Politics & Policy

Iowa’s Democratic Establishment Is Unmoved by ‘Bernie-Mentum’

Sanders at the Hall of Fame dinner on Friday. (Scott Olson/Getty)

The anticipation among the press corps was palpable before Martin O’Malley had even finished his speech. The five presidential hopefuls at Friday’s Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame dinner were speaking in alphabetical order, and reporters who hadn’t already been so lucky were eager to see for themselves what all the Bernie Sanders buzz is about.

But the raucous chants of “Ber-nie, Ber-nie” radiating from 200 Sanders supporters huddled in one corner of the ballroom started sounding less enthusiastic, and more confused, a few minutes into the Vermont senator’s speech. Though Sanders was delivering the same message that’s drawn thousands to rallies across Iowa, Wisconsin, and Maine, here at the Cedar Rapids DoubleTree much of the audience was notably unmoved. Many diners sat impassively as Sanders wagged a rhetorical finger in the air, with one or two per table making tepid attempts at applause. And when the independent senator and self-described socialist spoke of the need for a “political revolution,” in parts of the room you could almost hear a pin drop.

Perhaps that’s because, in some sense, Sanders was talking about overthrowing them. If there is such a thing as a “Democratic establishment” in a state like Iowa, those who attended the Hall of Fame dinner are it. Current and former county party officials and high-profile Democratic activists and organizers made up most of the 1,300 Iowans attending the Friday night dinner. And throughout the night, they made clear their preference for the well-oiled, mainstream Clinton machine over Sander’s ad hoc, radically Left-wing message. For all the hype around “Bernie-mentum,” Hillary Clinton’s lock on Iowa’s Democratic elite seems unlikely to be broken any time soon.

There was little ambivalence in the crowd’s reaction to Clinton’s speech. Cheers, whistles, and standing ovations caused the former secretary of state to pause at least two dozen times over the course of her remarks, which mixed her usual optimistic bromides with sharp jabs at her GOP opponents. Clinton clearly responded to the audience’s enthusiasm, delivering lines with uncharacteristic liveliness. “Look, I’m not a scientist, either — I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain!” she said caustically, mocking her Republican adversaries on global warming. The crowd went wild.

Clinton supporters were out in force before the speeches as well, their campaign buttons and “H” stickers clearly visible as they strode between tables for Planned Parenthood, global warming groups, and local Democratic candidates. They were unequivocal about their support, and quick to dismiss Sanders’s insurgent campaign.

For all the hype around ‘Bernie-mentum,’ Hillary Clinton’s lock on Iowa’s Democratic elite seems unlikely to be broken any time soon.

“I’m leaning towards Hillary Clinton, without question,” says Peter Bryant, a longtime activist from Cedar Rapids. “I’ve been admiring her for many, many years, and really thought she did an exceptional job as secretary of state.” Sanders’s views, Bryant says, “are just a little too out of the mainstream right now. As important as his views are, I just don’t think they’ll resonate as much as Clinton’s views on the issues.”

“My favorite is Hillary Clinton,” says Kathy Ulrich, former vice chair of the Linn County Democratic Central Committee. “I think she’s a real champion for the middle class and for women, breaking that glass ceiling — the last one we have to hit.” Sanders’s record, she says, “probably isn’t as strong as people would like it to be. What’s he been able to do? 14 years in the Senate, I believe it is? Many of my friends are concerned about that.”

Sanders supporters were more difficult to find — fewer attendees wore “Bernie” stickers than even “O’Malley” buttons, and Sanders is beating the former Maryland governor by double digits in Iowa. What’s more, unlike Clinton’s backers, their approval was full of caveats.

“I like what Sanders has to say,” says Denny Walsh of Cedar Rapids. “I don’t know if he’s electable.” Although Sanders “fits [his] view,” Walsh says he’ll only support the senator once it’s clear he has the momentum necessary to knock out Hillary Clinton in Iowa’s January caucus.

The few Democratic leaders who admit to being Sanders supporters are furtive — and frustrated. “I really shouldn’t say this,” says Charlene Doyle, co-chair of the Poweshiek County Democratic Party, before admitting Sanders is her man. She is one of the few to level an explicit criticism at Clinton, accusing her of deliberately avoiding policy specifics so as not to be pinned down.

Doyle says most of Clinton’s supporters among the Iowa elite haven’t even considered another candidate. “’Have you looked at Sanders? Have you looked at O’Malley?’” she asks fellow Democrats over and over again, despite rarely receiving an affirmative response. “’They’re both great progressives, you should,’” she tells them.

#related#Clinton’s expansive campaign structure in Iowa is a big factor in her dominance of the state’s establishment. Unlike Sanders’s free-flowing, candidate-focused rallies, Clinton’s events are meticulously choreographed and staffed with on-message activists eager to lock down politically active Iowans. At a “kick-off party” held Friday afternoon in Cedar Rapids, local Democratic bigwigs repeatedly told the 500 people assembled to get behind Clinton without delay. “Your job is to commit to Hillary tonight, like I have committed to Hillary, and like so many others have committed to Hillary,” one activist urged onstage.

“Both O’Malley and Sanders have a lot of work to do on the ground,” says Dave Somsky, the former chair of the Woodbury County Democratic Party, who’s stayed on in an advisory role. “What’s helped Hillary is the fact that she’s really put a good game together this early. This is one of the best campaigns that I’ve seen.”

Whether it’s Clinton’s ground game, Sanders’s iconoclastic status, or a mixture of both, the Vermont senator seems unable to expand his base beyond disaffected Democrats and excite party leadership in the all-important Hawkeye State. If that doesn’t change by January, “Bernie-mentum” may be snuffed out county-by-county in Iowa, with party chairmen using their heavy influence in the Democratic caucuses to tip the scales in Clinton’s favor.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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