The presidential primary circus came to Iowa early this campaign cycle. Very early.
This weekend essentially serves as the unofficial kick-off of 2020 Iowa Caucus campaigning, with a flood of White House hopefuls eating things on sticks at the Iowa State Fair and speaking at a major annual Democratic Party fundraiser. Over 20 possible Democratic contenders have visited Iowa in the past two years, but never in such quick succession.
Friday’s biggest attraction — Michael Avenatti, attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels and cable news phenom — grabbed nearly all the headlines and pointed to what may lie ahead for the Democratic primary. He quickly cut to the chase about his peculiar appearance at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding Dinner in Northern Iowa.
“What, you may be asking, is a porn star lawyer doing here tonight to speak with you about our party and our republic?” Avenatti said at the top of his speech.
Avenatti had already answered that earlier in the day, confirming to the Des Moines Register that he was seriously considering a presidential run. His addition to the dinner’s speaker line-up a few weeks ago came as a surprise to Democrats in Iowa. Getting the top billing slot of the evening, addressing the crowd after two members of Congress — Tim Ryan and John Delaney — set up an unusual dynamic.
But Democrats here – some of them, anyway – were eager to embrace the spectacle. “It’s amazing the amount of tickets we sold to women,” Randy Black, chair of the Wing Ding Dinner said.
Interest in the event and ticket sales skyrocketed after Avenatti’s addition, as did reservations from national and international news outlets.
“I think he should jump right in,” suggested Mary Cole, who drove down from Minnesota for the evening. “I think we need someone who can beat Trump … Michael Avenatti I think can handle Trump. Michael Avenatti is much smarter.”
Many in the crowd were retirees who are avid cable news-watchers, a demographic that happens to make up much of the Democratic activist base in older, rural communities in Northern Iowa.
“I like politics, so I watch certain channels, CNN most especially,” Jane Sarset of Mason City explained. “From the very first time I saw him, I told my husband if I ever got in trouble and needed a really good attorney, this guy is sharp as a tack.”
Nearly every Avenatti fan brought up how intelligent they thought the attorney was. That included Ed Enright of nearby Garner, Iowa, a Republican who said he was fed up with Donald Trump. He brought his own pro-Avenatti sign that read “Keep the heat on lying Trump.”
“He’s well-spoken and he can get directly to the issues,” Enright told reporters. “He’s an extremely smart man, unlike the President … I think he makes up for [lack of experience] with his just pure intelligence.”
But not everyone seemed particularly pleased with the adult film star attorney’s invitation to appear at a high-profile Democratic event in the midst of crucial state races. Shortly after Avenatti was revealed as the Wing Ding’s featured speaker, nearly every statewide Democratic candidate pulled out of the event.
“Their calendars weren’t able to work around it, even though they planned to come,” Black noted with some frustration.
“It’s going to be nationwide,” he added as he waved his hand toward the row of TV cameras. “It’s your fault your face isn’t plastered on that video.”
And some argued that dismissing Avenatti as a gadfly or embarrassing act was short-sighted given the state of American politics.
“People need to realize, the gentleman in the White House right now was placed in the White House for one reason: he was eccentric, he stepped out of the box,” Black said. “So, guess what? Michael Avenatti is doing the same thing. He’s speaking his mind, saying what he feels. But the one thing about Michael Avenatti is that he’s educated and he’s prepped.”
And that was exactly the case Avenatti made to the crowd.
“This president, no matter how corrupt or immoral he may be, he knows how to fight,” he said. “What I fear for this Democratic Party that I love so much is that we have a tendency to bring nail clippers to a gun fight.”
Avenatti argued that Democrats should instead “fight fire with fire.” He acknowledged that while he believed Democrats were the “party of love,” they simply had to act tougher against Trump to succeed.
“I believe that we must honestly ask ourselves whether those that we fight for can afford our gentleness,” Avenatti questioned.
While all those statements drew cheers and intrigued the crowd, what was notable about the rest of his pitch was just how familiar it sounded. Half of his speech was like one that a U.S. senator seeking the presidency would give. He talked about his Midwest roots, how he mowed lawns and umpired little league games, how he worked at a grocery store and drove a John Deere tractor.
And he ticked off a long list of Democratic policy priorities, from abortion rights to Medicare-for-all to infrastructure funding.
Notably, though, he wasn’t afraid to voice a few ideas that went against the grain of popular left-leaning thought. He implored the attendees to reach out to Trump voters who left the Democratic Party in recent years and to welcome them back with open arms. There was little to no applause for that suggestion.
Avenatti also criticized other Democrats’ calls to dissolve ICE.
“I completely disagree with the idea of eliminating ICE,” he told reporters after the event. “It’s like saying we should eliminate the police force...There’s no question we need to change the policies of ICE, we need to address the abuses over the last 18 months.”
Had this been simply a vanity effort to get the most applause lines, Avenatti may have stayed away from those ideas.
Following his speech, Avenatti was swarmed with well-wishers and selfie-seekers, surrounded by a crush of reporters who took in every moment. It was one part that had the feel of an early Trump appearance in Iowa, where one candidate sucks all of the oxygen out of the room.
Indeed, this was also the first major appearance from presidential candidate Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur running on the Universal Basic Income idea who is seeking the progressive vote. It was also a major moment for Tim Ryan’s presidential aspirations — he recently hired a top Iowa consultant and has several visits planned. And John Delaney was on a campaign swing to complete his 99-county tour.
But that may be the dynamics that every 2020 Democratic contender faces: how to get noticed when unconventional candidates with non-traditional bases of support capture excitement and press attention?
Avenatti, regardless of how long his boomlet of attention continues, certainly won’t be the last outside-the-box Democrat to shake things up. Marianne Williamson, a best-selling author of New Age spiritual books, has been setting up her own behind-the-scenes meetings in Iowa to discuss her possible presidential aspirations.
If there’s anything that this week’s Iowa events showed, it’s that Democrats have a long, wild and unpredictable march to the 2020 nomination in store.