Insider Interview: Iowa Democratic Operative Jeff Link
Jeff Link's nomadic political career has taken him from the Iowa river town of Burlington to the island paradise of Aruba and back -- all in the space of the last 15 years.
One of the top Democratic operatives in a state known nationally for its influence in the presidential process, Link, 39, carries the intimate knowledge of Iowa's political geography and the Hawkeye power players courted by every Democrat considering a 2008 bid.
Asked to name the key counties that a Democrat must concentrate on to win the state's presidential caucuses, Link rattles off the typical targets (Polk and Dubuque counties) but also notes that because caucus delegates are assigned by primary turnout, a candidate should spend more time in Ottumwa (Wappelo County) in the strongly Democratic eastern part of the state than in Council Bluffs in the Republican west.
As for the profile of the typical Iowa caucus-goer? It's not the stereotypical ultra-liberal; rather, it's a "mainstream cross-section of Democrats," according to Link. "Rarely does the most liberal candidate do well in the final analysis."
For now, Link - and his strategic know-how -- is remaining neutral when it comes to presidential politics, focusing instead on building Link Strategies -- the general consulting and opposition research firm he founded in 1999. "We either run a campaign or do the research for a campaign," explained Link. Among his clients are gubernatorial candidates Steve Westly in California, Jim Davis in Florida and Dina Titus in Nevada.
The firm is also working for Bruce Braley, a former head of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association who is seeking to win Rep. Jim Nussle's (R) eastern Iowa 1st District. The last time that seat was open was 1990 -- the first campaign that Link managed in his political career. Link's candidate, Eric Tabor, narrowly lost to Nussle, 50 percent to 49 percent. With Nussle vacating the seat to run for governor this year, Link admits to being heavily involved with Braley -- perhaps in search of a bit of redemption for that first loss.
Following Tabor's defeat, Link began a political odyssey that saw him working across the country and the world for the next nine years. His most interesting stop? A three-month stint working for the Aruba Volks Party (A.V.P) in 1994; "They won a plurality and formed a government," says Link of his work on Caribbean island.
Link always wound up back in Iowa. He managed Sen. Tom Harkin's (D) reelection victories in 1996 and 2002, served as Vice President Al Gore's Iowa director during the 2000 general election and held the same post for the Democratic 527 group America Coming Together during 2004.
Link's career has not been without some pitfalls. During Sen. Harkin's 2002 campaign, Link was forced to resign as campaign manager after it was revealed that a junior campaign aide had secretly taped a strategy session for then-Rep. Greg Ganske, the GOP Senate nominee. No charges were brought in the case, and Harkin went on to a comfortable 10-point victory.
As for 2008, Link and nearly every other top party operative know that how the caucus turns out depends on whether Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) seeks the nomination. Vilsack, who is retiring this year after two terms as the state's chief executive, has made little secret of his interest in a national bid. The last time an Iowa native ran for president was in 1992; Harkin won 76 percent of the caucus vote that year as none of the other serious candidates contested the state.
"The no. 1 question in Iowa is whether Vilsack is going to get a campaign off the ground and be a candidate," said Link. "People want to know what he is going to do before they get past 'hello' with these other candidates." Most Iowa Democrats are excited about the possibility of Vilsack in the presidential mix but aren't optimistic about his chances. "People are reluctant about Vilsack because they don't think we can elect an Iowan president," Link said.
Link believes that the other potential 2008 candidates can't wait for Vilsack to make up his mind. They need to make several pilgrimages to the state over the next year to begin the "introductory phase" of the courting process, he said.
Take former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner for example. While Warner is riding high among the chattering class and the national media, he is still unknown among Hawkeye State Democratic voters who "don't know the Mark Warner story," said Link.
Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, on the other hand, has made a strong first impression in Iowa, a near-necessity for the Midwestern senator who needs to make a splash in the caucuses to have a real chance in 2008. Link said one of Bayh's most deft moves in Iowa came during a recent visit when he praised Vilsack and referred to them as "brothers."
Several potential 2008 candidates -- including the 2004 ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards -- are already known commodities among Iowa Democrats, but their political futures in the state seem decidedly different, said Link.
Kerry, who came from behind to win the caucuses in 2004, will likely run into a "fair amount of reluctance to go down that road again," he said. As for Edwards, who placed second in Iowa in 2004, his future appears considerably brighter. "People have good feelings about John Edwards in Iowa," said Link. "A lot of people think if the caucuses had been a week later he might have won."
The unspoken titan in Iowa -- as she is everywhere else in the country - is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Link said that he and several friends often joke that the best job in politics would be the lead advance person for Clinton's first visit to Iowa after she wins reelection to the Senate in November. "She'll have a substantial following if she decides to get in," he said.
-- Chris Cillizza
January 23, 2006; 8:30 AM ET
Categories: Democratic Party , Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview
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