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Presidential Hopefuls Line Up To Back Candidates For Iowa Special Election


We've got a story now about a first-time candidate for the Iowa state Senate who's been getting a lot of attention this year. The race is a competitive one in a reliably blue district. But, in a typical year, it wouldn't get much play beyond northeast Iowa. But Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and now Beto O'Rourke, just a few of the Democratic presidential contenders, are all making a trip to this district to phone bank and rally voters. Beto O'Rourke made a stop in Cedar Falls this morning.


BETO O'ROURKE: We have to walk the talk, and that is what has brought every single one of us here today under this beautiful sky to support Eric Giddens for state Senate.


MARTIN: Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne has more.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: The last few weeks have been a blur for Democrat Eric Giddens. When the local state senator resigned in February, Giddens jumped at the chance to run for his seat. But as a local school board member and former teacher, all of the attention from the country's leading Democrats is a little surreal.

ERIC GIDDENS: It's been a lot of fun, and they're all super nice. And - but, you know, they're just folks like the rest of us who happen to be in very important positions.

PAYNE: Positions like running for president of the United States. I tagged along with Giddens and a staffer to do some doorknocking in suburban Cedar Falls.

UNIDENTIFIED STAFFER: You're looking for Chris (ph), age 53.



PAYNE: Giddens is facing former State Representative Walt Rogers, who lost his seat in part because of his support for school choice. Public education is still top of mind for some voters, like Janice Carroll and her husband Ed, whose door we knock on later.



JANICE CARROLL: Oh, I recognize that face.

GIDDENS: How are you?

CARROLL: Big supporters in this house, I'm going to tell you.

GIDDENS: Thank you. I appreciate that.


PAYNE: Giddens has never run for a state seat. Of the presidential candidates who are lining up to support him, some are sending their staff to help campaign, too. Cory Booker put out this call on social media to University of Northern Iowa students.


CORY BOOKER: Hi, Panthers. It's Cory Booker, asking you that - before you leave for spring break, go out there and vote in a very special election for Eric Giddens.

PAYNE: Kirsten Gillibrand is one of the few that hasn't made the trip to campaign for Giddens, but she put out her own message on Twitter.


KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: He's running in the special election for Senate District 30. Polls are open until 7 p.m. at Maucker Union, so make sure you get there. Bring everyone you know. Your vote matters.

PAYNE: Iowa Democratic operative Matt Paul says, for the presidential hopefuls, there are obvious benefits here. And it's not just about this local candidate.

MATT PAUL: People really dialed-in on what's going on in this special election are going to be caucusgoers. So it makes sense for these presidential candidates to lend their name.

PAYNE: But there still may be some downsides for Giddens. I met up with his Republican opponent, Walt Rogers, in a local restaurant. Rogers thinks all this attention is firing up his base, too.

GILLIBRAND: I do, actually, so, you know? A lot of people are like, you see who they're bringing in and all this? And we can't let the, you know, coastal elites do this to Iowa. So, you know, I think it energizes everybody.

PAYNE: Outside of an early voting site, I caught up with Matthew Cohea. He's an independent but says he leans conservative. He says seeing presidential candidates rally around a local race like this just rubs him the wrong way.

MATTHEW COHEA: Obviously, this time around, it's the Democrats coming through. Even when it's Republicans, it just kind of turns me off.

PAYNE: National interest or not, Cohea says his mind was already made up for Rogers, the Republican. Because Iowans vote first in the presidential cycle, this kind of attention is expected, to some extent. For Giddens, it's just lucky that it happens to be his turn in this special election, in this caucus cycle.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.