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Turnout suffers in flood-ravaged Mills County, Iowa; many don't 'have the energy' to caucus

PACIFIC JUNCTION, Iowa — Mills County Democrats worried all month whether many of the 470 former residents of this flooded town would attend a caucus Monday.

Last March, the Missouri River inundated all 210 homes and businesses here, and a caucus day drive through town showed the extent of damage 10 months later. Most local homes, storefronts and gathering spaces remain boarded up. Only about 20 households have moved back so far, officials say, and the only evidence of the presidential race was a single campaign sign in front of the rebuilt home of Rick and Cherry Parham.

The Parhams were the only flooded folks from Pacific Junction who attended the Democratic caucus at Glenwood Public Library. They were joined by 10 people from nearby Lyons and Platteville townships, as well as some rural areas. Four years ago, the same precinct caucus drew about 50 people to a Pacific Junction location.

Rick, 57, and Cherry, 51, moved home in October after living for months in a camper. The Parhams support former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and on Monday, at their caucus site, they got their man.

Buttigieg grabbed and held the lead in both rounds of caucusing at their precinct, securing six of the 12 caucus-goers. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden finished with three apiece.

Rick Parham, who said he had served in the Iowa and Nebraska National Guard, said it was time to let the younger generation do what the older generation had not: address the country’s big challenges, including a changing climate, college debt and sensible gun control.

“We’ll go with the younger one to see if he can pull it off,” he said. Cherry agreed.

At their precinct, the 12 Iowa Democrats agreed on two things: dislike of President Donald Trump and the health care system.

None knew how close they came to not having a precinct site organizer to greet them. Glenwood librarian Tara Painter, 48, was why they saw more than an unmanned box and instructions from the Iowa Democratic Party.

Mills County Democratic Party Chairwoman Donna Crum said she hadn’t been able to find a local precinct resident to run the caucus site. One potential helper had moved elsewhere. Another had to work. A third had surgery this week. Finally, Painter agreed at about 1 p.m. Monday, read up on the process and worried that few would show up.

“I talked to a woman tonight who is in Platteville township,” Painter said. “With all the flooding they had to deal with … she’s living in a one-bedroom apartment while her house is going through the FEMA process … she just didn’t have the energy to do this, too.”

Photos: 2020 Iowa Caucuses

Mills County is home to 1,916 active registered Democrats and 5,032 Republicans and 2,997 independents, according to the Iowa Secretary of State's Office. That’s down slightly for Democrats and independents and up slightly for Republicans since February 2016.

Glenwood hosted four other Democratic caucus precincts Monday at the Glenwood Community Middle School, while Republicans caucused at the Glenwood Community High School.

The library crowd was just 11 when the doors were locked at 7 p.m. But the group decided to let Jennifer Williams in after they heard her knocking on the window a few minutes late. She had driven to the library with her son, Riley, 9, but said people hadn’t heard her outside.

The evening’s biggest surprise came when folks counted the first alignment of voters into camps for each candidate. They hadn’t realized the state party had changed its rules to lock any viable candidate, including undecideds, into their first choice if they reached 15% of the site’s caucus-goers. With so few people voting, any group with at least two people would have been locked into their choice.

That first huddle had five people for Buttigieg, four undecided, two for Biden and one for billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. But the Democrats agreed to redo that first alignment, once everyone understood the new rules.

The redone tally had Buttigieg at six, Sanders at three, Biden at two and Steyer at one. That meant only Steyer voter Kent Rounds, 64, could change his choice. It took only a single speech from a Biden supporter to have him join their ranks.

Rounds’ reason for picking Biden: He wants to beat Trump.

“We can’t make the same mistake we did in 2016,” he said.

Normally, his act of relocating would’ve ended the presidential part of the evening. But these Democrats kept talking to one another while Sanders campaign volunteer Linda Anderson of Lincoln worked with Painter to calculate the precinct’s final delegate math.

The group discussed family members who’d been laid low financially after getting sick. One man in a cowboy hat said hospital stays had depleted the finances of people he cared about. Then Cherry Parham piped up.

“Why do they get filthy rich while so many of us die?” she asked, and others agreed.

