DES MOINES, Iowa — A popular Democrat's exit from the Iowa governor's race Thursday amid sexual misconduct allegations could impact the party's efforts to coalesce behind the eventual nominee and regain power in a state that has moved sharply to the right in recent years.
Nate Boulton, a Des Moines attorney and state senator, suspended his campaign less than 24 hours after The Des Moines Register reported three women alleged he touched them inappropriately several years ago.
Boulton's departure comes less than two weeks before the Democratic primary for governor. More than 13,000 Democrats already had cast their ballots through early voting as of Wednesday, when the newspaper's report was published.
The winner will aim to unseat Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in November. She has been serving the remaining term of former Gov. Terry Branstad, who stepped down last year to become U.S. ambassador to China.
Iowa Democrats have been sidelined by several election cycles that gave Republicans nearly complete control of the state's congressional seats and a majority in the Legislature. Democrats insist the race shake-up and the circumstances surrounding it would not hurt their chances of winning in the midterm election.
"People are engaged no matter which candidate it's for," said Megan Card, a 25-year-old state government employee who has been supporting one of the five remaining Democratic candidates. "That just doesn't disappear when that candidate drops out. People realize it's bigger than ourselves right now."
Boulton's exit is expected to have a tangible impact on the June 5 primary. Iowa law requires a primary candidate to secure at least 35 percent of the vote to win an election. Anything less and a party convention of activists will pick the winner.
It's unclear for now how many people voted for Boulton during the early voting period, but the figure could affect the required voting threshold for the remaining candidates. Boulton was polling second among the contenders in the race, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll released earlier this month.
Businessman Fred Hubbell, the apparent front-runner who has spent millions of his own money ahead of the primary, could pick up enough of Boulton's supporters for a flat-out win. A party convention might lead Democrats to ultimately back a different candidate who may have been behind the pack for months. The remaining other candidates are union leader Cathy Glasson, physician Andy McGuire, longtime party organizer John Norris and former city mayor Ross Wilburn.
Sexual misconduct has become a top issue in politics around the country, as a cultural reckoning over inappropriate behavior and abuse continues to take down powerful men in various industries.
Democrats in Iowa and elsewhere have sought to draw a distinctive line in their response on the subject.
In Iowa, Sen. Minority Leader Janet Petersen called out Senate Republicans earlier this year for how they handled the firing of a former caucus staffer who said in a lawsuit she was let go after reporting verbal harassment. The state settled her case last year for $1.75 million.
Petersen, who had endorsed Boulton's candidacy, released a statement Thursday calling on Boulton to resign from the chamber and said she would "support a full, independent investigation" if he doesn't.
The state Democratic Party said in a statement that it also supports such an investigation.
Boulton told KCCI-TV on Thursday he is discussing with his wife whether to resign.
Cody Woodruff is a 20-year-old student at Iowa State University who was an early backer of Boulton and had already cast a vote for him. Woodruff said he does not expect the scandal will tarnish Democrats in the general election because of their swift response.
"Everyone, for the most part, has a pretty unified message that it was right for him to step aside from the governor's race," Woodruff said.
Glasson, who had been trailing Boulton in the Iowa Poll, has called for progressive policies that include a $15 hourly minimum wage and a single-payer health care system. Hubbell, who hasn't called for such polices, has branded himself as the best positioned to take on Reynolds in a general election.
Holly Brown, a 37-year-old Democratic activist from Cedar Rapids who backs Glasson, said the last-minute change in the race could help Reynolds if she ends up running against a man. Glasson and McGuire are the only other two women in the race.
"There will inevitably be some people who will feel more comfortable voting for her because they will feel that she is less likely to have incidents like this in her past come up," Brown said.
Reynolds has been scrutinized for how she handled the March firing of a longtime political ally, Dave Jamison, who was accused of harassing female subordinates as the head of a state housing agency. Reynolds says she fired Jamison immediately after learning about the allegations, but she was criticized for keeping general details of the allegations secret for more than a month.
In the Register report, one woman said Boulton repeatedly grabbed her buttocks at a bar in 2015. Two other women said he rubbed his clothed crotch against them in separate incidents more than a decade ago.
Boulton, who had been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, declined to address the specific accusations but did not deny them. He apologized to the women.