Democrats to be more willing to vote for a woman for president than Democrats in other battleground states.

“There is no doubt that President Obama set the bar pretty high for how Democrats run their caucus campaigns — a true grassroots organization with momentum and energy that got people excited,” Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan said. “I think Iowa Democrats look forward to doing the same type of work in 2014 and 2016, whether it’s behind Hillary or any other Democratic candidate. Iowans know that building a strong volunteer organization that connects young people, women and minorities is key to paving the way to the White House. No one should ever take Iowa Democrats for granted.”

A July poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Clinton has a 59-percentage-point lead in the Hawkeye State over Vice President Joe Biden, with 71 percent of potential Democratic caucus-goers supporting her.

Republicans are already downplaying her strength in the state.

“Hillary will have to do a lot more than I think she’s going to be willing to do to win,” said David Kochel, a GOP consultant who ran Mitt Romney’s Iowa campaign last year. “She’s never been a real fan of Iowa if you believe the inside reporting from 2008 and Bill Clinton never ran in a caucus. It will leave a wide-open opportunity for someone willing to run a Santorum-style, or Jimmy Carter-style effort here. Yes, she’s the frontrunner, but Iowa is built to put dents in frontrunners.”

Because of Clinton’s influence, no potential 2016 Democratic hopefuls have visited the state since last November’s election, compared to a long roster of Republican aspirants who have trekked here. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar will be in Clear Lake, Iowa next week for the North Iowa Wing Ding — an annual Democratic Party event — but the state party has yet to book a speaker for its highest profile event, the fall Jefferson Jackson Dinner.

Democrats insist that if Clinton runs there will be someone to challenge her, but her sky-high popularity and the growing national movement to elect a woman to the White House is almost certain to prevent a recurrence of 2008.

“There’s nobody in today’s Democratic Party who could take her on and win,” said one Iowa Democratic operative. “There are a bunch of people who could run to boost their own profiles, but she’s just too popular here this time.”

Asked when there will be two women on a party ticket, Schriock, pointing to a popular freshman senator from Massachusetts, replied: “Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren has a nice ring to it.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Iowa and Mississippi were one of two states never to have elected a woman to Congress. In fact, there are four such states. Iowa and Mississippi are the only two states never to have elected women to Congress or governor.