Then talk turned to the environment, how fast the climate is changing, including more floods, and how afraid they were of some Trump administration rollbacks of environmental protections for water and air. On this, supporters in all three camps agreed.

Anderson, who helped lead the precinct after Painter started, walked back into the room at 7:53 p.m. She told caucus-goers that Iowa’s odd delegate math meant that each of their favored candidates, Buttigieg, Biden and Sanders, would get a single delegate apiece.

The man in the cowboy hat said, “Everybody gets a trophy.” People laughed. Soon folks started heading for the exits, shortly after 8 p.m. Some shook hands. Others said their goodbyes. And Painter locked up.

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Dems' race in Iowa ends with campaigns and voters frustrated

DES MOINES — The first electoral contest of the 2020 presidential campaign threatened to turn into a fiasco as the Iowa Democratic Party struggled to report the results of nearly 1,700 precinct caucuses.

The state party said late Monday that results from the state's first-in-the-nation caucus were indefinitely delayed due to "quality checks" and "inconsistencies" in some reporting, an embarrassing complication that added a new layer of doubt to an already uncertain presidential primary season.

Earlier in the day, the gatherings proceeded smoothly as partisans flocked to church basements, senior centers, school libraries and other warm places to make their preferences known.

Early tallies showed the main competition was among former Vice President Joe Biden; ex-South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and the perceived front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The problems began when it came time to declare a winner.

A party spokeswoman explained the delay by citing "quality checks and the fact that the (Iowa Democratic Party) is reporting out three data sets for the first time."

"The integrity of the results is paramount," said communications director Mandy McClure. There was no hack, party officials said.

But Democratic leaders and precinct chairs around the state reported problems with the computer application intended to relay results to the party headquarters in Des Moines.

"I briefly tried to log in. It didn't want me to log in. I could put the precinct number in there but then it wouldn't let me do the next step," said Patty Judge, a former Iowa lieutenant governor who served as a precinct chair in Monroe County in rural southwestern Iowa.

She ended up telephoning in her results. "I decided I wasn't going to frustrate myself," Judge said.

Any questions about the reliability of Monday's outcome could undermine the impact of the caucuses and imperil Iowa's position at the front of the political calendar.

The uncertainty that shrouded the outcome was a fitting coda to a campaign rife with unpredictability. Interviews with voters arriving at their caucuses showed more than 1 in 3 made up their minds just in the last few days, a considerably higher number than previous contests.

Party leaders anticipated that turnout may set a record, topping the nearly 240,000 who voted in 2008, reflecting the closely fought nature of the race and the fervor among Democrats eager to defeat President Donald Trump.

Moments before caucusing started on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Shayla Ides, 19, carried an Elizabeth Warren flag around the student union ballroom as more than 750 caucus-goers — mostly fellow students — shouted over one another in competing chants.

Ides, a junior studying informatics, described Warren as a strong woman whose life and career have inspired her.

"It's really powerful to see someone I want to be like up on that stage," said Ides, who's from Pensacola, Florida. "What's the quote? 'Quiet women never make history.' She would set an incredible example."

Not all were voting out of excitement for a particular candidate. Deanna Marley, 62, explained her process of elimination during a caucus at the golf course in Newton.

"Bernie is too socialist," said the retired respiratory therapist. "Buttigieg is a nice young man who has high hopes, but he doesn't have any experience." Warren's policies were too liberal for Manley and she was ambivalent about Klobuchar.

That left her supporting Biden. The candidates' campaigns and voters got few answers late Monday when they pressed party officials to explain the delay in reporting results.

Although an Iowa Democratic Party official pointed to "quality control" as the source of the delay, other officials blamed technology. Des Moines County Democratic Chair Tom Courtney said he heard that in precincts across his county, including his own, a mobile app created for caucus organizers to report results to the party was "a mess."

Precinct leaders were instead calling in their results to the Democratic Party headquarters, and "they weren't answering the phones in Des Moines" because, Courtney speculated, they were mobbed with calls.

The slowdown came as the party attempted to report more data about the caucus than in years past — promising to release both a headcount of each candidates' supporters and the delegate winners from each site.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Iowa Republicans caucused, too, and they were firmly in Trump's corner

COUNCIL BLUFFS — Memo to Democrats: Republican support of President Donald Trump is deep, steadfast and visceral, as evidenced by his strong showing — surprising to even GOP organizers — at a caucus here at the Thomas Jefferson High School gym.

