Few Democrats outside of Iowa—and frankly not that many inside Iowa—are paying close attention to the state's race for governor this year. But Martin O'Malley is.
Maryland's governor has gone all in for Jack Hatch, the Iowa Democrat futilely trying to deny Republican Gov. Terry Branstad a sixth term. O'Malley has practically embedded in Hatch's campaign, attending six fundraisers and three public campaign events since mid-June. He's cut a $10,000 check from his political action committee and even dispatching staffers to help with Hatch's campaign.
While political underdogs around much of the country are suddenly having trouble getting their calls returned, that's simply not a concern for long-shots in an early presidential caucus state like Iowa, especially when the endorser is openly calculating a run for the White House.
Hatch knows it. Asked why O'Malley was so interested in his bid, the state senator didn't beat around the bush. "I think he's looking very seriously at running for president, and you have to come to Iowa to do that," Hatch said.
Hatch's campaign isn't the only one being used as a stepping stone for another politician's national ambitions. Candidates from both parties in all sorts of low-profile or noncompetitive races are receiving outsize attention from possible White House contenders. Without having to officially declare their own intentions, presidential prospects can team up with midterm candidates to meet donors, activists, and voters in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
The race for the Iowa congressional seat that Rep. Bruce Braley is vacating is tighter than the one for governor, but it's not generally viewed as a top-tier House contest either. President Obama carried Iowa's 1st Congressional District—the most Democratic in the state—by 14 percentage points in the 2012 election.
Still, Republicans considering 2016 are barnstorming the district to aid Rod Blum, who owns a software company in Dubuque and ran unsuccessfully for the same seat last cycle. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and tea-party favorite Ben Carson all traveled to the district in September to boost Blum's campaign. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is set to hit the trail with Blum on Friday, and Sen. Rand Paul plans to do the same later in the month.
"It's truly a win-win," Blum said. "I feel good to bring these presidential candidates out to my district and talk to the Republican and independent voters."
Blum, who joked that his "charming personality" also has something to do with the attention, added that he expects even more White House hopefuls to campaign for him in the final weeks before Election Day.
In the state that follows Iowa on the presidential primary calendar, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan is viewed as a safe bet for reelection. Nevertheless, no fewer than four possible GOP presidential contenders have offered to lend a hand to her challenger, Walt Havenstein, another candidate trailing in most polls. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal stumped for the former technology company CEO earlier this week and Perry and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence are slated to campaign with Havenstein separately in October.
Even down-ballot candidates in early presidential primary states are feeling the love. O'Malley staffers have been directed to assist the campaigns of Democrats Brad Anderson, a candidate for Iowa secretary of state, and Bakari Sellers, who is running for South Carolina lieutenant governor, both of whom also received donations from the governor's PAC. During South Carolina's primary earlier this year, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both former and possibly future presidential contenders, campaigned for opposing candidates in the GOP runoff for lieutenant governor. And Perry has lent support to a total of 17 Republicans running for office in Iowa, according to The Des Moines Register, including nine state legislative candidates.
Many of these candidates will lose. But they're making friends along the way. Back in Iowa, Hatch indicated he doesn't mind if O'Malley is looking out for his own interests. "Isn't that part of the definition of politics?" he asked.
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Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.