DES MOINES — At 7 a.m. on a recent weekday, Rep. John Delaney was on a sidewalk here showing off his presidential campaign’s newest toy: a 36-foot-long motor coach, his name embossed in large letters next to renderings of the American flag, a barn, and a stalk of corn.
In the past year, Delaney (D-Md.), the first Democrat to declare his candidacy, has traveled to Iowa 14 times and visited each of the state’s 99 counties, a milestone he hopes proves that his campaign is more than the equivalent of fantasy camp for a largely unknown tycoon-turned-politician.
“It has given us a great opportunity to listen to Iowans,” the three-term congressman told reporters.
But is anyone listening to John Delaney?
Americans may be largely consumed with the 2018 midterm elections that will determine whether Republicans retain control of Congress and offer many voters their first chance to judge President Trump’s tempestuous reign.
But Delaney, 55, has immersed himself in the race that is still 27 months away, spending $4 million, including nearly $1.5 million on television ads in Iowa alone. He has hired a dozen staffers and consultants and has made two dozen trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary states that are legendary for making or breaking long-shot candidates.
His quest may seem fanciful, given that it has been 138 years since a sitting congressman won the presidency. Even after campaigning for a year, Delaney is often omitted from pundit-driven speculation about Trump’s potential challengers. The chatter now includes Michael Avenatti, attorney for porn star Stormy Daniels,who turned up in Iowa last week.
But Delaney — whose congressional district stretches from Washington’s suburbs to the Pennsylvania border — evinces no worries.
“Next,” the congressman said dismissively, when asked about the prospect of competing with flashier candidates. Nor, for that matter, does he seem overly concerned about facing the better-known likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
Here was Delaney at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, rolling up to Steve Waterman’s house in the town of Osceola — population 5,067 — to explain to an audience of six why he would be their best bet in 2020.
“I’m a different sort of Democrat,” Delaney told the group, which included a white-haired man in glasses whose laughter suggested that he was less than impressed when the congressman touted his new campaign bus. Iowans are accustomed to presidential candidates traveling in buses, pickup trucks and whatever else it takes to endear them to voters.
At a moment when Sanders and Warren are his party’s pugnacious stars, Delaney is selling a pragmatist’s version of Kumbaya. The way to end the political warfare paralyzing Washington, he says, is to forge a coalition of leftists, moderates, independents and disaffected Republicans fed up with a president who is a“divider-in-chief.”
Americans “don’t need us to scream and yell about how bad he is,” Delaney says at another meet-and-greet, where the hosts displayed a jigsaw puzzle of President Richard M. Nixon leaving the White House for the last time.
Instead, Delaney said, Democrats must use Trump to unite Americans around a results-driven agenda that includes criminal justice restructuring, universal health care, and investing in infrastructure. “We’re gonna win this thing,” Delaney told the group, asking that they see him — a white, middle-aged businessman — as the future of a party that over the past decade has nominated an African American and a woman for president.
His message, at least initially, appeared to resonate with voters repelled by the sniping that dominates cable news shows.
“We’re tired of everyone responding to Trump,” Connie Waller, 75, a farmer, told Delaney after recognizing him as he meandered about at Iowa’s State Fair, wearing a blue gingham shirt and a belt festooned with American flags.
But others questioned whether, in the age of Trump, a Democrat could win by posturing as a political marriage counselor.
“It’s going to take extremism on the left to break through,” Gary Jones, 69, a retired U.S. Postal Service analyst, told Delaney. “I don’t think it’s time to soft-pedal.”
Delaney, who is surrendering his House seat in January, has exceeded expectations in the past. He was elected to Congress in 2012 despite opposition during the primaryfrom Democratic leaders. Before entering politics, he started two financial services companies and has amassed a fortune of more than $200 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In his appearances, Delaney exudes chatty seriousness as he covers talking points, never failing to include that he’s the son of a union electrician from New Jersey, attended Columbia University on a scholarship and, at 34, was the youngest chief executive of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
When an adviser suggested distributing combs emblazoned with Delaney’s name at a New Hampshire political dinner, a gesture meant to make light of his bald pate, the congressman had another idea: Hand out copies of Thomas Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late,” an “optimist’s guide” to navigating the 21st century.
But Delaney is not humor-free. He cackled after his wife April’s cellphone interrupted his monologue during an appearance at a church in western Iowa. Her ringtone: Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”
Delaney says he understands that seeking consensus may seem unrealistic when many Democrats want combat. “But as an entrepreneur — as someone who thinks it’s more important to make bets on where things are going rather than where things are — I think things are going towards what I’m talking about,” he said.
He compared himself to a “start-up with a strategy no one else has figured out” and predicted that his candidacy would “pop” when he fares better than expected in a poll.
In addition to raising money from others, Delaney said he is prepared to spend $20 million to $30 million of his fortune on the campaign. He brushed off allusions to the dearth of sitting congressmen who have become president as evidence that his quest may be folly. “I’ve never been asked that question by anyone outside Washington,” he said. “You think any of these people out here care?”
His entrance into the race seven months after Trump took office may seem premature. But an early start is not unheard of.
“Think Jimmy Carter,” Terry Lierman, Delaney’s campaign chairman, said — perhaps hopefully — referring to the 1976 race when the little-known Georgia governor built a groundswell of support in Iowa that vaulted him to Washington.
Yet Delaney’s connection to Maryland invites comparisons to another candidate — the state’s former governor, Martin O’Malley, whose 2016 campaign collapsed after he spent months in Iowa bu t captured less than 1 percent in the caucus. Lierman, who was O’Malley’s treasurer, predicted that Delaney would fare better because he started far earlier and is willing to invest significant resources to build a team.
If stars such as Sanders and Warren run, Lierman said, they’ll fight over the party’s most liberal voters and “take from each other” while Delaney positions himself in the center, albeit potentially with other moderate candidates such as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Jeff Link is a long-standing Iowa-based political consultant who is unaffiliated with Delaney or any potential candidate, although he accompanied Avenatti to a Democratic dinner in the state last week. Link said evidence exists that Delaney’s television presence is making an impression on Iowans. When he recently asked several focus groups to identify presidential candidates, Link said, “the first name they mentioned was John Delaney.”
As the congressman traversed the state for five days last week, campaigning from early morning into the night, Iowans expressed appreciation for his pledge to propose only legislation that has bipartisan support in the first six months if he is president. They also voiced support for his offer to travel to the U.S. Capitol several times a year, as president, to debate any issue with Congress on national television.
“You’re 100 percent better than the person we’ve got!” Ron Lilly, 63, told the congressman after he addressed the Adair County Optimist Club.
“It’s like jumping out of a first-floor window,” Delaney replied.
The next night, hundreds of Democratic activists applauded Delaney at the party’s Wing Ding dinner at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, which is famous for being the last place Buddy Holly performed before his plane crashed in a nearby field.
But the Democrats cheered louder for Avenatti, many of them swarming him for selfies when he arrived. The audience roared during his speech when he said he feared that Democrats “have a tendency to bring nail clippers to a gunfight.”
Before Avenatti finished speaking, Delaney was back on his bus, driving away.
Bill Olson, 73, and his wife, Janeil, were still in their seats.
Olson had stood and applauded Delaney’s call for building a coalition. But now he was cheering Avenatti’s promise to “hit harder” when Republicans “go low.”
“I really liked Delaney and I could vote for him, but right now I’m feeling a little more like punching Trump in the face,” Olson said.
In the next seat over, the farmer’s wife nodded in agreement.
Staff writer David Weigel contributed to this report.