DES MOINES, Iowa — Before the Polk County Democratic Party’s steak fry, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos was trying to give potential candidates the secret sauce for Democrats to win in rural areas.
The Sept. 30 event was Bustos’ first “Build the Bench” event outside her home state. The program helps train candidates looking to run for local office.
Bustos, as a member of House Democratic leadership, is working from within on recruitment. In contrast, two of the day’s other keynote speakers, Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, have taken an insurgent approach to helping the party get back on track.
The event is the successor to what used to be former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s steak fry and has been visited over the years by potential Democratic presidential candidates hoping to make connections in what is traditionally the first nominating state every four years.
Dodging the question
Moulton and Ryan’s names have been floated as potential Democratic candidates in 2020, while Bustos is on the edge of the conversation. All three dodged questions about their presidential ambitions.
“I’m here because I got invited to be here,” Moulton said. “We’re trying to move the conversation and say that Democrats have a vision.”
Asked about 2020, Ryan said, “We’re focusing on ’18.”
Bustos, who passed on running for governor, said she was focused on rebuilding the Democratic bench but recalled advice from her late father Gene Callahan, a onetime chief of staff to Illinois Sens. Paul Simon and Alan Dixon.
“If you do a good job, the future will take care of things, and if you do a bad job, the future will take care of that, too,” she said.
The stage in Des Moines was literally set for future presidential hopefuls, as the flag draped behind it was from one of Obama’s last campaign addresses in the state.
Bustos said it was natural for her to come to Iowa. “I’ve worked in this state for 20 years of my career,” she said. “I know this state and I think the people here are very similar to the people I represent in Illinois.”
During her speech, Bustos touted her ties to the Hawkeye State, where she once worked as a journalist and in the health care industry.
She also pointed out that while President Donald Trump carried her district last year, she won re-election by 20 points, the largest winning margin by any Democrat in a Trump district. Des Moines is in Iowa’s 3rd District, which broke for Trump after voting for President Barack Obama twice.
Bustos first considered running for Illinois’ 17th District when her brother died shortly after Republican Bobby Schilling’s 2010 victory and she was worried about GOP attempts to roll back the health care law passed that year.
Her ability to win in a red district has earned her special status in House Democratic leadership, on which she is the only Midwesterner.
She co-chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and also is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chairwoman of heartland engagement, which involves crafting an economic message for rural areas, including ones in Iowa.
During the Build the Bench training, potential state and local candidates learned how to pitch their personal stories, sell their message on direct mailers and raise money for their campaigns.
Emily Parcell, a direct mail consultant for Bustos who helped lead the training, frequently used the congresswoman’s campaign direct mailings and slogans as examples for potential candidates to emulate.
Parcell said Bustos wanted to start a program like Build the Bench when they first met a year before her 2012 election. “I said, ‘Cheri, let’s get you into Congress first,’” Parcell recalled.
While Bustos has worked from the inside, Moulton and Ryan have taken a decidedly more insurgent approach to rebuilding the party.
After last fall’s elections, Ryan staged a failed bid to challenge House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, which Moulton backed.
Ryan was the final speaker at the steak fry when much of the crowd had winnowed. But his speech got some of the biggest applause lines — in particular, when he criticized Democrats for leaving behind working-class voters who flocked to Trump.
“While I’m mad at the Republicans, I’m just as mad at us for letting this happen,” Ryan said. “There’s no way this guy should be president.”
That month, Ryan also gave a commencement address at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield and spoke at a Polk County Democrats’ event at Cooney’s, a bar in Des Moines.
Sarah Morgan, a steak fry attendee who lives in Loebsack’s district, said she chatted with Ryan about meditation, a subject on which which the congressman has written a book.
“He’s definitely not one of those people,” she said, referring to the party establishment. “Taking [Pelosi] on in the Democratic Party is very brave.”
Ryan said he planned to visit Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia to repair the party brand. He visited New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first presidential primary contest, for a Young Democrats cookout in August.
Heather Ryan, no relation to the congressman and a candidate for Iowa’s 3rd District, was almost banned from speaking at the steak fry for making inflammatory remarks about Republicans including incumbent GOP Rep. David Young.
She said she thought Ryan was running for president, but while she called Moulton and Bustos “great Democrats,” she said “unless they can keep my attention — and I love this stuff — then I don’t see a chance to win the national fight.”
Still, she said she sympathized with Moulton because party leadership in Massachusetts tried to interfere in his first race for Congress.
Moulton was one of Ryan’s biggest supporters during his failed leadership bid last year.
An Iraq War veteran who opposed the war, Moulton won his first race in 2014 after challenging incumbent Democrat John F. Tierney. He has criticized party leadership after losses in both the 2016 elections and special elections since.
Moulton has channeled his frustration into endorsing Democratic veterans running for Congress and recently raised $600,000 for them at a fundraiser in Boston.
He said one of the few good things to have come out of last year’s election was that it motivated more people to get involved, including veterans.
“Veterans understand the risk of having such a derelict commander in chief,” Moulton said of Trump. “So Iowa Democrats get the fact that we can’t keep doing the same old thing in our party.”
Joseph Kopser, who is challenging Republican Rep. Lamar Smith in Texas’ 21st District and attended the fundraiser in Boston, said Moulton’s endorsement and fundraising will help his campaign.
“In the actual mechanics, the single most difficult thing is the network of fundraising,” Kopser said.
Moulton and Ryan’s open criticism of Democratic leadership may have burned some bridges they may need down the road.
“It’s very clear to everyone that their criticism about Nancy Pelosi is about them and their aspirations,” a senior Democratic aide in Washington said of the party establishment view of the duo.
The aide suggested Moulton is looking at a White House run because he likely wouldn’t stage a primary challenge against either of his state’s Democratic senators, Elizabeth Warren or Edward J. Markey.
But longtime Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who has worked for Moulton and other liberal candidates, said the congressman’s efforts are not about promoting himself.
“Everything is more about 2018 and winning seats, then hoping to take the House back,” Trippi said.
Similarly, Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said Moulton has little to lose given the fact the Democratic establishment tried to block him in his first run for the House.
“He’s really beholden to nobody,” he said.
When asked how her approach differed from Moulton and Ryan’s, Bustos said she is focused on team building.
“Any of us, 190-plus Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, can go around complaining about leadership or that we need new blood,” she said. “What are we actually doing about it? And it’s easy to talk, but let’s do something about it.”Clarification 6:20 p.m. | An earlier version of this story mischaracterized how Ryan’s visit to New Hampshire came about.