Over the past two years, as Martin O’Malley has mulled a run for president, he has poured hefty resources into Iowa, appearing at 24 campaign events and fundraisers, lending 14 staffers to Democratic candidates and the state party, and donating more than $40,000.
On Friday, the former Maryland governor returns to the home of the nation’s first presidential caucuses for the first time since last fall’s election, hoping to start reaping the reward of that investment.
Remarkably, as the 2016 presidential race launches in earnest, very few of the candidates and party leaders O’Malley helped in Iowa have committed — to him, to presumed front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton or to anyone else. Many of these Democrats say it is too early to decide whom they will support, creating hope for the long shot from Maryland but also leaving it unclear whether his considerable efforts will generate anything more than goodwill.
“He has a very difficult task ahead,” said Jack Hatch (D), who lost last fall’s gubernatorial race to incumbent Terry Branstad (R). “But for him to come out and campaign with us like he did showed he was more sophisticated than the others looking at running. Once Secretary Clinton gets in, people will want to know who the alternatives are, and I think Governor O’Malley will get a serious look.”
O’Malley’s political action committee placed three staffers on Hatch’s campaign last year, all of whom “knew their business and fit right in,” Hatch said. O’Malley appeared with Hatch 11 times, according to PAC records, and contributed $10,000 to his campaign — part of a national effort on behalf of Democrats that included more than $300,000 in campaign contributions.
Of the 32 staffers whom O’Malley dispatched from his PAC, 14 were sent to Iowa. O’Malley sent people and money to help the Iowa Democratic Party, a U.S. Senate candidate, four congressional candidates and several state politicians.
“Frankly, they were terrific,” said Scott Brennan, who served as party chairman last year and has not yet committed to a presidential candidate.
Despite Clinton’s commanding lead in the polls, O’Malley advisers see Iowa as potentially fertile ground, given the former secretary of state’s third-place finish there in 2008 and grumbling among activists about her absence from the state this year.
“People are really anxious to see the candidates,” said Linda Nelson, chairwoman of the Pottawattamie County Democrats, which received a $1,000 donation from O’Malley last year and is hosting one of the three public events at which he is scheduled to appear this weekend. “The longer Mrs. Clinton waits, some people are feeling frustration and may not embrace her when she enters.”
O’Malley has stops planned in Davenport on Friday night and Tipton on Saturday morning before heading west across the state to Council Bluffs for the event Nelson is helping organize. He has another trip to Iowa planned for early April.
The trip comes as Democratic activists are starting to consider possible alternatives to Clinton amid controversies over her use of a personal e-mail account while secretary of state and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. It offers O’Malley a chance to build on recent statements in South Carolina and New Hampshire on issues of particular interest to the party’s left-leaning activists, including Wall Street reform and immigration.
O’Malley, Nelson said, offers a “great, uplifting message” that she thinks will resonate as more people hear him.
Former congressional candidate Jim Mowrer, who borrowed an O’Malley staffer to help with fundraising, said “the easier path” for potential presidential candidates looking to curry favor is to make a campaign donation or host a fundraiser.
Providing staff, he said, “is a smart way to have a continuous presence with the campaign. Every time you look at that staffer, you know where they came from.”
But will O’Malley get anything from it?
Other Democratic hopefuls have employed similar goodwill-building tactics. Two years before his 2004 presidential bid, then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) shipped 123 computers to Iowa for use by Democratic candidates and party staff. In 2006, then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) provided a slate of staffers known as “Camp Bayh.” And Ready for Hillary, the super PAC backing Clinton, embedded some staff in Iowa last year.
But Democratic activists in Iowa said O’Malley’s efforts were more visible and long-lasting.
“For whatever reasons, a lot of Democrats sat on their hands when it came to providing support to other Democrats in states like Iowa and New Hampshire,” O’Malley spokeswoman Lis Smith said. “While it was a tough year for Democrats, it was important for him to help.”
The two O’Malley staffers who arrived in July to help secretary of state nominee Brad Anderson accounted for half of his “mom-and-pop” campaign operation. One was based in Des Moines, the other in Cedar Rapids. They helped with planning events, postcard writing and ferrying the candidate from one campaign stop to another.
Then Anderson, a longtime party activist who narrowly lost his statewide race, got a call from O’Malley the day after the election. The governor shared that he, too, had lost his first election — a close race for the Maryland Senate in 1990 — and urged Anderson not to be discouraged.
Anderson said he was impressed that O’Malley “was more concerned about me than making his own case.” Again, though, he said it was too early to decide whom he would back for next year’s caucuses.
He and other Democratic activists in Iowa said O’Malley should benefit in a practical way from placing staffers in the state last year: “They learned a lot about Iowa.” While most of the O’Malley emissaries were hired on a temporary basis, they could be redeployed if he moves forward with a presidential bid.
Faheem Rathore, one of Anderson’s two O’Malley staffers, was working as a paralegal at the U.S. Justice Department when he was asked by the PAC to spend several months in Iowa helping the secretary of state candidate. Rathore, 25, said he quickly became known as “Brad’s guy” and not an O’Malley emissary.
Rathore is planning to go to graduate school but said he would consider working for O’Malley if asked now that he has experience in Iowa, where he had never been prior to last year. “You just hear about Iowa, like it’s this fabled land where they pick presidents,” he said.
Hatch, the gubernatorial nominee, said he has maintained relationships with all three young people O’Malley dispatched to his underfunded campaign — and remains grateful for their help.
“We were a campaign that a lot of people gave up on,” Hatch said. “He knew it would benefit him, but O’Malley really put effort into it.”