Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker entered a fundraiser in a cavernous barn here on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon to the flashes of cellphone cameras and throngs of people seeking a handshake and a selfie.
The front-runner in Iowa among those seeking the GOP nomination was the guest of honor, but he wasn’t raising money for a White House bid. The haul would go to Chad Airhart, the recorder for Dallas County in central Iowa.
“Thanks for letting us come by and join with you; thanks for your leadership,” Walker told Airhart, as the recorder’s supporters dined on bratwurst and baked beans, surrounded by hanging cow hides and saddles. “I’m honored to be here today.”
In much of the nation, a top presidential prospect wouldn’t bother showing up to raise money for a local official who handles paperwork for a county of 66,000 people.
But in Iowa, local politicians are showered in love for one important reason: They are gate-keepers to voters and party activists who will provide access to their networks and commit time to White House candidates hoping to make a splash in the state that holds the first presidential nominating contest.
“I don’t know if spoiled is the right word,” said Airhart, who has endorsed Walker, even though the governor has not formally announced his candidacy. “I would say we’re blessed in Iowa to have this opportunity.”
Republican Rep. David Young, a freshman Iowa congressman, was blunter.
“I use them, they use me,” Young said.
This year, he has raised thousands of dollars for his reelection campaign at a dessert reception headlined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a pizza parlor fundraiser with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and a gathering at a farm-themed restaurant with Walker. In turn, the prospective candidates got to meet hundreds of Young’s supporters.
“It’s mutually understood and it’s accepted,” Young said. “It’s all OK because we’re unique here in Iowa because we’re first in the nation.”
In the lead-up to the 2012 Iowa caucuses, candidates like eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney announced dozens of new supporters who ranged from statehouse leaders to the mayor of De Soto, a town of 1,050 people. Courting of local leaders also happens in the other early-voting states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Another way White House hopefuls curry favor is through political action committees. Bush’s Right to Rise leadership PAC, for example, has announced contributions of more than $240,000 since being formed in January. Candidates and parties in the four early states have received one-third of the amount.
California, which is unlikely to play a role in the nominating contest because of its late primary date, has Republican candidates swarming the state raising money, but they rarely hold public events or court small-town mayors.
“We are fortunate! Put as many exclamation points after that as possible,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa GOP. “I can’t express how fortunate Iowa is to be a carve-out state … but with that comes some pretty significant responsibility.”
Airhart, a 7th-generation Iowan, grew up poor; his parents were teenagers when he was born, and his father spent time in jail. He said his upbringing on the East Side of Des Moines never suggested he would become an elected official who mingles with presidential candidates.
“We’re really fortunate. We have an opportunity to meet all the candidates, to go through the vetting process and hopefully pick the next president of the United States, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” Airhart said shortly after Walker spoke at the annual “Blue Jean Bash” fundraiser. “We have that opportunity in Iowa that really no one else in the country has.”
Democrats aren’t as aggressive this cycle in wooing Iowa’s politicians because their field of candidates is less competitive than the Republicans’.
There is a long tradition of the state’s most influential politicians staging events that attract national candidates. Former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry, which ran for 37 years and ended in 2014, was one that presidential hopefuls didn’t dare pass up.
Republican Gov. Terry Branstad started holding an annual birthday fundraiser during his first term in the 1980s. The parties — including cupcakes decorated with images of the governor’s trademark mustache — are must-stops for White House candidates.
Political observers say the practice is getting increasingly common among lower-profile politicians, like Young and fellow first-term Rep. Rod Blum, neither of whom has endorsed in the 2016 contest.
“It is a fascinating way for a first-term freshman member of Congress to get in front of a bunch of people who might not show up at any campaign event they might hold on their own,” said Craig Robinson, publisher of the influential Iowa Republican blog.
Robinson said it was unclear whether neophyte politicians such as Young or Blum would emerge as “kingmakers.” “This is kind of new territory,” he said.
Blum has held events with nearly every 2016 GOP presidential prospect.
“For a freshman congressman like myself, obviously the crowds that a presidential candidate attracts are good-size crowds for me. It lets me dive into the crowds, and I’m reconnecting with supporters and also meeting new people,” he said. “Sometimes if it works out, we have a private event before or after the public event; we try to raise some money.”
Such courtships are not without risks. Bush, Perry, former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina and businessman Donald Trump have faced questions about their support of Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, who is embroiled in a fundraising scandal that has prompted fellow Republicans to call for his resignation.
And sometimes, the courting crosses the line. Former Iowa state legislator Kent Sorenson pleaded guilty in a pay-to-play scheme in federal court last year, admitting that he accepted $73,000 from then-Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign after dropping his endorsement of then-Rep. Michele Bachmann in favor of Paul shortly before the caucuses.
But for the most part, the relationships are positive, and Iowa’s leaders sometimes marvel at the experience.
Kaufmann recalled the 2008 nominating contest, when he was a state lawmaker and Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — better known for being a “Law and Order” star — came for a visit. Thompson wanted to campaign in Kaufmann’s home county.
“We walked up and down the streets of Tipton and talked to business owners I’ve known all my life,” Kaufmann said. “Here I am, little old me, in Tipton, Iowa, and I get to go around and introduce Fred Thompson. It was neat for me…. It enhances a local legislator’s image.”
Follow @LATSeema for political news.