Crowded primary fields boost importance of Iowa off-year precinct caucuses

Parties expect higher turnout due to U.S. Senate and House nominations

James Q. Lynch
Published: December 19 2013 | 4:05 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:05 am in
Print Print

Iowa precinct caucuses in non-presidential years are, well, about as exciting as they sound.

Unless, you have a seven-way Republican race for the U.S. Senate, a five-way Democratic race in the U.S. House 1st District and what appears likely to be a mad scramble in Iowa’s 3rd District to replace retiring Rep. Tom Latham.

“There’s a real possibility that getting elected a delegate at your caucus could mean something in 2014,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman A.J. Spiker said.

Both parties foresee higher-than-usual participation for the Jan. 21 off-year caucuses because of the likelihood U.S. Senate and House nominations won’t be decided by the June 3 primary. In that case, the nominees will be determined at conventions by delegates first elected at their local precinct caucuses.

Four years ago, the Linn County Democratic caucuses attracted 157 people. Chairman Bret Nilles thinks turnout will be higher – perhaps, significantly higher in 2014.

“With a five-way race, we expect some of the congressional candidates will be pushing turnout,” Nilles said. “They’re taking a two-pronged approach – they’re trying to win the primary, but if they don’t, they want to be prepared for a convention.”

Linn County Republicans see a similar scenario with seven candidates seeking the nomination to run for an open U.S. Senate and three-way race for the 1st District GOP nomination.

If that’s not enough to draw a crowd, Chairwoman Cindy Golding is planning a pre-caucus rally a week before the caucuses.

And on caucus night, the Linn County GOP will have a straw poll giving people the opportunity to vote for their favorite 1st District and U.S. Senate candidates with dollar bills.

“Obviously it’s a fundraiser, but it will demonstrate a candidate’s ability to turn out supporters,” Golding said.

Democrats aren’t planning a straw poll, but there is a possibility that in some counties candidates may ask caucuses to form preference groups. Asking caucus attendees to break into groups to indicate which candidate they support is usually reserved for presidential year caucuses, Johnson County Democratic caucus coordinator John Deeth said. It’s more likely to happen in the 1st District race, he said.

“I hope not,” Nilles said, “but it’s a possibility and we’ll train precinct chairs how to handle that.”

In a non-presidential year, caucus participants – not candidates -- can ask that preference groups be formed, according to IDP spokeswoman Christina Freudlich. If 15 percent of a precinct’s caucus participants agree, then that caucus must form preference groups.

In Johnson County, GOP Chairman Bill Keetel predicted the Jan. 21 caucuses will be “much bigger than most off-year caucuses, but not the magnitude of a presidential year.”

There the caucus focus is likely to be on the traditional party organizing functions, he said.

None of the local leaders expect any potential 2016 candidates to show up at caucus activities. Candidates for statewide office and U.S. House races likely will get to as many caucuses as possible, organizers said.

Several Republicans have tentatively accepted the Linn GOP’s invitation to speak at its “super-site” caucus that will bring all county Republicans together at one location.

“We my have a long list of who’s whos or we may be giving our local candidates a lot of time at the podium,” she said. Several prominent Republicans have said they would like to come to Cedar Rapids, but their attendance depends on the congressional schedule. They expect budget negotiations may require their presence in Washington.

Johnson County Democrats likely will spend their time discussion platform issues, Deeth said.

“We’re infamous for that,” he said. “Some places, they just send everything to the platform committee, but in Johnson County it’s something people care about.”

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Is there other feedback and/or ideas you want to share with us? Tell us here.

Featured Jobs from