From dive bars to steakhouses: How Iowa caucus staffers blow off steam

DES MOINES — On any given evening, after a long day of canvassing and recruiting new volunteers, campaign staffers wander in to Carl’s Place, a dive bar where watery beer is cheap enough to fit a skinflint budget.

In the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, hundreds of staffers from across the country will pick up their lives and move to Des Moines, where they work from dawn to dusk wooing potential voters.

Just as they do in Capitol Hill, where networks of friends and professional colleagues establish a pattern of favored bars, restaurants and cafes, those who share the common experience of the Iowa caucuses build their own community, even if they are working for rival campaigns.

Carl’s is such an institution among those who have descended on Des Moines, past and present, that one front-running presidential campaign this year considered circulating a formal memo among other offices declaring the pub neutral territory, a welcome space for staffers who work for any of the two dozen contenders seeking the Democratic nomination.

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The state director for that campaign, who asked not to be named discussing drinking habits, ultimately decided not to issue it.

Intermingling between campaigns is virtually impossible to avoid. The most prominent Iowa Democratic operatives work together on congressional or gubernatorial campaigns three out of every four years, and then split themselves between presidential campaigns every fourth year. Staffers who move from Washington may not know anyone except their new colleagues and friends from Capitol Hill who now work for rival campaigns.

“Many Iowa staffers who worked together in cycles past are getting together at local bars no matter what campaign they are on,” said one Democratic operative working her first caucus campaign. She sees friends from other camps at least once a week, she said.

Des Moines has been booming after the recession, and new apartment buildings, restaurants and coffee shops have sprung up even since the last Iowa caucus fight between Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.).

The old haunts remain — one top Iowa political analyst said she knows to book a table at Centro, the Italian restaurant downtown, when certain reporter friends of hers with expense accounts to flex come to town.

Media executives tend to favor the steakhouse at 801 Grand, which is also more popular among staffers when Republicans have a contested caucus. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has been spotted lunching at Alba, an emerging Republican favorite, while Troy Price, the chair of the state Democratic Party, prefers Noah’s Ark, one of the city’s older restaurants.

But new go-tos are emerging, three senior campaign officials suggested in off-the-record conversations at Smokey Row Coffee Company, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and a few blocks from the interstate.

Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party, preferred to meet at Scenic Route, a coffee shop in Des Moines’s trendy East Village with floor-to-ceiling windows on a well-trafficked corner, another place to be seen. On a recent afternoon, as he sat down with a reporter, he nodded across the cafe at one of his own staffers, who was conducting her own meeting.

As campaigns begin to bulk up their Iowa staff — Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) has at least 50 aides in the state, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-N.J.) has 39 and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what ‘policing’ means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight Minnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan says there will be consequences from fraying US-China relations; WHO walks back claims on asymptomatic spread of virus MORE (D-Md.) has fielded his own army — apartment blocks are beginning to fill up. Some favor the Sherman Hill neighborhood; most prefer the East Village, a hipster haven at the base of the state capitol where Scenic Route sits.

“Living in the East Village is like being on a college campus,” the Democratic staffer said. “You’ll see people everywhere you go.”

It’s a good neighborhood for networking, too. Some of the state’s most high-powered lobbyists and campaign consultants step out of their East Village offices and across the street for a coffee at Molly’s Cupcakes, or a beer at the Iowa Taproom, which offers hundreds of in-state choices.

By night, the East Village plays host to a quiet turf war waged between Democratic and Republican legislative staffers. When Democrats held the majority, they also controlled the barstools at Beechwood, another dive bar a few blocks from the House and Senate office buildings. After Republicans built a huge majority in the 2010 elections, they took over. Now, with Republicans clinging to narrow majorities in both chambers, the mix of staffers has evened out.

“As goes Beechwood, so goes the state,” joked Kevin Geiken, executive director of the state Democratic Party.

CORRECTION: Noah’s Ark is one of the older restaurants in Des Moines. A previous version of this story included incorrect information.

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