Steak, beer and politics: 2020 Democrats descend on Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa | When Barack Obama marched into the 2007 Iowa steak fry flanked by 1,000 supporters, skeptical Iowans were put on notice that he could win the state’s caucus.

A dozen years later, a new generation of Democratic White House hopefuls is looking for the same campaign jolt.

The event Saturday is part parade, part organizing show of force — and quintessentially Iowa, home of the 2020 race’s leadoff caucuses in February.

It began as a fundraiser for Tom Harkin’s first congressional bid, where the 53 attendees could buy a steak and a foil-wrapped baked potato for $2.

Harkin has retired from the Senate and is out of politics, but the steak fry lives on, now more than four decades strong, as a fundraiser for the Polk County Democratic Party.

This year, 11,000 people were expected to join in addition to 19 presidential candidates. People can listen to bands, cut into 10,500 steaks, order from a vegan grill and visit a craft beer tent.

There are even camping grounds, where supporters of former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke spent Friday night.

The county’s Democratic chairman, Sean Bagniewski, said the event purposely has a “modern twist.”

“That’s the future of the party — it’s gonna be more women in positions of leadership, it’s gonna be more people of color, and it’s going to be more young people,” he said.

What hasn’t changed is the event’s significance for the candidates. It comes as several candidates reconfigure their Iowa approach.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California is now focusing more heavily on Iowa in hopes of finishing in the top three. Flagging campaigns like that of O’Rourke and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are campaigning beyond Iowa in an effort to broaden their national appeal.

Bagniewski said that, like 2007, Democrats are looking for someone who can show they have the organizational strength to win.

“Everyone wants to beat Donald Trump,” he said. “Everyone has a top 5, but when you actually see that your candidate of choice has 1,000 people supporting them at the steak fry, it gives you more liberty to make that decision.”

A few hours before the candidates began their speeches, gray clouds swirled overhead at the Des Moines Waterworks.

People wore campaign T-shirts and chanted the names of their preferred candidates as smoke hovered over the thousands of cooking steaks at the riverside park.

Before Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, rallied supporters, a Cedar Rapids area band played rock, jazz and country tunes, though the strains were drowned out by a Des Moines drumline marching toward the stage as part of Harris’ entourage.

Against this festive backdrop was the emerging controversy over reports that Trump had asked Ukraine’s new leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.