The Bowhunting Influencer of Iowa Democrats

CARROLL, Iowa — When I asked Rob Sand, the Iowa state auditor, if he could recommend fascinating Iowans to profile, he suggested himself. Then he suggested we go deer hunting.

“We can get you in a tree stand this week to spice it up,” he said in a text.

Mr. Sand’s fondness for hunting — cultivated during his childhood years in rural Iowa but also conveniently appealing to the state’s more conservative constituents — helps explain why he was the only non-incumbent Democrat to win statewide here in 2018. And that, in turn, helps explain why he has become the one of the most sought after endorsements in what could be the most important state in the most important presidential primary for Democrats maybe ever.

Over the last year, many of the 2020 candidates have asked him for advice, viewing him as a next-generation oracle of rural Iowa but also as a model for how to win as a Democrat in a state that President Trump captured in 2016 by more than nine points.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., had coffee with him in February and recently called him to talk about agricultural policy. Elizabeth Warren met with him at a coffee shop during a recent visit to Des Moines. He speaks frequently to Cory Booker. Michael Bennet gave him his book. Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, had breakfast with him when he was thinking about getting into the race.

“In the early primary states, he is a truly important influencer,” Mr. Booker said on Wednesday in a brief phone interview while en route to Iowa.

“Rob’s endorsement for any candidate, should he choose any candidate, would be very significant in his state in general, and especially in a caucus state,” he added.

In Iowa, presidential fortunes can rise or fall on the quality of the on-the-ground relationships candidates build over months of campaigning. Savvy, connected state politicians can provide organizing and fund-raising muscle and inject local star power into campaign events, but they can also help jump-start the infectious enthusiasm that often propels a candidate to victory on caucus night.

For the Democratic candidates blanketing the state, the fact that Mr. Sand is only in his first year in office is not a drawback, but exactly the point: He is especially coveted because he is the latest Democrat to have cracked the code in Iowa.

Mr. Sand usually invites candidates over to his house for coffee so he can be at home with his two young sons, Tait and Axel. Sometimes he spars with candidates on his very active Twitter feed about his favorite food, breakfast pizza. He has not invited any of them hunting.

“It’s just a lot of sitting there, not talking,” he said, over an egg-and-cheese lunch at a coffee shop near the capitol, “which doesn’t really improve their chances much.”

Mr. Sand is 37 but looks like he is 19. He is from Decorah, Iowa, part of the “Driftless Area” in rural northeast Iowa, so called because glaciers left it untouched during the last ice age. The area also happens to be the locus of the Midwestern shift of voters from Obama to Trump. His father was a doctor. His mother was a physical therapist for disabled children.

When he was a child, he filled his time riding mountain bikes and tubing down the Upper Iowa River. His first job was catching chickens. (“Technically, they’re capons — castrated male chickens,” he clarified. “My mom would make me take all of my clothes off before I came into the house because you’d just be literally covered in chicken shit. That’s the only thing they can do, once you’ve grabbed them. They’re like, ‘Oh no! Let’s see if this helps!”)

In 2005, he graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island with a degree in political science, a Truman scholarship and an honors thesis on public campaign financing and political participation. He likes to tell people about how he turned down Harvard Law School for the University of Iowa College of Law. He does not like to talk about how he briefly modeled in Paris and Milan when he was in college.

As an assistant attorney general in Iowa, Mr. Sand specialized in white-collar crime like public corruption. He enjoyed the job, racking up some high-profile victories, but soured on it after awhile.

So in 2018 he ran for state auditor, a down-ballot, watchdog position that usually gets almost no attention during elections. Before Mr. Sand, Iowa had had only three state auditors, all Republicans, since 1979. Mr. Sand won by more than four percentage points, buoyed by robust, sometimes cheeky TV advertising and his affection for small-town Iowa.

His political message is also flecked with references to the Bible and his Christian faith, which plays well across much of Iowa. He credits his victory in 2018 with his ability to raise a ton of money — more than $1.7 million — a significant portion of which came from his wife’s wealthy, Republican family.

With a demeanor that is part charming frat boy, part earnest professor, Mr. Sand is gregarious and disarming. When he was a freshman at Brown, he introduced himself to everyone in his dorm. He invites his Twitter trolls to breakfast.

He cherishes efficiency. When he travels on short trips, he doesn’t bring a bag, but instead carries items he needs — a tube of toothpaste, a sawed-off toothbrush — in the pockets of his sport coat. He uses an Apple Watch so he doesn’t need to carry around his phone. Or he uses his phone so he doesn’t need to carry around his computer.

Mr. Sand emphasizes nonpartisanship in his role as state auditor, a quality that fellow Iowa Democrats say is one reason he has become so popular. Many people who know him say he is ambitious but also happy to use his newfound prominence to elevate others.

“People want to feel good about politics,” said Zach Wahls, a prominent young state senator in eastern Iowa. “And I think Rob makes people feel good about politics.”

Mr. Sand understands that he is ascending at a time when there is desire among Democrats to elevate women and minority candidates and not white men. “If people are angry about representation in a demographic sense, they can be that way. They can have that anger,” he said.

But Mr. Sand also said he wants to use his privilege to help.

“Part of beating historical injustice is uniting and people working together,” he said. “For people like me, being cognizant of that is helpful, but it’s not like I should just not do anything.”

Iowa Democrats think Mr. Sand is going to run for governor or maybe for the United States Senate in 2022. He has not exactly discouraged the speculation. Recently, he has been holding town halls across Iowa.

On Wednesday, he made a stop in Carroll, Iowa, a small, heavily Catholic town in the western part of the state. Anti-abortion signs dotted the roads. He wore a white button-down tucked into jeans.

For some 30 minutes, he outlined his office’s accomplishments in his first year, like introducing an initiative to make local government more efficient and accountable. Most of it was dry and bureaucratic, but the dozen or so attendees, including two campaign staffers for Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Amy Klobuchar, were rapt. When I asked Mr. Sand whether he planned to run for governor or the Senate, he initially brushed off the question. “Can you quote an eye roll?” he said.

“In all seriousness, like, I have no idea,” he offered later. “I’m 37 years old. I don’t know if we’re going to have a third kid or not. I want to be in public service but I also want to be a good dad and I don’t know how you balance those things.”

Mr. Sand says he is not planning to endorse anyone, at least not at the moment. He has only held one 2020 event, with Mr. Booker in Decorah, but he and his staff say that did not constitute an endorsement.

He insists that his preference doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter.

“I am not important, my opinion is not important,” he said.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Mr. Sand did take me deer hunting. “Try to be as unscented as possible with soap or shampoo or anything like that,” he texted me in advance.

We dressed in camouflage, then drove in his pickup truck to a house not far from where he lives in Des Moines. After instructing me to make as little noise as possible, we trudged into a strip of woods where Mr. Sand pointed to two metal tree stands high up on the narrow trunk of a tree. He had not mentioned that hunting involved climbing.

It was November, bowhunting season, so Mr. Sand had brought along a bow and arrows.

Then we waited in the tree, Mr. Sand’s head on a slow swivel as he scanned for signs of movement. Periodically, he smashed two pieces of a plastic device together to mimic the sound of a buck fight.

“I feel closest to God when I’m in nature,” he said at one point, the tree swaying in the wind underneath us.

After two hours, the sun set. It grew dark.

We did not see any deer.

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