Western Iowa flooding presents campaign challenge for some 2020 candidates
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently toured this waterlogged town near the Missouri River, blasting President Donald Trump as complicit in the flooding that has plagued large swaths of western Iowa in recent weeks.
"We have a president who says that climate change is a hoax," said Inslee, who has centered his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign around the consequences of a warming planet. "He has diminished the ability of the federal government to protect its citizens, and that's an outrage."
Inslee is virtually alone among his fellow presidential contenders in touring sections of Iowa devastated by flooding. Although there are more than a dozen declared candidates in the race for the White House, only Inslee and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar have visited the flooded sections.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand will visit the area on Wednesday and participate in a Senate committee field hearing on the issue.
Most of the other contenders make passing mention of the flooding at campaign events, expressing their condolences to victims and emphasizing the need to combat climate change or invest in infrastructure. But the relative silence from other candidates highlights the bind many of them are in as local issues and presidential politics collide in the nation's leadoff caucus state.
Several candidates who are also senators voted against legislation recently that would have directed some disaster relief to Iowa. They have argued the measure didn't provide enough money for Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from a massive hurricane.
As additional flooding is expected in the coming weeks, Republicans have seized on the Democratic opposition to paint the 2020 contenders as disingenuous.
There's "plenty of time for politics when 2020 comes around," Vice President Mike Pence told an audience in Pacific Junction last week after surveying flood damage there. "Right now, Iowa needs disaster assistance. And it's time for Congress to act."
"When they come out here, I don't even see how they can show their face west of Des Moines given the fact they voted no" on the bill, Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufman said of the senators running for president.
Gillibrand along with Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — all presidential candidates — voted against the bill but have noted the flooding at campaign events.
The White House hopefuls would much rather talk about another Iowa issue: wind energy. Trump's recent erroneous claim that noise from wind turbines causes cancer amounted to something of a political gift for Democratic candidates.
In a state where wind energy made up 37% of the state's energy in 2017, there is broad, bipartisan agreement that the president's comments were misinformed. He received a rebuke from the state's two Republican senators, with Sen. Chuck Grassley calling the comments "idiotic."
For some 2020 candidates, like former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who's been criticized for a lack of policy detail, Trump presented an opportunity to showcase their policy bona fides. He frequently touts the 37% figure at campaign events and quipped, "I don't think that wind turbines cause cancer ... in fact, I think they cause jobs," at a recent campaign event.
At a town hall in Powesheik, Iowa, earlier this month, Sanders joked that "we were a little bit nervous about coming back to Iowa 'cause you've got all these wind turbines all over the place!"
The decision to avoid flood-stricken areas may ultimately come down to politics. Many of the most severely flooded counties, including the two that Klobuchar and Inslee visited, voted Republican in the last presidential election and may not be home to many Democratic caucusgoers compared to more urban regions such as Des Moines and Sioux Falls.
In Hamburg, a town of fewer than 1,100 people, some of the residents weren't impressed by Inslee's visit — or his message. Ronald Wayne Perry, the 69-year-old owner of an auto repair shop the governor visited when he toured the town, blames the flooding on the Army Corps of Engineers for not managing the floodwaters properly — "and so does everybody in this town," he said.
"Climate change didn't have anything to do with this," he added. "It snows here a lot every time. Just basically the same thing that happened here this year happened a few years ago."
And nothing Inslee can say or do would win his vote.
"If he's a Democrat, I don't care who he is, if he's my best friend, I won't vote for him," Perry said.