GOP’s 2016 Contenders Flock to the Iowa State Fair

The midterms are still not over, yet the presidential has begun.

National Journal
Emily Schultheis
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Emily Schultheis
Aug. 7, 2014, 1 a.m.

DES MOINES — In Iowa, it’s be­gin­ning to feel a lot like 2016.

The first-in-the-na­tion pres­id­en­tial caucuses may still be al­most a year and a half away and 2016 GOP hope­fuls won’t even be­gin to de­clare their in­ten­tions un­til next year, but the in­flux of would-be can­did­ates this week means the jock­ey­ing is fully un­der­way.

“It’s been a pro­cess that ac­tu­ally star­ted, oh, about 22 minutes after the elec­tion was over in 2012,” said Lor­as Schulte, a mem­ber of the state GOP cent­ral com­mit­tee from Nor­way, Iowa. “Polit­ics don’t really ever stop here in Iowa.”

Thursday marks the be­gin­ning of the Iowa State Fair, a per­en­ni­al stop for can­did­ates-in-wait­ing to shake some hands, eat a corndog, and speak on the Des Moines Re­gister soap­box (the site of Mitt Rom­ney’s in­fam­ous “cor­por­a­tions are people” com­ment).

And Sat­urday is the Fam­ily Lead­er­ship Sum­mit in Ames, Iowa, the first ma­jor 2016 GOP cattle-call and a top place for pro­spects to meet and get in front of top act­iv­ists from across the state. Five 2016 hope­fuls — Ted Cruz, Mike Hucka­bee, Bobby Jin­dal, Rick Perry and Rick San­tor­um — are sched­uled to speak dur­ing the day-long event, and Iowa act­iv­ists say the event will be a big test of these can­did­ates’ abil­ity to con­nect with the crowd.

In fact, between last Sat­urday and this Sat­urday, no few­er than sev­en pres­id­en­tial pro­spects are sched­uled to vis­it the state.

“You’re not go­ing to be able to take two steps [without] run­ning in­to some­body,” joked Kar­en Fesler, an act­iv­ist from John­son County who backed San­tor­um in 2012, of the next few days in the Hawkeye State.

An Au­gust pil­grim­age to Iowa for the state fair is a way to — very pub­licly — test the wa­ters for any­one who’s even con­sid­er­ing a bid (though of course, all of them have been here be­fore). And in a state like Iowa, which prizes its first-in-the-na­tion status and ex­pects can­did­ates to put in the work and meet voters face-to-face, it’s a ne­ces­sity.

Iowa is “good old fash­ioned grass­roots: it’s go­ing to GOP din­ners and as many counties as you can,” said Chip Salts­man, an ad­viser to Hucka­bee who ran the former gov­ernor’s 2008 cam­paign when Hucka­bee won that year’s Iowa caucuses. “It’s meet­ing state rep­res­ent­at­ives and state sen­at­ors and party act­iv­ists. There is no secret for­mula here … it is lit­er­ally about spend­ing hours on the ground, days on the ground, work­ing the crowd.”

Ken­tucky Sen. Rand Paul just fin­ished up a three-day swing that took him to all corners of the state. Flor­ida Sen. Marco Ru­bio was in town last week­end to fun­draise with GOP Sen­ate can­did­ate Joni Ernst and at­tend GOP power­broker Bruce Ras­tet­ter’s an­nu­al party.

Both Jin­dal and San­tor­um ar­rive in town Fri­day; they’ll each at­tend events Fri­day and Sat­urday in and near Des Moines be­fore speak­ing at the Fam­ily Lead­er­ship Sum­mit in Ames on Sat­urday af­ter­noon.

Perry ar­rives on Sat­urday; he’ll at­tend the Fam­ily Lead­er event in Ames and then head out on a three-day tour across the state. This trip comes just sev­er­al weeks after his last multi-day swing through Iowa. Hucka­bee will meet with con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists this week, then re­turn to Iowa on Sat­urday for the Fam­ily Lead­er event.

Most of the pro­spects have in­dic­ated they’ll make a de­cision late this year or in early 2015 — mean­ing now really is the time for them to try Iowa out. Op­er­at­ives in the state say each pro­spect­ive can­did­ate must have at least a small team in place here by the end of the year in or­der to hit the ground run­ning when they form­ally an­nounce their bids.

“It’s too early ob­vi­ously for a form­al an­nounce­ment that you are run­ning, but at the same time you have to be lay­ing some ground­work,” said Chuck Laud­ner, who ran San­tor­um’s Iowa op­er­a­tions in 2012.

Des­pite thoughts of 2016, pro­spect­ive can­did­ates must be cog­niz­ant of the fact that Iowa has a highly com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate race and a hand­ful of com­pet­it­ive con­gres­sion­al races, all of which are quickly heat­ing up as fall ap­proaches — a bal­ance that Dav­id Chung, a mem­ber of the state GOP’s cent­ral com­mit­tee from Ce­dar Rap­ids, likened to “walk­ing a tightrope.”

“They want to get them­selves out there be­fore act­iv­ists, but they don’t want to over­shad­ow our midterm elec­tion,” he ad­ded.

Com­ing to town to cam­paign with 2014 can­did­ates — which many 2016 pro­spects have done or are plan­ning to do — is the best way to have a pres­ence and be vis­ible across Iowa without ap­pear­ing overly am­bi­tious. Take Joni Ernst, for ex­ample: she’s the GOP’s can­did­ate locked in a tough race for the state’s open Sen­ate seat, and help from na­tion­al GOP fig­ures could help move the dial for her this fall.

“The ad­vant­age of com­ing out now be­fore 2014 is they can build up a lot of good­will with our elec­ted of­fi­cials and party lead­ers,” said Iowa GOP Chair­man Jeff Kaufmann.

Some Iowa GOP can­did­ates have taken full ad­vant­age of the star power at their dis­pos­al. For ex­ample: in a one-week peri­od, con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Mari­an­nette Miller-Meeks has got­ten or will get cam­paign-trail help from Paul, Jin­dal and Perry.

While most pro­spect­ive can­did­ates have yet to be­gin tak­ing con­crete steps to­ward lay­ing the ground­work for a 2016 bid, Paul has hired staffers here as well as in New Hamp­shire and Michigan. A pair of former state GOP chair­men, Steve Grubbs and A.J. Spiker, will run his Iowa cam­paign.

Oth­er pro­spects — namely Hucka­bee, San­tor­um and Perry — have run here be­fore, so have a base of former act­iv­ists and vo­lun­teers who are likely to come to their aid should they de­cide to run again. For pro­spect­ive can­did­ates who don’t already have vo­lun­teers and ad­visers in the state, com­ing to Iowa is a way to both get in front of prom­in­ent act­iv­ists and op­er­at­ives who will make up the ground or­gan­iz­a­tion of a cam­paign.

“The one thing all can­did­ates need is to find [out], who’s their Iowa guy — or wo­man — go­ing be?” said Craig Robin­son, ed­it­or of the Iowa Re­pub­lic­an. “Who’s your con­tact in the state, if it’s either a paid in­di­vidu­al or someone who’s a be­liev­er in you and is will­ing to kind of show you the ropes.”

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