Field of Dreams: Michael Patrick Leahy Reflects with Jim Larew About Iowa’s Historical Politics and Current Caucus Trends


On Wednesday’s Tennessee Star Report with Steve Gill and Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 am to 8:00 am – Gill and Leahy talked to good friend, attorney Jim Larew direct from Iowa about how the state has shifted historically from Republican to Democrat and now purple.

Towards the end of the show, the men discussed current poll numbers showing Warren leading Biden. Larew disclosed that believes Biden is still in the lead based upon his “celebrity status.”

Leahy: We are joined now on the line by my very good friend, Jim Larew from Iowa. Jim and I went to Harvard together. He was a year ahead of me and we were roommates one summer in Washington, D.C. We were Democrats at the time. Jim has remained a Democrat. Has been very active and has had very key roles in the Chet Culver administration to Chief of Staff of former Governor Chet Culver.

Larew: I was general council there for four years and policy director and chief of staff for a four-year term. A great experience.

Leahy: I don’t know if there’s anyone who knows about grassroots Iowa on the Democratic side better than you Jim. I mean, when we were at Harvard, and by the way, Jim is the most entertaining story teller I’ve ever met. (Leahy chuckles)

Larew: I don’t know about that.

Leahy:  Well, you’re pretty entertaining, I’ll tell you. This is when we would sit at lunch and you would tell great stories of your times in Iowa when you managed a former, the late Senator John Culver’s campaign. You had a key role in his election there. Back when was that 1974?

Larew: ’74 when he ran. Well, I certainly was lucky to be at Harvard during that campaign. And then worked on his staff…

Leahy: So look at the history of Iowa. Until then Iowa was largely a Republican state wasn’t it? I guess?

Larew: Yeah, from the Civil War until 1974 like a lot of the upper Midwest states. It was a one-party Republican state and most of the interesting political battles were fought out within the tent of that party. By ’74 was the threshold year. Five of our six congressmen were Democrats both Senators were Democrats and the majority of our House and Senate and legislature were Democrats. And that has never happened. Since that time, I would say Iowa is a purple state. We go back and forth depending upon the election year.

Leahy: But you were there and you were part of that history of the changing. In fact, you wrote a thesis at Harvard about that. And your thesis adviser was our good friend Alan Brinkley. Great professor of history now at Columbia.

Larew: In fact, Alan just died I have to report to you, unfortunately. But he was maybe the great teacher that any of us ever had a chance to experience. He was just then a graduate student and moved on to be one of the foremost political historians of his time.

Leahy: So this is very sad news for me. Jim, when did Alan Brinkley pass away?

Larew: I got word of it maybe five weeks ago. And a book had just been published in his honor as well. Maybe your listeners wouldn’t be as moved by it but I know you will be. It’s a collection of essays called “Alan Brinkley, A Life in History.” And over the years students of his and colleagues and the top row of prominent historians and political scientists have written essays in his honor. It’s very very moving.

Leahy: I’m going to have to get that. Well, I’m very sad to hear of Alan’s passing. He was a great scholar and a great mentor to you wasn’t he?

Larew: He was. I came back from my experience of having dropped out of Harvard twice. The first time to help on Senator Culver’s campaign and being in the middle of that was a political threshold year was trying to understand it. And I just thought I’ll just head into the Harvard library. That’s like the largest library in the United States and went to the book shelves and they’re had been nothing written about Iowa’s political history for about a half a century.

And I thought well this is what I’ll focus on.  And then to find a Harvard faculty member that cared about Iowa politics it might be the same for a student there from Tennessee or something. They’re thinking about bigger, loftier things. But Alan thought, “No. If it’s interesting to you it will be interesting to me.”

And he took me under his wing and it just was fantastic. And a great experience of my four years there collectively. I was actually there for five. At that period of time, he was a mentor and he really helped me put it together.

Leahy: If you can summarize, what happened in 1974 to turn Iowa from Republican to Democrat then and of course now it’s back to sort of purple. What happened? What was the key finding of your thesis then Jim?

Larew: I would say that it was a bunch of factors that came to ahead. Of course, people who never caught up with the year before. President Nixon had been nearly impeached but resigned. And there was a cumulative feeling that if the level of Washington politics.

Not unlike what we’re in right now. There was some disconnect between what was going on in Washington circles and what was affecting people at home. And you add that to layers when we had only a few years before becoming an urban state. The pictures of Iowa we have are usually farms and farmers. But Iowa had become an urban state and lots of needs in urban areas were not being addressed.

Leahy: So Des Moines and Dubuque were the big urban centers.

Larew: The big cities in Iowa would now be places like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque. And none of them, the interesting thing about Iowa compared to many other states, why I think it’s a level playing field for both political parties to start their national campaigns even today is that we have no political machines here. We are spread out in 950 different cities. 99 counties. There’s no political machine. A candidate coming out here has to build one. But as soon as the campaign is over it dissipates and we reemerge with different coalitions later. So anyone would have a fair shot here but it’s hard work. You can’t just go to a few party leaders like you might in other states.

