Iowa GOP Infighting Could Cost the Party a Senate Seat

The battle raging among Ron Paul acolytes running the state party and establishment Republicans might have 2016 implications too.

A cow at the Iowa State Fair in August, 2007.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 23, 2013, 3:13 a.m.

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 primaryê­for­cing 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.

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