AOC vs. Jonathan Van Ness: Welcome to the Influencer War in Iowa

With three top 2020 Dems stuck in D.C. for the impeachment trial, Iowa is officially Surrogate City.
With three top 2020 Dems stuck in D.C. for the impeachment trial, Iowa is officially Surrogate City.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders has Michael Moore and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye” and the Castro twins.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has, well, an Olympic gold medal curling coach.

With three of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination stuck in D.C. listening to President Donald Trump’s rap sheet and defense being read on the Senate floor, Iowa is officially Surrogate City.


That means the candidates who can’t be there themselves during the workweek are relying like never before on influential stand-ins to make their closing arguments before the all-important Iowa caucuses begin next week.

“It brings a little star power, gets a little excitement going,” said Iowa state Sen. Rob Hogg, who recently endorsed Klobuchar. “People are making a case for voters for why their candidate makes the most sense.”

If star power and excitement are the goals, the Sanders campaign is setting the standard. It’s especially important to psych up your fans in Iowa’s caucus system. A winning candidate will be the one who draws the most determined people to turn out in bone-cold weather and stand for what could be hours in a corner of a room resisting pressure to switch teams.

Ocasio-Cortez helped draw more than 14,000 people to a rally in Venice Beach last month, with some even leaving after her speech rather than sticking around for the headliner, Sanders. While that kind of a crowd is unrealistic for the less populous Iowa, she has already been packing rooms in Iowa.

She spent Friday night campaigning with Michael Moore, the activist Phillip Agnew, and musician Mike Posner in Iowa City, road-tripped to a few other towns on Saturday and ended that day meeting Sanders for a rally in Ames featuring the band Portugal. The Man that drew 1,400 people, according to the campaign. On Sunday night, they rallied with that same lineup in Sioux City.


Indie artists Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend will also headline rallies for the Sanders campaign next weekend, days before the Iowa caucuses.

Getting TV-ready star surrogates is also important because the senator-candidates are stuck in essentially a media black hole of the impeachment trial. That, by default, helps the jobless candidates who can and will be on the ground, like former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Think local

So it’s critical that the high-profile surrogates hit the ground on behalf of the senators, who may barely register in wall-to-wall cable coverage of the impeachment trial. Local news affiliates will absolutely drag their cameras to a star-studded rally, keeping their names top of mind for Iowa voters.

Sanders has topped the last few polls in Iowa. An Emerson College poll had him at a milestone 30%, a coup for a campaign seeking to prove the candidate can grow support beyond his 2016 coalition. Sanders also led the New York Times/Siena College and CBS/YouGov polls with about a quarter of those polled and led in the crucial Des Moines Register/CNN poll. But the race is too close to call him a lock: Biden led with 24% in both the Monmouth University and Focus on Rural America polls this month.

Though Warren doesn’t have the same level of star power as Sanders, she did just receive endorsements from both the Des Moines Register and New York Times editorial boards, so her famous surrogates looked to capitalize over the weekend. Van Ness, the “Queer Eye” star, appeared with Warren in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, drawing a crowd of 900 people, according to the campaign.


While she’s siloed in D.C., she’s had the Castro brothers — former 2020 candidate Julián and his brother, Rep. Joaquin — in from Texas crisscrossing the state.

At a small house party outside Des Moines earlier this month, Julián Castro tried to pitch Warren as the unity candidate who can bridge the sparring factions of the Democratic Party. That kind of a message could be comforting for people to hear in person, as the last few weeks have been dominated by headlines about Warren and Sanders in a contentious back-and-forth.

“She can definitely unify the party. I've seen that time after time on the campaign trail, that people of different backgrounds, different walks of life, support Sen. Warren,” he told reporters. “She's worked during this campaign to speak directly to the issues of better health care, of better education, better job opportunities, a tax code that works for people who have to work for a living, and she's gonna continue to do that.”

Warren will also have Rep. Joe Kennedy III, Boston Marathon bombing survivors and activists Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, Squad member Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and some other elected officials speaking in her stead.

As for Klobuchar, who received a co-endorsement with Warren from the New York Times Editorial Board, the roster is short on celebrity boosters and long on local officials. Her husband and daughter will make appearances alongside relatively obscure political figures, many from the Midwest, like Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Rep. Angie Craig.

There’s one notable exception: Olympic gold medal curling coach Phill Drobnick visited the Des Moines Curling Club League Night on Friday.

Maybe he'll be able to sweep away some of the ice that's been slowing down her campaign.

Cover: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speak at a campaign stop for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at La Poste, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Perry, Iowa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)