Why you should care
Because Iowa may be the entire ballgame for Kamala Harris.
Update: On Tuesday, December 3, Kamala Harris announced she’s dropping out of the presidential race.
Deidre DeJear had just finished running as a trailblazing Black Democrat in a battleground red state, with a campaign style that can be described as Stacey Abrams lite: Reach out to disenfranchised minority voters, expand the electorate and ride the wave to statewide office.
Only things hadn’t gone to plan. DeJear lost by nearly 8 percentage points in her secretary of state race, in no small part because her overwhelmingly White Iowa is not Abrams’ diverse Georgia. What’s worse, she ran significantly behind her fellow Democrats on the statewide ballot, meaning she had actually lost voters who otherwise voted left.
Which is how she found herself after Election Day, with the phone pressed to her ear, on the verge of tears. On the other end? Kamala Harris, the California senator and trailblazer in her own right, consoling her. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to say something. But I wanted to call you and tell you that I think your work isn’t done,” DeJear, 33, remembers Harris telling her. “That was the best thing she could say. Because there was nothing I could say. I was just in a very vulnerable place.”
A year later, it’s safe to say the roles have switched, with Harris the vulnerable candidate and DeJear defending her — but still trying to execute the incredibly difficult task of expanding the electorate for the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Harris averages around 3 percent in Iowa polls these days, putting her sixth, down from second place over the summer. With her national numbers flagging too, Harris in September was overheard telling a colleague that she was “fucking moving to Iowa” — a slogan that became both a rallying call and a trendy T-shirt for supporters. And thus, Iowa went from pivotal first caucus state to potentially the entire ballgame for Harris.
It also launched DeJear, Harris’ Iowa co-chair, into the limelight as one of the critical embers fueling the senator’s flickering presidential hopes. “We already knew about her investment in the state, but obviously nobody believed us,” DeJear laughs when reminded of Harris’ candid declaration.
DeJear says she’s not worried about polling numbers because they overly emphasize those who have caucused in the past.
Harris was the first Democrat to hit the Iowa airwaves, spending six figures on a 60-second ad about her “kitchen-table agenda” in August. She has doubled her Iowa staff, from about 60 this summer to around 130 (the additions came with cuts to staff in New Hampshire and the Baltimore headquarters). Harris made a splash at the Iowa Democrats’ high-profile Liberty and Justice Dinner in November, dancing in with a drum line and an army of organizers. “We didn’t have to ship people in — these were home-bred, corn-fed Iowans doing this work out of the goodness of their hearts,” DeJear says.
She’s delivered strong debate performances — earning particular rave reviews after November’s get-together in Atlanta — but Harris’ woes in polls and fundraising have led to campaign turmoil that’s spilled into public view, with each day seeming to bring a new national headline about her collapsing campaign.
So now she’s focusing on smaller events: more than three dozen in October, when she at one point spent 17 of 27 days in Iowa, and another dozen in November. DeJear has played a major role in promoting Harris’ “partnership with rural America,” a policy platform tailor-made for and by Iowans (the plan includes a $100 billion fund for businesses hiring in rural communities and an $80 billion investment in rural broadband, among other things). “Her vast network, not only in the Democratic Party but in the community, has accrued to Kamala’s benefit,” says Teree Caldwell-Johnson, a longtime Des Moines nonprofit leader and school board member.
With DeJear’s help, Harris has courted not just Black and Latinx voters, but American Indian and refugee groups. “It’s easy to connect the low-hanging fruit, easy to connect with those people paying attention. But you go the distance in a crowded field like this when you go above and beyond to connect with those folks who do not receive a poll, who may not be registered to vote,” DeJear says, adding she is not worried about polling numbers because they overly emphasize those who have caucused in the past. (Entrance polls showed that Iowa Democratic caucusgoers were 91 percent White in 2016.)
Indeed, the polls have been wrong here before — the well-organized Ted Cruz leapfrogged Donald Trump in 2016 — and few Democratic voters are telling pollsters they’re totally set on a candidate. “Half a million people voted for Deidre in 2018,” says Miryam Lipper, the Iowa communications director for Harris. “She has been able to open up a lot of doors.”
Now DeJear’s job is to make sure those doors stay open, even though Harris seems an odd fit for Iowa. Jimmy Carter, who popularized the “move to Iowa” strategy, was a Georgia peanut farmer. Harris is an Oakland native, a city slicker who forged her career as a San Francisco prosecutor and California attorney general. Which is maybe why Harris needs a political sherpa like DeJear — the owner of a small marketing business in Des Moines, who owns about 30 head of cattle with her husband and can speak to the hearts of those in the heartland.
Growing up in Mississippi, DeJear was inspired by the example of her grandmother, who became one of the state’s few Black election commissioners in the 1990s. She moved to Iowa to study at Drake University, became a field director and African American outreach director for the 2008 Obama campaign in Iowa and ran several local races before running as a candidate herself last year. Among their other shared traits, both Harris and DeJear love cooking. And DeJear’s green thumb hasn’t gone unnoticed, as she grows tomatoes and peppers behind the Harris campaign office.
While DeJear has emphasized courting unconventional voters, experts have their doubts, given that these people have not proven they will show up — and the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and others are also trying to expand the playing field. Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt calls DeJear merely an “OK” choice by Harris. “The caucuses require organization and credentialing, so a more experienced Democrat influencer would have made more sense,” he says.
Still, given her campaign’s struggles, Harris needs to go outside the box. Perhaps DeJear’s unproven electoral green thumb can sprout dividends by caucus day.