The stakes are high for Iowa Democrats in the midterms this year. It's been a while since there's been a major win for the party in the swing state. And Tuesday could be one of the first steps. That's when Democratic voters will select a candidate to run against Iowa's Republican Governor, Kim Reynolds.
Early voting in Iowa was underway and primary day was less than two weeks away when a bombshell story shook up the Democratic race for the state's top seat. Three women came forward accusing one of the candidates, state Sen. Nate Boulton, of sexual misconduct. The 38-year-old Boulton, once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, quickly suspended his campaign.
The Iowa Senate Democratic minority leader is calling on the first-term senator to resign. And meanwhile, the remaining five candidates have been working to woo Boulton's supporters. As a labor attorney, Boulton has been a champion for union worker rights in the legislature. And the state's largest public sector workers union endorsed him.
"I am going to do everything in my power to elect a Democrat [for] governor of this state and every other elected office that we can," says Danny Homan, the union's president. "I believe in absolutely nothing that Kim Reynolds stands for."
Swaying Boulton's supporters will be critical for the remaining candidates — polls showed Boulton was the most likely candidate to pull ahead of the front-runner, Fred Hubbell.
Hubbell is a 67-year-old businessman who served on the board of the regional Planned Parenthood. And he's wealthy. He's put nearly $3 million of his own money into his campaign and is massively outspending all the other candidates.
"Fred told me before either of us got in that I couldn't run," one of his competitors, longtime Democratic operative John Norris, pointed out in a light-hearted moment in a debate in May, "because he was going to have all the money."
Hubbell's wealth doesn't bother Felicia Hilton, a supporter. She gathered with others who say he has their vote outside the Democrats' final debate last week.
"If Fred Hubbell is willing to spend every dime that he has, in my opinion, to save Iowa from this radical extreme Republican party right now, I'm all for it," Hilton said.
With total control of the statehouse last year, Republicans passed many conservative priorities, like gutting public sector union rights and passing the country's most restrictive abortion law — which has been temporarily blocked by a district judge.
Hubbell and the other candidates regularly attack Gov. Reynolds for what they say is fiscal mismanagement and for giving too many tax breaks to corporations. They also criticize Gov. Reynolds for not reversing the state's privatized Medicaid.
"We need to fix this state," Hubbell told NPR walking into the final debate. "We need to turn it around and take it back where most Iowans want it."
Meanwhile, Gov. Reynolds has had to introduce herself to Iowans this election. That's because she was never elected to the office. She's been lieutenant governor since 2011 and last year when President Donald Trump tapped Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to become the US Ambassador to China, Reynolds took over. She's unopposed in her primary and is running ads trying to show voters who she is.
Cathy Glasson, a Democratic candidate for Governor, a nurse and a union leader says that in order to win against Reynolds, she and her opponents need to lean far to the left.
"They think by staying in the center and doing status quo politics, as usual, is how to beat [Reynolds]," Glasson says. "It's absolutely not the way to beat her because Democrats have lost 11 out of the last 14 governor races by doing that." Glasson has the support of many Iowans who backed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election.
Betty Salmon, a retired teacher, came to talk to Glasson at a campaign event in Des Moines. She says she thinks Glasson, who's calling for Medicare for all and stricter gun control, would beat Reynolds. "She is trying to make up for a lot of lost years that we've been sitting on the fence and not really addressing the problems that have been building up."
NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. We're going to go now to Iowa. High stakes there for Democrats who will go to the polls tomorrow to pick a candidate to run against the state's Republican governor. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports the candidates are scrambling for votes.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: With early voting underway and less than two weeks before the Iowa primary election, three women came forward. They accused one of the Democratic candidates for governor, State senator and labor attorney Nate Boulton, of sexual misconduct. The 38-year-old, who was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, suspended his campaign. Now the remaining five candidates are working to woo Boulton's supporters. Danny Homan is the president of the state's largest public sector union, which endorsed Boulton. He's disappointed but not deterred.
DANNY HOMAN: I am going to do everything within my power to elect a Democrat governor of this state in every other elected office that we possibly can.
MASTERS: Nate Boulton, the first-term senator, has been a champion for union worker rights in the Legislature. Homan says he'll now support whoever gets the nomination to take on Republican Governor Kim Reynolds.
HOMAN: Not necessarily because I believe in everything that they stand for but because I believe in absolutely nothing that Kim Reynolds stands for.
MASTERS: Before Boulton dropped out, polls showed him as the most likely to pull ahead of the front-runner, Fred Hubbell. He's a 67-year-old businessman. Hubbell has put over 2 million of his own dollars into his campaign and is massively outspending all of the other candidates. That's something one of his competitors, longtime Democratic operative John Norris, pointed out in a debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN NORRIS: Fred told me before either one of us got in that I couldn't win because he's going to have all the money - honest story.
MASTERS: But his wealth doesn't bother Felicia Hilton. She gathered with other Hubbell supporters outside the final debate.
FELICIA HILTON: If Fred Hubbell is willing to spend every dime that he has, in my opinion, to save Iowa from this radical, extreme Republican Party that we have right now, I'm all for it.
MASTERS: Republicans took over the state House last year, passing many conservative priorities, like gutting public sector union rights and passing the country's most restrictive abortion law. A judge last week temporarily blocked that one. While walking into that final debate, Hubbell tells me the state's a mess.
FRED HUBBELL: We need to fix this state. We need to turn it around and take it back where most Iowans want it.
MASTERS: Hubbell blames what he calls mismanagement on Governor Kim Reynolds. She's never been elected to the job. She was lieutenant governor and took over last year after President Trump tapped former Governor Terry Branstad to become the U.S. ambassador to China. Reynolds is unopposed in her primary and is running ads introducing herself to Iowans.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
KIM REYNOLDS: My husband and I used to wave goodbye in the driveway as we took turns leaving for work and watching the girls...
MASTERS: While campaigning at a Des Moines bar, one of the Democratic candidates, Cathy Glasson, meets with supporters. Glasson is a nurse and union leader who has a lot of support from Iowans who backed Bernie Sanders in 2016. She's calling for things like Medicare for all and stricter gun control. Glasson says her opponents are not being bold enough.
CATHY GLASSON: They think by staying in the center and doing status quo politics as usual is how to beat her. It's absolutely not the way to beat her because Democrats have lost 11 out of the last 14 governor's races by doing that.
MASTERS: Betty Solomon, a retired teacher, thinks Glasson would win in a matchup against Reynolds.
BETTY SOLOMON: I think she's trying to make up for a lot of lost years that we've been sitting on the fence and not really addressing the problems that have been building up to this point.
MASTERS: And if Democrats can't take over the governor's mansion, the party will face even bigger problems in gaining back the ground they've lost in the last decade. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.