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Iowa in Focus: Democrats open 2020 with hope, anxiety

Hopeful but also afraid. Uncertain but still focused. Iowa's Democrats will arrive at their 2020 kickoff caucuses on Monday with a mix of emotions and one urgent mission: voting President Donald Trump out of office in November.

For months, Associated Press journalists have talked to hundreds of Iowa voters, listening to hand-wringing, frustration, enthusiasm and second-guessing. “Chaotic," was the word one voter used to describe the mood surrounding the election. “Concerned" was another popular choice.

Here's a closer look at some of the voters who will weigh in Monday:

KEITH KENNEDY, 62

Keith Kennedy is looking for a change.

“I think with all that's going on, we're about due," he says, summing up the political turmoil of recent years with Iowan understatement.

Kennedy's choice is Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Even as he stumbles on pronouncing the candidate's last name, Kennedy says likes what Buttigieg stands for, and thinks he doesn’t shy away from questions.

“He's always got an answer for the questions presented to him,” Kennedy, a retired musician, said. “He's a good spokesman.”

The word that captures how Kennedy feels about the next election, he says, is “optimism."

“I have an opinion about the Republicans that put (Trump) in office,” he said. “Now even they're starting to realize 'maybe this wasn't the wisest decision we could have made.'”

RASHANDA HOLTS, 39

Rashanda Holts misses the days when Barack and Michelle Obama were in the White House. The Obamas tried to help black women and women of other races be self-sufficient, the 39-year-old single mom from Marshalltown says.

She believes Sen. Bernie Sanders is the candidate running this year who will do the same, including by raising the minimum wage.

“Most of my big values, things I believe in, he believes in,” said Holts, a certified cook who works at McDonalds. “He is for people like me.”

Holts doesn’t like the way Trump talks, and says the president wants to take away assistance like food stamps and Medicaid.

“(Sanders) wouldn’t do that,” she added. “He wants us to be working and getting paid an essential amount so that we can be comfortable.”

Her thoughts on the upcoming election? “It’s a great one.”

BRUCE PLINER, 75

Bruce Pliner served in the U.S. Navy from 1963 to 1967, including two years in Vietnam. He skipped the 2016 caucuses before supporting Hillary Clinton in the general election. This year, he’s backing former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I just feel like he can hit the ground running,” said the 75-year-old from Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb. “I think his experience with the world leaders is very good.”

Pliner also believes Biden will protect programs that Republicans want to cut, such as Social Security and Medicare. He thinks cutting them is “wrong, very wrong.”

“We need to get rid of Trump,” he said. “We gotta get rid of him.”

SARA CARSPECKEN, 37

Like a lot of Democratic voters, Sara Carspecken wants a nominee who can defeat Trump. That person, she says, is Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“I want strong female leadership,” the 37-year-old from Fort Dodge said. “I like her plans, I believe that she's strong enough to go after Donald Trump and beat him, and I like what she has to say about going after the big corporations. Something needs to be done about that.”

Carspecken, who supported Clinton in 2016, said she can’t begin to express her sadness at the way politics have gone since Trump took office.

“I feel that there is a lot at stake and we have to get back on track,” she said. “We need more fairness, we need more transparency, and we gotta get back on track to be respectful again."

JEN TOMITA, 43

Jen Tomita has been a Republican all her life. The 43-year-old, who works in banking, caucused for Donald Trump in 2016 and then supported him in the general election. But in January, Tomita changed her party affiliation so she can support Buttigieg on caucus night.

“I just changed over and have my voter registration card now saying that I am a Democrat," the resident of Clive, Iowa, said while attending a Buttigieg event in Des Moines.

Tomita is a veteran and likes that Buttigieg, who served in the Navy Reserve in Afghanistan, is too.

“I think having someone with his skills and talent will be able to get veterans’ issues taken a look at” and get better care for veterans, Tomita said.

She also describes herself as an LGBTQ ally, and said having a gay president will mean more focus on gay rights and equality, and “making sure that there’s equal opportunity and that everybody gets the same chance.”

MARIO ALBERTO BASURTO, 38

As a father of three daughters, Mario Alberto Basurto says Sanders’ support for women’s rights, education and ending the gender wage gap resonate with him. Sanders’ endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a Latina and a progressive favorite, "for me as a Hispanic is a big motivator,” he said.

The 38-year-old mental health therapist from Cedar Falls said he backed Clinton in 2016, and felt like he was “duped.”

“It kind of came back to hit us pretty hard that the right choice probably at that time would have been Bernie,” he said.

But even as he's settled on his choice, Basurto says he doesn’t have the same enthusiasm he’s had in past elections.