The 146 registered Republicans who cast their votes in this caucus straw poll were unanimous in support of the 45th president’s reelection bid. No one even mentioned two Republican challengers: former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois. And they listened politely but ultimately ignored two other little-known candidates who gave five-minute stump speeches.

Everyone knew there would be no doubt about the outcome of the GOP contest. In contrast with the spirited battle among candidates on the Democratic side, the incumbent president won in Iowa without breaking a sweat.

But the takeaway from Monday’s Republican caucus at Thomas Jefferson was the unwavering and enthusiastic base of support that Trump will take into his race against the eventual Democratic nominee.

One of those in the bleachers was Micheal Nelson, a 43-year-old union millwright currently laid off from a construction job. Wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jacket he says was from two Christmases ago — he’s no fair-weather fan — Nelson described himself as politically independent, having voted for Democrats in the past. But he went for Trump in 2016. He says he knows union workers of all racial backgrounds who are solidly behind Trump because they feel that he’s fighting for them. Nelson, who normally registers as nonpartisan but registered as a Republican to attend this caucus, said he’s still searching for the right personal political home.

“If I could find a pro-union, anti-right to work, pro-Second Amendment person,” he said, “that would be the perfect candidate.”

Many people in the stands did not want to give their names, including a pair of women who insisted that Trump was, as one of them said, finally putting Christianity back into the presidency.

“And ‘Merry Christmas,’ ” said the other.

“Trump is pro-life,” the first woman said. “He doesn’t want the abortions, and that’s what the Democrats are all for.”

Norma Schneider wasn’t shy about saying why she had come out on this blustery evening to cast a caucus vote for Trump.

The 73-year-old retired teacher said her vote for Trump in 2016 was more a vote “against Hillary,” as in Democrat Hillary Clinton. But after three years, she said, Trump “has done some good for the country.”

“The economy is a lot better,” she said.

She likes that international relations have changed, noting Trump’s entreaties to dialogue with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Photos: 2020 Iowa Caucuses

The crowd skewed white and retirement-age. They sat quietly in the bleachers as the caucus formally got underway after 7 p.m. After the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer “to help guide and strengthen our elected officials,” and a plea from a precinct leader to stick around for business afterward, the crowd waited patiently through speeches from candidates you’ve never heard of.

One, a retired fire captain from Portland, Oregon, lost the room with his detailed discussion of fuel alternatives to address climate change. The other, a Wisconsin man, outlined his anti-communist platform — defined in his literature as being against the “Homosexual Movement,” “Slave Reparations,” and the Common Core educational standards.

After that, the crowd thundered approval for Rep. Don Bacon when he took the mic. The affable Republican from Nebraska went all-in for Trump, one of 80 surrogates the Trump campaign sent to Iowa caucuses. Bacon touted Trump’s record on trade and the economy and criticized “Speaker Pelosi” and the Democrats’ “radical socialist agenda.”

Unlike the Democrats caucusing across the walkway in the high school commons, Republicans vote in a straw poll. Normally this is done with slips of paper, so Mike Sizer, the night’s GOP emcee, started passing out Post-it notes for ballots. But this sparked confusion. So he tried asking for a show of hands to see who in the bleachers was, officially, for Trump. Hands shot up. Then he tried to collect the vote a third way: By consent. Did everyone agree to cast a unanimous vote for President Trump? Everyone appeared to. A count was made: 146 for Trump.

On his way out the door, the disappointed anti-communist candidate, John Schiess, said support for Trump was cultish. He called him “Caesar.” He said it was hard to run against someone people were “so attached to.” He cast the election as a battle for the American soul and said morality still is not part of the conversation. But where did this fringe candidate stand on Trump’s presidency?

“I’m glad Trump got elected,” he said.

People who showed up at Thomas Jefferson on Monday night included many newcomers who said they had never caucused before. They felt a need to show support to a president they see as unfairly targeted by Democrats, a president who stands up for them. They felt that the impeachment proceedings that are winding down in Washington were “a joke.”

