From Right-Wing to RINO In Iowa GOP

For the first contest of 2016, the Republican Party has moved to the right of Pat Robertson’s guy.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
April 16, 2015, 1 a.m.

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.”

(RE­LATED: Re­port­ers Out­num­ber Voters as Hil­lary Clin­ton Opens Cam­paign in Iowa)

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.”

(RE­LATED: Marco Ru­bio Sees a Chance to Com­pete In the D.C. Primary)

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.

(RE­LATED: Chris Christie: “The Game Hasn’t Even Come Close to Be­gin­ning”)

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.

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