“It's an anti-Trump vote at the moment,” he said. “Whereas with Barack Obama, I felt a little more like he was my inspiration, I don't feel that connection at the current moment with any Democratic candidate.”

ELYSE KRIEGEL, 17

This will be the first election when 17-year-old Elyse Kriegel will have a vote, and he says he still has research to do.

The high school student, who also works at a bakery in Pella, Iowa, is able to caucus under Iowa law because he will be 18 by the November general election. Climate change is an issue at top of mind, which Kriegel says has him considering either billionaire Tom Steyer or businessman Andrew Yang.

"I think within the next couple of decades we're going to feel the effects of climate change," Kriegel said. He’s also looking for a president who will help low-income families.

“There's so many different candidates with different ... opinions on different things. I just don't know which is the best for this country,” he said.

MARY OLDHAM, 27

There are times Mary Oldham has to tell her boyfriend, a “politics fanatic” and Trump fan, to stop talking about him.

The 27-year-old science teacher from Knoxville, Iowa, was never much into politics but says her boyfriend has gotten her thinking: If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice. So Oldham is planning to caucus Monday — for a Democrat. That’s led to some disagreements on the home front.

“I'm like ‘stop, stop, stop,’" Oldham said while getting coffee with her 6-year-old daughter. "We'll be fine if we just don't talk politics."

Oldham is still deciding between Buttigieg, who says things she likes, and Sanders, because she’s heard he’s leading in the polls.

“I'm more of a person who leads with their heart and I feel like those two are the main guys who really care for humanity I guess I should say,” she said.

MIKE FILIPPINI, 66

The choice for retired firefighter Mike Filippini comes down to Biden or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, another moderate. It’s a decision he’s reached somewhat through a process of elimination.

Filippini’s union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, has endorsed Biden. But the 66-year-old Pella, Iowa, resident has some questions about Biden, and he’s thinking Klobuchar might be more electable.

“She's not like the far progressive wing. I think that's too much too fast,” he said. “And Buttigieg, he just doesn't do it for me. So, she's the one that's left."

DEMARCUS CARTER, 32

Demarcus Carter decided to support Pete Buttigieg after Christmas dinner with his girlfriend’s parents and grandparents, where the family “broke the cardinal rule about not talking politics at dinner.”

The 32-year-old from Fort Dodge says the three generations — the older of whom are evangelicals and Republicans — had a heartfelt, in-depth conversation about what worries them, and reached a conclusion: “We’re all worried about the same things.”

Carter, who works as a scientist testing pepperoni recipes, said he realized that Buttigieg may be just the person to connect with evangelicals like his girlfriend’s family. Buttigieg speaks freely about his faith, and often says religion doesn’t belong to one political party.

“He can reach out to them,” said Carter, who will be a precinct captain for Buttigieg. "I see him as the uniter, as a refresh.”

MARY ALBRECHT, 51

If Mary Albrecht caucuses as a Democrat on Monday — and that’s still a pretty big “if” — there’s only one candidate she would support: Andrew Yang.

The 51-year-old from LeMars, Iowa, supported Trump in 2016 but wasn’t sure she wanted to admit it.

“I didn't like him but Hillary (Clinton) made me nervous,” Albrecht said. “I just felt that she had too many flaws that weren't going to be good either.” She considered voting for a third party but ultimately went with Trump and is “not happy about it.”

She’s afraid she might feel the same way this November — that there won’t be “any good options.”

“I’m worried,” Albrecht said.

JEREMIAH CRAWFORD, 18

Monday will be the first time 18-year-old Jeremiah Crawford is eligible to caucus, and was initially learning toward Rep. Tulsi Gabbard because he likes her positions on foreign policy and that she's a veteran. But after attending a Biden rally in Ankeny this month, Crawford said he’d been persuaded to caucus for the former vice president.

“He did pretty well," Crawford said.

Crawford, who is unemployed, said if he could have voted in 2016 he would have supported Clinton for president because she was more qualified for the job than Trump.

SHEILA SCHMIDT, 69

Sheila Schmidt was with Sanders since 2016 and she’ll caucus for him again Monday.

The retired English-as-a-second-language teacher from rural Grinnell backed Clinton in the general election and said her biggest concern this time around is making sure Democrats turn out.

“I think if everybody votes it will go Democrat. I see signs of that and then I just believe it,” Schmidt said after attending a rally for Sanders with activist and filmmaker Michael Moore. “It is hard to imagine that more people could be in favor of the person who is now holding the office of president than anybody else who would run against him.”

Clinton did win the popular vote over Trump, Schmidt noted.

“As Michael Moore says, he has to really lose it this time.”