Politics

RAYGUN: The Most Popular Store in Iowa that Candidates Refuse to Visit

January 30th 2016

By:
Kyle Jaeger

DES MOINES, Iowa — Just about everybody in town has a funny T-shirt from RAYGUN, a clothing store based in Des Moines, Iowa that specializes in election-themed products. I heard about the store from a resident before I had even arrived in the state, and when I walked in for the first time, I immediately understood the appeal: it pokes fun at the political reality of life in Iowa during an election season. But despite its local popularity, no presidential candidate has visited RAYGUN.

raygun

It's easy (some might say inevitable) to find a candidate making rounds in downtown Des Moines in the weeks before the Iowa caucus. I entered a coffee shop and inadvertently held the door open for Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, for example. The act of visiting local hangouts — bars, cafes, restaurants, retail stores — is part of the standard campaign strategy in Iowa. Even as RAYGUN has expanded, attracting national media attention for its tongue-in-cheek products, the T-shirt shop has apparently remained too controversial for candidates.

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I met up with RAYGUN's founder and owner, Mike Draper, at one of the store's four locations in what he described as the "dangerously liberal neighborhood of the city," across the street from Des Moines' main gay bars in the East Village. "This is the nexus of hell-bound people," Draper joked.

Mike Draper

"We call ourselves the liberal Pizza Ranch, but no candidate would ever come in here," Draper said. (Pizza Ranch is a local restaurant chain that has become a "staple of the Iowa caucuses" that candidates routinely visit.) "It's almost more of a liability to be photographed with such an incendiary pro-Planned Parenthood shirt," he added, referring to shirts such as one that reads "Better Than Unplanned Parenthood."

planned parenthood

That said, the store has attracted the attention of high-profile Clinton supporters such as actress Jaime Lee Curtis and activist Cecile Richards, who serves as the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. They were both spotted in the store recently, Draper told me.

"It's Urban Outfitters meets The Onion meets A Prairie Home Companion," Draper said. "It's like a clothing store but wrapped into that is this messaging — but it's also hyper-localized — and we've often been commentators on any number of city and regional issues."

RAYGUN

Around presidential election season, that messaging shifts its focus to the national stage. The store even carries a line for "out-of-town media." I bought one that says "Sorry to interrupt your meal, but are you alive and have an opinion on the election?" The joke, perfectly timed and humorously presented, reveals a sense of self-awareness that both out-of-town media and local residents seem to share. If Iowa is going to be overrun with candidates and reporters for a couple weeks every couple of years, why not have some fun with it?

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The only group that hasn't seemed to get in on the joke? The presidential candidates themselves. Admittedly, with the caucus just days away, the stakes are high and it could be, as Draper put it, a political liability to visit RAYGUN with so much on the line.