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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
2 days ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
2 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
3 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
3 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
3 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.