DES MOINES — Eight days after a wedding, most newlyweds are still on their honeymoon. Not US Representative Seth Moulton, who instead found himself in Iowa Saturday — without his wife — learning to flip a fried steak.
He also just might have been laying the groundwork to run for president of the United States.
“You’re probably asking yourself what on earth a sophomore congressman from Massachusetts is doing here,” Moulton told hundreds of Democratic activists gathered in a field at the sprawling Water Works Park.
“To be honest, giving a political speech in Iowa is just about the last place I would have expected to find myself when I was . . . in Iraq a few years ago,” Moulton said, referring to his service as a Marine Corps officer.
“The answer to all those questions is simple: It’s the right thing to do. Because we can do better, and we need to do better.”
Iowa’s annual steak fry, sponsored by the Polk County Democrats, is a unique institution in US politics. The photo-op at the grill and the keynote speech have been traditional first stops for future Democratic presidential candidates, from Bill Clinton to Al Gore to Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Like some aspiring Democrats before him, Moulton was unknown to many in the crowd. The local activist who introduced him began this way: “When I found out that I was introducing Seth Moulton, I knew I had to do some research. You know, the old Google search.”
If presidential buzz seems premature for a 38-year-old who has been in Congress just three years, Moulton notes he simply accepted an invitation to speak at the Iowa event — along with two other party figures. Besides, he claims, presidential aspirations have nothing to do with this trip to a state that traditionally kicks off the presidential primary season.
His political consultants, his staff, his friends, and Moulton himself insist that really — no, really — this trip was about encouraging Democrats to take back the majority in the House in 2018.
But Joe Trippi, one of Moulton’s political consultants and a veteran of presidential campaigns, acknowledged that showing up raises eyebrows.
That said, “I don’t know who would turn down the steak fry invitation,” Trippi said. “There are certain things that if you get the call and you can do it, you do it. It is a premier event.”
Moulton has, in fact, spent significant time and effort trying to flip the House. He has recruited and mentored at least a dozen candidates for Congress this year. He recently held a joint fund-raiser for them and raised $600,000.
So what’s Moulton up to? For now, he’s simply putting himself out there. After he defeated an 18-year incumbent in a Democratic primary in 2014, he vowed he wouldn’t become an anonymous congressional backbencher. In an interview, he said his party is in its worst shape since the 1920s. He sees both a responsibility and a political opportunity to step up.
“Democrats have work to do,” Moulton told the audience in Des Moines. “And it starts with taking a hard look in the mirror and making some real changes. We can’t expect to start winning again if we keep doing the same old things. We have to get back to our party’s roots and back in touch with the voters we have lost.”
The question is: What’s Moulton’s next step? The only option he has rejected is running for governor against Republican Charlie Baker next year. Instead, he will run for reelection for his North Shore congressional seat. He hasn’t ruled out a future run for House speaker. And there are rumors he could challenge incumbent Senator Ed Markey in a 2020 primary.
And while he demurs when asked about running for president, his mere presence at the Iowa steak fry, his frequent appearances on cable television, his aggressive fund-raising schedule, and the memoir he is writing suggest otherwise.
And why not run? As many as 20 Democrats could jump into the 2020 presidential race. Among them is a little-known Maryland congressman, John Delaney, who was campaigning in New Hampshire when Moulton took the stage in Iowa.
David Gergen, an adviser to four US presidents, has been a mentor to Moulton since he was at Harvard. He said it is unclear whether this presidential cycle is the right one for the young congressman.
“That said, this Iowa trip is an extremely formative experience for him that will broaden his political education in listening to the pulse out there,” Gergen said.
One reason not to jump in: Massachusetts might already have a top-tier presidential candidate in Senator Elizabeth Warren. Many see her as the current soul of the Democratic Party, but Moulton suggested the Democrats also need to cultivate a new wave of leaders.
“She is an incredibly important voice in the party, but we need younger voices as well. I think it is time for a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party,” he said. “That doesn’t mean pushing out the old generation. That just means to be sure that we have some younger people who are part of the discussion as well.”
The desire for fresh talent in the party is why Moulton was invited to speak in Iowa, said Polk County Democratic Party chairman Sean Bagniewski, who organized the event.
“The feeling here on the ground after Hillary’s loss is that we need new faces,” Bagniewski said. “They really, really want to see new people.”
Moulton worked the crowd for two hours Saturday, sipping on a Miller Lite. Iowa State student Cody Woodruff wanted to meet him to tell him he was an inspiration. As they talked, a man wearing a “Nevertheless We Persisted” shirt — a riff on the slogan Warren made famous — scooped baked beans.
The man, David Vawter, a mortgage broker from the Des Moines area, found Moulton interesting. But, he said, “Warren is the one I want to run.”
By the time Moulton took the stage, many in the crowd had already left — not that it was necessarily a statement about him. The University of Iowa football game started at 3.
Among those listening was Pat Boddy of Urbandale.
“Anytime someone is willing to show up, speak clearly, and dynamically and succinctly, they are welcome in Iowa,” Boddy said.
But is Moulton presidential material?
“Maybe someday,” Boddy said. “Does he want to be?”