RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Many Democratic politicians who were coming of age when John F. Kennedy was president cite him as their inspiration for running for office. A generation later, young Republicans would say the same about Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama famously moved lots of young people to vote for him. And though most may still be too young to go into politics, one of Obama's key campaign workers has been motivated to seek public office.
NPR's Don Gonyea caught up with him on his own campaign trail.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
Meet Brad Anderson. He was the spokesman for Obama's 2008 Iowa campaign. Four years later, he ran the president's entire Iowa operation. Now, Anderson has a new candidate: himself.
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GONYEA: He's running for Iowa Secretary of State. We spoke in his car as he drove himself to a campaign event, about 45 minutes from Des Moines.
BRAD ANDERSON: Yeah, we're going to Ames, and we're going to visit with the Story County Democrats in the Central Committee. They were really influential in 2012. They had an incredible organization.
GONYEA: Nothing glamorous about running for Secretary of State - no rallies, no big campaign events. Mostly, it's about time in the car, driving to see groups of activists and getting people to know you. Anderson is 39 years old, but he's never run for office himself, unless you count that race for class treasurer back in third grade.
ANDERSON: My slogan was: You'll Be Glad If You Vote for Brad.
GONYEA: Did you win?
ANDERSON: I did win. Yeah. That was my first campaign.
GONYEA: We drive north on I-35, take the exit toward Ames. And just after 7 P.M., after some wrestling with his smartphone GPS, Anderson finds the room on the second floor of a building in the city's historic section.
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GONYEA: About 50 local Democratic activists chat each other up before the meeting begins. And after some routine business - the minutes, the treasurer's report - it's Anderson's turn to talk about the Secretary of State's race.
ANDERSON: As you all know, this race used to be a sleepy little race about mechanics liens and business filings. And it's now become a national race about what I believe one of the most important civil rights issues facing our generation, which is the right to vote.
GONYEA: That's the main theme of his campaign, his belief that Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere have pushed voter ID laws and other measures that make it harder for people to vote.
As for deciding to run, Anderson cites the issues, but he also points to his old boss, President Obama, and the entire experience of the campaigns of '08 and '12 as inspiration.
ANDERSON: He has inspired me in terms of not only his words, but really what he has been able to accomplish - incredibly challenging economy and turning that around. In terms of the issue of health care reform, that is personally important to me and my family, that has a pre-existing condition, he is just an inspiring guy.
GONYEA: Even with that, and even with all of the hordes of volunteers and new political activists drawn to the Obama presidential campaigns, Brad Anderson in Iowa is one of just a handful of Obama campaign alumni now taking the step to run for office themselves.
Alan Ehrenhalt of Governing Magazine says there are some reasons for that.
ALAN EHRENHALT: Obama is an eloquent and, at times, charismatic figure. But you have to weigh that against the sense of deadlock and the absence of possibility that pervades all levels of government right now.
GONYEA: Ehrenhalt wrote the book "The United States of Ambition," which examines why people run for office. Regarding a possible Obama generation of candidates, he says it's simply too early to tell if one will materialize. He says most Obama volunteers are still years from running for office. They're working on careers and starting families. But in addition to than that, he says we simply may not see a candidate boom like after JFK and Reagan.
EHRENHALT: Gridlock is a factor that works against people wanting to enter politics. I think that that is a discouragement to running for any office, even if it's state legislature or city council.
GONYEA: Now, back to Iowa and the secretary of state's race. Obama veteran Brad Anderson's opponent is Republican Paul Pate.
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GONYEA: We met at a diner in the tiny burb of Hiawatha on the east side of the state. Pate runs a family construction company, and actually served as secretary of state back in the 1990s.
On his campaign web page, he calls Anderson a, quote, "partisan political operative." He says that's not what you want in the person whose job it is to oversee Iowa elections.
PAUL PATE: My opponent, his whole professional career has been in politics. Whether it was John Edwards or it was Obama, or as an independent political consultant, that's been his focus. I think in this time and place, we really need to try and bring it down a notch.
GONYEA: Pate suggests that Anderson will have trouble tapping into the old Obama campaign machine, absent the excitement that only a presidential race gets, absent the huge organization and army of volunteers. And there's another thing: Obama's approval ratings aren't what they once were in Iowa.
PATE: Well, he's not going to have the same kind of rally effect. And previously, when my opponent was talking to people, they were there for Obama, not for him, and that's another challenge that he'll have to face.
GONYEA: Meanwhile, Brad Anderson says what he learned working for the president does translate to this race. He says it's still about grassroots and using social media and technology to target potential voters.
Back in Ames, the meeting with the local Democrats is winding down.
ANDERSON: I'm going to pass around this sign-up sheet, too. If you all could sign up with your email address, and then we will be in touch. Thank you all. I appreciate it. Thank you.
GONYEA: And with that, Anderson begins a process familiar to an old campaign hand: rounding up volunteers for the months ahead.
Don Gonyea, NPR News.
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