Leahy: Exactly.

Larew: And get a nod or a hand shake and be on your way. It just doesn’t work in Iowa. You’ve got to do it the hard way. Eyeball to eyeball and toe to toe to make it work in Iowa.

Leahy: You’ve been to all 99 counties haven’t you?

Larew: Oh, many times I’m sure.

Leahy: Many times. Here in Tennessee, we have 95 counties and I must admit I’ve not been to all of them.

Larew: In the different roles that I’ve had. I’m a trial lawyer but I have cases in 10 different counties right now. I sort of enjoy it. But you don’t have to have a practice that way. Each of these counties has beautiful town squares.

Leahy: Yeah.

Larew: In the 19th century when Iowa was settled and the great pride in the community was the courthouse. And we used our best artisans and our best materials. And these buildings are still standing today were a lot of things that we’ve built in more recent years seem to crumble as soon as the doors are opened.

Leahy: Exactly.

Larew: It’s a lot of fun to go to these places where you can tell how much pride there was in building them. To try a case in front of everyday citizens is a thrill.

Leahy: Jim, you know it’s interesting in Tennessee it’s very similar to that Jim in Tennessee.

Larew: Yes. I don’t doubt it. The states in the middle were forgotten for so many ways. I say in Iowa, we’re in the middle of the middle. When we’re talking flyover country, that plane flies over Tennessee and Iowa. I don’t think it stops at one post or another.

Leahy: And I’ve been to the Iowa State Fair a couple of times. I think I was there and interviewed Ted Cruz back in 2015 or so. Quite an experience. It was really quite an experience. I sort of interviewed him for like two questions amidst the throng. You know what it’s like there.

Larew: It’s the great fair of the United States. There’s just no question about it.

Leahy: So what were interested in is what’s the latest on the Democratic side of who’s up and who’s down. The talk is the momentum now is with Elizabeth Warren. What’s your take on the field? Who’s doing what?

Larew: She is doing I would say an extraordinary job of organizing. Smartly organizing. She was in early and attracted lots of good people and that will be important because it all comes to caucus night were something less than 20% of the registered Democratic voters normally participate.

And so the whole idea is trying to identify those people who are friendly to one candidate and then get those people to caucus. And that does take some organizational effort. And that’s one index journalist’s use. Everyone’s trying to shorthand and hurry what’s going on so they’ll point to how many staffers do they have on the ground. And all those things. And that goes into the mix. But as Iowans have a lot of pride where we make up our own minds.

Leahy: I’d be very curious to your opinion on this. I saw a poll of Iowa and it said it was Iowa Democratic caucus-goers and it said that Elizabeth Warren was ahead of Biden by 10 points. It was a couple of weeks ago. How reliable, in your opinion Jim, would be such a poll of caucus-goers?

Larew: I would doubt the reliability of any one poll. And as you know Mike from your work. A poll is only as good as it’s prediction of who’s going to attend or vote at caucuses or primary elections. And it has to make a lot of assumptions. That poll has surprised me because it vindicated a huge shift in the ballasts of the cargo that’s out here in Iowa. And I don’t feel that. I do think that Elizabeth Warren has done an excellent job of organizing and she’s clearly sort of the intellectual powerhouse that’s pulling the whole party.

But, I would say that Biden’s lead is clear. And is staying there for now. But I think that she’s going to come out of the caucus’s as a very strong contender and she may have some limits too in terms of her approach. That poll I think was probably an outlier. Just think from the intuition and how it feels.

But there’s no question that she’s a formidable candidate and doing a lot of things the right way. One thing we talked about and is the Larew premise. Each of these caucuses are different they each have collective personalities. But I really think as a pattern, that when you have an inter-party battle such as the Democrats versus the getting their candidate versus Republicans and you have a long list of mostly similarly minded candidates.

When that list becomes so long, here we’ve had more than 20 candidates out here. The candidates who enjoy what I would call ‘celebrity’ really do enjoy significant advantages over there competitors. I think that the public mind can only absorb so many variables for many people instead of a bumper sticker that has words on it. (Inaudible talk)

You look at them and people sort of sort themselves out and it’s hard to have meaningful discussions of the issues because there are just too many variables. If that premise is correct I think Biden is really the only one who came into the race with ‘genuine celebrity status’ particularly within the Democratic party.

And I would be really surprised if his support level goes down less than the ’30s. When you have 20 candidacy’s and one has 30% that looks like a wide margin of victory. My sense is that this is likely where this will go.

Listen to the full hour:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to the Tennessee Star Report with Steve Gill and Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Background Photo “Iowa State Fair Crowd Gathering” by Phil Roeder. CC BY 2.0.




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