Nelson, the laid-off union worker, looked around the gym in the very school he graduated from in 1995. He cast his first presidential vote for Bill Clinton in 1996. He voted twice for Barack Obama. But he felt left behind by a Democratic Party he said “has gone way too far out there.”

“I know a lot of union people, Democrats their whole lives,” he said, “who have switched.”

And he predicted that they will vote in November for Trump.

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Camp Ashland could be coronavirus quarantine site for Americans who were in Wuhan, China

A National Guard camp near Ashland, Nebraska, could be used as a temporary quarantine site for Americans returning from China while they’re under observation for signs of the coronavirus, Guard officials confirmed Monday.

A team from the University of Nebraska Medical Center toured Camp Ashland on Sunday, said Maj. Scott Ingalsbe, a Nebraska National Guard spokesman.

Nebraska Medicine, UNMC’s clinical partner, confirmed Monday that Camp Ashland is the proposed location for the Americans to be housed if they are brought to Nebraska. “We have been asked to prepare to support this effort and we’re ready if needed,” said Taylor Wilson, a Nebraska Medicine spokesman.

Under a federal health emergency order issued Friday, U.S. citizens who have traveled within the past two weeks to China’s Wuhan area — the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak — will be subject to a mandatory quarantine of 14 days. Americans returning from other parts of China will be allowed to self-monitor for a similar period.

Ingalsbe said the Guard has offered to make available three buildings with 85 hotel-style rooms at Camp Ashland. The buildings are two stories high and built on stilts.

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Wuhan visitors won’t eat at the dining hall, use the fitness center or otherwise have contact with soldiers in training, Ingalsbe said. They will not interact with National Guard members, either.

“Meals would be brought to their rooms,” Ingalsbe said. “They would be in buildings we could separate from regular training.”

Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, the Nebraska National Guard’s adjutant general, hasn’t yet been notified whether Camp Ashland has been selected as a quarantine site, Ingalsbe said. He added, however, that “We are planning as if this is going to happen.”

The federal Department of Health and Human Services is working on a plan to bring Americans back to the United States, UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold said Saturday. The travelers most likely would be employees of the federal government or private companies who have tested negative for coronavirus. They would have recently visited Wuhan or other cities where people have come down with the virus.

Nearly 20,438 people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus, most in China, the World Health Organization reported Monday. The coronavirus so far has resulted in 425 deaths, all but one in China.

Eleven cases have been confirmed in the United States, nine of whom had traveled to the Wuhan area, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Nebraska has had no confirmed cases.

Reported illnesses from the coronavirus have ranged from people with few to no symptoms to people being severely ill and dying, the CDC said. Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Currently, 195 Americans who arrived on a flight last week from Wuhan are under quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in California.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC said in a news media briefing Monday that more flights from Wuhan are expected this week.

Over the weekend, she said, the CDC sent four additional teams to specific U.S. Department of Defense locations where those planes will arrive. Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, did not name those locations.

She said the agency has a “general estimate” of the number of Americans who would be arriving but would not have a “completely accurate number” until the flights land. She did not give an estimate.

Camp Ashland, 30 miles southwest of Omaha, was devastated by flooding last year when a levee protecting it from the neighboring Platte River was breached. Floodwaters as deep as 8 feet wrecked most of the buildings at the 100-year-old training site.

But about a dozen buildings with barracks rooms and classrooms had been constructed on stilts. All remained unscathed. Roads, electrical infrastructure and a dining hall have since been repaired, and the levee has been patched.

Training has continued at Camp Ashland despite the flood damage. Ingalsbe said that won’t change even if people being monitored for coronavirus are housed there.

The Guard has been told it will receive $62 million from Congress this year to rebuild the remaining buildings on stilts and to extend concrete reinforcement of the levee.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Douglas County officials and others are involved in preparations for housing people returning from China, Gold said Saturday.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services also has been monitoring the situation and has issued alerts to health care professionals across the state. The department has posted a web page with more information at http://www.dhhs.ne.gov/coronavirus

A look back at the Nebraska Medical Center biocontainment unit's Ebola patients

A look back at the Nebraska Medical Center biocontainment unit's Ebola patients