DES MOINES, Iowa – It's nearly impossible to separate a movement to draft the country's first female president from the prospect of Hillary Clinton taking up the mantle once again, so organizers of the EMILY's List 'Madam President' town hall event Friday didn't even try.
A group first started to help elect pro-choice, Democratic women candidates to public office, EMILY's List has now turned its sights to electing a woman president in 2016. It's launching its effort to build grass-roots support for Clinton – or any other woman candidate – in a series of well-publicized town hall events in early presidential campaign states over the coming months, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
"We have to have millions of people engaged and ready for what will be a pivotal race in America's history," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of the Iowa event's panelists. "[It's] about getting everyone excited now about what I hope will be that moment in 2017 when we all get to say 'Madam President' to Hillary Rodham Clinton."
McCaskill, who supported President Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign against Clinton, has emerged as one of Clinton's earliest cheerleaders as the former secretary of state mulls the prospect of a new bid.
The 2008 race came up frequently in the Iowa-centric discussion – both Clinton's third place finish in the caucuses and the fact that Iowa, along with just Mississippi, has yet to elect a woman to federal office.
It's a streak that chafes both Jessica Vanden Berg, a top regional Democratic political consultant, and Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List.
"It's time to stop saying women can't win in Iowa," Vanden Berg said. "Anyone saying Hillary can't win in Iowa, that's just not true."
Schriock cited new polling done by EMILY's List that showed 96 percent of Iowa caucus-goers said they would be willing to vote for a female presidential candidate.
"Elections are really a snapshot in time," said Vanden Berg of the 2008 caucus results. "But it's a new playing field and it's a new ballgame. The Iowa electorate has changed since then. There's enthusiasm – otherwise this room wouldn't be full of people excited about electing a woman."
But McCaskill said the 'Madam President' effort is about more than just fueling support for Clinton.
"[It's] a metaphor for enabling young women to see that city council race is worth it, that school board race is worth it, that state legislative seat is worth it," she said.
All the panelists waxed optimistic about the strong crop of Democratic women waiting in the wings, but insisted more needs to be done to maintain a pipeline of women candidates.
"We have only one Democratic woman governor in the country … and we have to change that," Schriock said. "I truly believe that once we break that biggest and final last ceiling that is the White House, it will open up so many doors."
When an audience member said she was disappointed in how positive many losing campaigns by women candidates were, McCaskill agreed that women candidates needed to be more willing to take their gloves off.
"I was dead meat on a hook; I was done," she said of her 2012 re-election campaign that began with her down in the polls until her opponent, Todd Akin, committed a major gaffe. "We were able to turn it around because I was fearless, strategic and not afraid to take a risk."
Women interested in running for office should know that "it's not about sitting down for tea and crumpets."
As for Clinton's path, McCaskill said those who think it would simply be a retread of 2008 – when a lesser-known opponent was able to topple Clinton after she dominated early polling – are wrong.
"It will be a tsunami of support for her across this country and I think it would make it very difficult for anyone else to be considered a credible opponent if she decides to run in our party," said McCaskill in remarks to reporters following the event.
"It is not a top-down, 'we are invincible' [sentiment]; it is a bottom-up, 'we want you to be our president' [one]," she said. "That kind of groundswell is pretty unusual in American politics."
"It's frankly inspiring and exciting."