DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – With marching bands, drum lines, hundreds of yard signs and at least one fire truck, Democratic presidential candidates made a colorful and often loud pitch to Iowa Democrats at the Steak Fry fundraiser in Des Moines on Saturday.
The event, a fundraiser for the Polk County Democratic Party and one of the biggest remaining opportunities for candidates to flex their organizing muscles in Iowa before the caucuses, comes as a number of candidates are facing an uncertain future in the race and shaking up their campaign strategies in an effort to break out of the pack.
On Saturday morning, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker warned he may need to end his campaign if he’s unable to raise $1.7 million by the end of the third fundraising quarter. His announcement came the day after California Sen. Kamala Harris announced she’d be going all-in on Iowa in hopes of finishing in the top three. Both have been stagnant in national and Iowa surveys, with Harris polling in the middle of the pack and Booker struggling to move beyond low single digits.
At the Steak Fry, however, Harris turned out her fans in force, marching into the event with hundreds of supporters and a drum line. Booker had a smaller crowd gathered to see him into the event, and the portrait the candidate painted to reporters after speaking to the Steak Fry crowd was dire.
“I don’t believe people should stay in this just to stay in it,” he said. “You either have a trajectory to win or not. And right now if we don’t raise $1.7 million we won’t be able to make the investments necessary. He added: “If we don’t have a pathway to win we should get out of this race.”
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.
This year, more than 12,000 people were expected to join in addition to 19 presidential candidates. Attendees enjoyed the traditional steaks – 10,500 were grilled by volunteers – but they also had the option to order from a food truck or 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 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. 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. 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 five, 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.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was hoping to make a big splash Saturday as he steps up his Iowa presence, addressed hundreds of supporters sporting his campaign’s signature gold and blue T-shirts.
Against this festive backdrop, former Vice President Joe Biden commented on the dust-up over a whistleblower’s complaint in Washington that involved Trump’s phone conversation with Ukraine’s leader. Although the complaint is under wraps, Trump is known to want Ukraine to investigate business dealings there by Biden’s son, Hunter, during his vice presidency.
“The fact of the matter is that that fellow in the White House knows that if we get the nomination we’re gonna beat him like a drum,” Biden said. “So be prepared for every lousy thing that’s coming from him.”