DES MOINES, Iowa — Republicans have a once-in-a-generation shot at capturing an open U.S. Senate seat, but first they'll have to stop fighting among themselves.
A nasty and personal civil war has broken out within the ranks of the Republican Party of Iowa, replete with charges of mismanagement, backroom conspiracies, and broken Facebook friendships. Already, two members of the party's central committee have called on the GOP chairman to resign. And forces faithful to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad are mobilizing loyalists to take back power next year.
Scuffles within state parties are commonplace, but the stakes are higher here. Iowa hasn't had an open Senate seat since 1974 and the state's funky nominating rules make it possible — even likely — that party leaders and delegates, instead of the voters, will pick the GOP nominee next year at a convention. The fact that the warring party leadership will play host to the leadoff 2016 presidential caucuses only sharpens the significance of the feuding.
"I've never seen anything like this in my 25 years of political activism," said Jamie Johnson, a member of the central committee, who has called for the resignation of the party chairman. "The inmates are running the asylum."
The current fight boils down to who controls the state GOP's headquarters, a rehabbed former funeral parlor located two blocks from the state Capitol. Since last year, that job has belonged to A.J. Spiker, a former cochairman of Ron Paul's Iowa presidential campaign.
Spiker's critics contend he's bent the rules to benefit other Ron Paul supporters, including throwing more than 70 percent of the state's delegates to Paul at the national convention in Tampa, Fla., last year — despite Paul finishing a distant third in the caucuses.
"It all goes back to Tampa," Johnson said of the mistrust.
The latest tussle has come over a maneuver by Spiker to postpone the party's 2014 nominating convention by a month. With a half-dozen Republicans in the race, it's a real possibility that none of them will top 35 percent in the primaryÃªforcing the nomination to be decided by party convention-goers.
Fears of a delayed convention are two-fold. First, it would give the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley, an extra month to campaign without an opponent. Second, many believe Spiker and his allies hope to sneak a Paul-allied candidate through a brokered convention, perhaps even Spiker himself or David Fischer, the cochairman of the party. The presumption is they would use the extra month to organize the insurgent effort after a deadlocked primary.
"The suspicion is they're trying to find a backdoor to get the nomination," said state Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Republican who represents a swing district carried by President Obama last year. Such a move would leave the party splintered and likely bitter, with a shorted calendar to come together ahead of November.
The possibility of a nominee emerging late from a brokered convention worries the national GOP leadership. "In an ideal world, this would not go to convention," said Kevin McLaughlin, a senior strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Republicans saw just how unpredictable conventions could be this year when E.W. Jackson, an outspoken tea-party pastor, emerged as the surprise nominee for lieutenant governor in Virginia. Some of Jackson's comments have been so outlandish that he's been kept largely at arm's length by the rest of the ticket.
The pushback against a delayed convention has been swift and fierce. The leading Senate candidates, incumbent Chuck Grassley, and the governor all asked the party to reverse itself. And on Monday, Spiker and party officials will gather in a teleconference to consider doing so.
"I think people are dreaming up stories to make this convention decision made by the party something other than it was," Spiker said, adding he now expects the date to be returned to June. He downplayed the swirling controversy and calls for his resignation, noting that neither of the officials who said he should resign so much as called him in advance.
"Within a political party, believe it or not, you have politics," he said.
Some GOP activists worry a party leadership aligned with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., will dissuade other presidential aspirants from helping party-building efforts, or attending the state's Ames straw poll — a huge party fundraiser.
Spiker said the whole episode is a misunderstanding, not a power play. It's "absolutely ridiculous" to suggest he'd offer himself up as a candidate, calling it "very unlikely," though he shunned the use of "absolutes." As for a Fischer convention candidacy, he said, "You'd have to ask David." Fischer did not respond to requests for comment.
The trouble traces back to the inability of the NRSC or Branstad to recruit a single top-tier candidate that could clear the field. That's left a wide, scrambled roster of second-tier contenders and the possibility of the nominee being determined not by the voters.
Grassley's former chief of staff, David Young; former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker; radio host Sam Clovis; and state Sen. Joni Ernst are already in the race. Plus, Mark Jacobs, an independently wealthy energy executive, is expected to join the fray and influential social conservative Bob Vander Plaats is eyeing the race, as well.
The GOP infighting is devolving into an increasingly personal affair. Chad Airhart, an activist and chairman of the Iowa Republican County Officials Association, recently complained on Facebook that Spiker had "unfriended" him.
"That's kind of childish," replied Spiker, who said he is transitioning to a public-official page and cleansing his personal account of many political contacts. "I really don't need people fighting with my family on Facebook."
Spiker dismissed criticism of his tenure, noting the party is debt-free, is among the top 10 GOP state parties in terms of cash on hand, and owns its funeral home-turned-headquarters outright.
The Democrats are snickering from the sidelines as Braley piles up campaign cash. "I think that the Republican primary in the state is divisive and destructive to their chances," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Many Republicans, including those close to Branstad, who is seeking a record sixth term as governor in 2014, are hoping to install new leadership in the party next year. To take back the party, they plan to flood precinct-level elections during the 2014 Iowa caucuses. (The caucuses are held every two years — it's only every four that they get national attention.) It's through caucus-level elections in 2012 that Paul-allied delegates took control of the party from the bottom up.
"I think you're going to see a pretty aggressive effort by a number of elements of the party," said David Kochel, a GOP strategist who was Romney's senior adviser in Iowa and strategist for three of Branstad's past campaigns. "There's too much at stake in 2014 to leave the party to people who don't know what they're doing."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker.