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Tuesday March 19th, 2019 12:03AM

A state Senate race in Iowa is drawing presidential hopefuls

By The Associated Press
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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — A month ago, Eric Giddens was just a member of the Cedar Falls school board thinking about maybe, someday, running for higher office.

Today, he feels like the most popular Democrat in Iowa.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell called to congratulate him the day he won the nomination for a surprise special election for Iowa state Senate. California Sen. Kamala Harris did the same the next day. And this month, Democratic White House hopefuls have descended on his district to support his bid. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren helped him launch his campaign earlier this month. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, another possible presidential contender, had a beer with him at a bar on the University of Northern Iowa's campus while telling students to get out and vote. Swalwell worked the phones with him, calling voters to remind them about the race.

Giddens has a jam-packed Saturday coming up, with former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke expected to campaign for Giddens in his first trip to Iowa. That day, presidential candidates Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker are planning events as well. And even those contenders who can't make it to the district, like Harris and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, are sending their campaign staff to canvass for him.

This is what it looks like when your campaign is the only game in town less than a year before the Iowa caucuses. For the Democratic field, campaigning alongside Giddens is an opportunity to prove their commitment to building up the state party, something local elected officials and party operatives are looking for as they evaluate whom to support for the White House. And it's a chance for candidates to promote themselves in traditionally blue Black Hawk County.

For Giddens, whose full-time job is to head up the University of Northern Iowa's energy programs, it's all a little "bizarre" — but he isn't fazed by all the attention. Asked how it feels to have hung out with a handful of people who may someday be the next president, Giddens shrugs, smiles and deems it "cool."

"It feels kind of normal, in a weird way," he says. "They're just . they're just people."

Kevin Geiken, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, said the candidate involvement "shows that they're committed to actually seeing Iowa Democrats succeed, and giving back resources rather than taking resources."

The state Senate seat opened in February after the incumbent Democrat resigned. The special election will be held March 19.

For Giddens, the high-profile visits offer a visibility boost for a race that Democrats say they aren't taking for granted. Senate District 30 is about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans in party registration, and Iowa's Republican governor scheduled the election during spring break — a major concern for Democrats, as the district encompasses Cedar Falls, which is home to the University of Northern Iowa.

Jacob Becklund, director of the Iowa Senate Majority Fund, said Democrats were concerned about low turnout.

"Anything that makes it harder for both students and university personnel to vote is both wrong and more likely to cause the Republicans to win," he said.

So the presidential candidates are a welcome addition to Giddens' campaign.

"It helps build enthusiasm around a race and helps get people to turn out and vote. Our view is that it's nothing but a good thing to get people more aware and engaged in a special election," Becklund said.

While local Democrats are excited about the national attention the race is getting, Republicans see the visits as an opportunity to nationalize the race. Giddens' GOP opponent, former state Rep. Walt Rogers, called Giddens an "avowed socialist" because of his campaign contributions to Sen. Bernie Sanders, another presidential candidate, and noted Giddens' support from Warren, who "may not be a socialist, but she's pretty far left."

"Do you really want a socialist representing a moderate district?" Rogers said of Giddens. "This is a pretty important race for Iowa, and really for the country. It's sort of a microcosm of what's happening in the country because I think socialism is going to be an issue in the coming election as well."

He said the candidate visits have sparked interest and enthusiasm for the race among Republican voters as well.

Giddens dismisses the attacks as a "desperate tactic" and insists he's focused on local issues like education and his experience on the school board. He and other Democrats say the enthusiasm boost the candidates may add to the race outweighs the potential complications brought on by having national figures come through.

But canvassing on an icy Wednesday in Cedar Falls, where Giddens has lived and worked for over a decade, it's not clear he needs all the national attention. Neighbors and friends say hi to him on the street. He skips a number of homes included on a party list of likely Democrats, telling his campaign manager "don't bother" — they're definitely going to vote for him. Most of the voters he does encounter that afternoon are aware of the special Senate race even if they didn't know the Democratic caucus campaign is already taking place in their backyards.

Linda Taylor, a retired hospitality worker, said she wasn't aware Warren and others had been to the county recently, but she was enthusiastically supporting Giddens and had already requested her absentee ballot.

"I'm not a person that loves politics, but I feel like it is so important, now more than it ever has been, for us to make our voices known," she said.

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