DES MOINES—With a fork and a frown, Steve Scheffler chops his scrambled eggs into a flattened yellow mash. “Some people don’t think I’m conservative enough,” he scoffs. “That’s laughable.”
Scheffler, 67, is an icon of Iowa evangelical conservatism: lead organizer for preacher Pat Robertson’s 1988 Iowa caucus campaign, former head of Iowa’s Christian Coalition, president of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a man who believes in gay-conversion therapy, and who once warned that same-sex marriage would make Des Moines “the homosexual capital of the Midwest.”
While the years have not softened Scheffler’s conservatism, Iowa’s GOP has moved so far to the right that he’s now considered in legion with the party’s establishment-evangelical wing. His rivals to the right, the purists, called Scheffler a RINO—or “Republican in name only.”
“It hurts,” he winces. I strain to hear Scheffler’s angry growl; his fork clangs against a breakfast plate loud enough to startle a lady in the next booth. “Politics isn’t about perfection. These guys with their holier-than-thou attitudes: You can’t get anything done that way.”
Before I left for Iowa to preview the fledgling GOP presidential race, somebody had asked me, “How conservative is the party in Iowa?” The answer came to me in a Des Moines diner: The Iowa GOP is so conservative that Steve Scheffler looks relatively — it’s hard for me to even write this — moderate.
It’s a fact not lost on the large field of Republican presidential hopefuls who are making their initial rounds of Iowa, where the 2016 elections will begin. Their staff notices, too.
“The place is crazy conservative,” said a senior adviser to a top-tier presidential candidate trying to figure out how to succeed in Iowa without hurting his national image.
Last week, I watched four candidates try to strike that balance at a gathering of homeschool advocates, a knot of mothers and fathers with outsized power inside Iowa’s caucuses. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania went first, reminding the crowd that he narrowly won the 2012 race in Iowa. He portrayed himself as the field’s foreign-policy expert, urging Iowans to be cautious of any candidate whose “experience with national security is a briefing book before a debate.”
Next came Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who cast himself as the outsider. “We don’t just need a Republican in Washington,” he said. “We need a conservative in the White House who will make big changes.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 caucuses as a conservative populist, claimed to be the champion of “people who dust the dirt off their clothes” after work.
The last speaker was the most polished. “I’m running for president because our country is in crisis,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said. It was a provocatively abrupt opening to a speech that cast the next election as an existential choice between good (unyielding conservatism) and evil (everything else).
“We need a leader who can stand up and smile and defend” conservative values, he said.
Cruz is a force in Iowa, according to more than a dozen state GOP activists who talked to me last week, because he is the only candidate so far who has coupled an appeal to conservative purists (the type who call Scheffler a RINO) with the ability to raise enough money to defeat GOP establishment candidates.
If Cruz is the candidate of potential, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker may be in the best shape right now. While striking some as lacking gravitas in private meetings, Walker has impressed other Iowa Republicans with a union-fighting record that suggests he is a conservative who can get things done. Walker’s massive state headquarters suggests he’s taking Iowa seriously, and activists appreciate that.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul hopes to retain most of the people who supported his father, Rep. Ron Paul, and expand on those numbers. But his allies who took over the Iowa GOP after the 2012 elections did a lousy job and angered many.
Huckabee and Santorum suffer from the retread syndrome: Once a candidate wins Iowa and loses the nomination, Iowa caucus-goers doubt their viability.
Jindal has the opposite problem: Few Iowans know him. But activists who’ve watched the Louisiana governor campaign in Iowa say he has the capacity to grow.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is better known than Jindal and a far superior retail politician, but he doesn’t have much of a team in Iowa.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems to have convinced the state’s political class that his embarrassing performance in 2012 was due to a bad back and pain medication. “He’s a different candidate,” said Tyler Dehaan, the 32-year-old chairman of the Dallas County GOP, “a much better candidate.”
Perry has a strong Iowa team, as does New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a relatively moderate establishment candidate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has told activists he can build a coalition that includes 10,000 veterans and reservists plus 6,000 establishment voters. That is a stretch.
Jeb Bush campaigned for his brother and father in Iowa and yet, according to a top adviser, “This is not his natural hunting ground.” He may work to keep expectations low in Iowa, with an eye toward the more moderate GOP electorate in New Hampshire. Considered one of the nation’s most conservative and successful governors from 1999 to 2007, the Floridian has watched his party zip to his right.
In other words, Bush is the field’s Steve Scheffler.