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.
What We're Following See More »
After more than a month of back and forth, a failed bill, and GOP embarrassment, the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus has announced that it will support the Obamacare replacement legislation in its most recent iteration. Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the caucus, said the roughly 30 members of the caucus view this compromise as the best option short of a full repeal. A recent amendment, authored by Meadows and Rep. Tom McArthur, co-chair of the more moderate Tuesday Group, would allow states to apply for waivers exempting them from provisions forbidding insurers from charging higher prices to those with pre-existing conditions if the state set up a high-risk pool. The plan's passage in the House is not a done deal though, as a number of moderate lawmakers have resisted supporting the amendment.
"A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer fired a warning flare toward an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel coming near it in the Persian Gulf. The incident happened Monday as the vessel closed to within 1,000 meters of the USS Mahan, "despite the destroyer trying to turn away from it." After attempting to contact the Iranian vessel and sounding its whistle, it deployed the flare. After that, the ship had had enough and turned away.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick Tuesday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing part of an executive order calling for the end of federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities. The decision was followed by a scathing rebuke from the White House, a precedent-breaking activity which with this White House has had no qualms. A White House statement called the decision an "egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge." The statement was followed by an inaccurate Wednesday morning tweetstorm from Trump, which railed against the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. While Judge Orrick's district falls within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit, Orrick himself does not serve on the Ninth Circuit.
"House Republicans are circulating the text of an amendment to their ObamaCare replacement bill that they believe could bring many conservatives on board. According to legislative text of the amendment," drafted by Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), "the measure would allow states to apply for waivers to repeal one of ObamaCare’s core protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Conservatives argue the provision drives up premiums for healthy people, but Democrats—and many more moderate Republicans—warn it would spark a return to the days when insurance companies could charge sick people exorbitantly high premiums."