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Voters Speak: GOP leaders Doug Gross and Steve Scheffler

posted on November 7, 2008

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Borg: Voters speak. Winners move on. Losers rebuild. And that includes Republican Party analyses and soul searching. Introspective comments on the Republican Party’s future from Iowa GOP activists Doug Gross and Steve Scheffler on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association, for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals.

On statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, November 7th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: November 4th's historic vote delivering the White House and congressional majorities to democrats has republicans huddling and pondering. What's being called a tsunami increase democratic majorities in Iowa's legislature too but republicans did hold their Iowa incumbent congressmen. Nonetheless Iowa republican leaders are analyzing election demographics. And among those doing those analyses two republican insiders at the Iowa Press table today. Steve Scheffler serves on the republican national committee and Des Moines attorney Doug Gross is a former chief of staff for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and is also a former gubernatorial candidate. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press. And across the Iowa Press table Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press senior political writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Mr. Gross, let's start with you. You've been around republican politics for quite a while. I would assume you would say that Tuesday night was not the brightest spot in republican political history in this state. What went wrong?

Gross: It was a tough night, a very tough night. Interestingly enough, Mike, I thought '06 was the bottom for republicans and actually it was '08. And frankly if republicans were to learn the lessons of '06 I think we could have prevented '08 from being as bad as it was. So, what went wrong was it seems to me we fail to address the fundamental issues that Americans cared about during the course of that campaign which is the economy, the economy, the economy and the quality of life that they were able to live and provide for their family. I don't think republicans ever effectively addressed that question.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, the same question to you. What went wrong? And if it was the economy was there anything republicans could have done about it? Or was it just ordained?

Scheffler: Well, I agree with Doug, it was the economy. Beyond that I think republicans probably didn't have the clarity of message like they could have and should have. In addition I think we just underestimated the strengths of the organization and the tenacity of the Obama machine. Let’s face it, they were the best organized campaign in U.S. history. And so all that combined together was just not a real good year going into this year.

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, that raises the second question. How do you fix it? You've had some time to think about what happened and look at the results. What is your prescription for what needs to be done?

Scheffler: Well, if you're talking about in Iowa I think it's fair to say that the Republican Party has become a little bit irrelevant to our candidates and quite frankly is doing a lot of soul searching here in the next couple of months before we pick the new party chairman. We're going to have to get up to speed in terms of new technology, organization and raising money. And we can't run campaigns like we did 20 years ago, we can't play house. It’s become a very sophisticated way to elect candidates. And I think here in Iowa probably the Democratic Party is as organized as any other state in the country. And so if we want to prevent this from becoming a blue state we've got to really think outside the box and get our act together.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, same question. How do you fix it?

Gross: Well, part of what we have to do is figure out who we are. When we have a litmus test in some cases for party leadership that's a mistake. You want to be a party that wins. If you're 106,000 votes down before you start the election, we're 106,000 down in voter registration today in Iowa, maybe even a bit more after same-day registration at the election, and you have a litmus test associated with social issues for people in your party leadership positions which is a minority of that minority party we're going to lose elections. It's a fundamental issue. So, we have to deal with that. What do we do? How do we do it? We don't kick out the social conservatives of the Republican Party. They're an important part of our base. We can't win without them but we can't win only with them and we need to understand that and broaden the tent.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler? It seems to be that's aimed at your base.

Scheffler: Well, I would agree. I've told a couple of the larger donors since I got elected as national committeeman that there's two components that are successful to winning elections in Iowa and one is we need donors that believe in what we're doing, our message and our candidates and secondly we need a grassroots operation. And for whatever reason a person decides to put an R behind their name I certainly can accept that and when we agree with each other on 65% of the issues or more we're analyzed, we shouldn't be shooting at each other. And so I will be doing everything in my power along with some other republican leaders to make sure that we all understand that we're friends, we're allies and we're not adversaries and that we better get our act together before we become irrelevant as a party.

Borg: Mr. Gross, Stewart Iverson said he's not going to be running for state chair again so that leaves the chair open. What would you think, in light of what you said the party needs to do, what sort of a person should the party be looking for there, what qualifications?

Gross: Well, I can think of 1964 we had a debacle, the Goldwater debacle and Johnson won in a landslide. The democrats took over the governorship in both houses of the legislature. And then we brought in a young Des Moines attorney by the name of Bob Ray to run the party as a guy that understood the importance of communication, appealing to all factions of the party and worked his tail off to help rebuild the organization. That's the kind of person we need as party chair again. What we don't need is someone whose is ideologically pure on one side or the other, that's not what we should have.

Yepsen: Have you got some names?

Gross: Do I have some names? I'm looking for Bob Ray's sons but he only has daughters but the daughters would be alright too.

Borg: What do you think the qualifications should be?

Scheffler: Well, I guess I've kind of looked at the perspective that the state chair has to have several qualities and unfortunately sometimes that pool of people that is available to fill that position is not real broad. First of all, it's a part-time position. Secondly, it's got to be a person that is a good party spokesperson that can annunciate the issues. Thirdly, it's got to be somebody that can raise money. Fourth, it's got to be a person who can hopefully tick off the least number of people and to understand how you put the pieces of the puzzle together to make sure that everything works. And so, those are unique qualities and we'll be striving to find that person.

Borg: Mr. Gross seemed to emphasize, going back to Bob Ray, that youth might be there as far as qualifications. Would you agree with that?

Scheffler: Well, sure because, you know by and large he needs a spokesperson for our party and he's going to have to be a person that the activists and the donors can have faith in to invest or make their investment in the republican party to help our candidates.

Yepsen: Both the republican caucus in the Iowa house and Iowa senate are going to have leadership elections. Should Chris Rants be replaced as minority leader in the house? Should Ron Wick be replaced as minority leader in the senate?

Scheffler: I think that's an internal matter that they need to settle. That's not my decision and I don't want to weigh on that. I think it is fair to say, though, that this election -- David you made the estimate we were going to lose six seats in the senate and four to eight in the house and we kind of went against the grain and we only lost one in the senate and two to three in the house. And if you look at those candidates who were elected it's because they worked their tails off and they also enunciated a clear message in talking about where they were going to go headed here into the next couple of years as opposed to democrats who have driven Iowa into the ditch in terms of fiscal sanity.

Yepsen: Doug, what is your answer to the question of should the legislative leadership be replaced?

Gross: I was surprised, frankly, in '06 that we didn't change the party leadership and the legislative leadership after the results of that election. Normally when you have a bad result you change leadership and try to get new direction. We didn't do that. I would frankly expect that we would this time. I'd be surprised if we don't.

Borg: Even if it's symbolic, is that what you're saying?

Gross: The goal of a party is to win elections to further your goals. When you lose elections you have to change leaders and normally we would do that ...

Yepsen: So, the message is I didn't lose as bad as expected or I didn't lose ...

Gross: We lost elections. We need to have a new direction. Now, I think what's good about what's happening is we are going through, as Steve said, the soul searching process. It's necessarily. It's like the market, you've got to hit bottom before you can come back up. I think we've hit bottom. Now we have to figure out how we come back up. I don't have all the answers to that but at least as a recognition that we've got to change things and I think that's important.

Glover: Mr. Gross, it's a consensus there was a failure of candidates on the republican side in this last election, you have been a candidate before. Was it a failure of candidates? And have you considered trying to employ your role in the Republican Party as a candidate again?

Gross: Well, I think it was a failure of candidates. I think we had good candidates for the most part who really did work very, very hard. And if you notice in these legislative races what happened is we lose a lot of them by a very narrow amount. That's been happening in a number of cycles. What that tells me is our candidates are working hard, we're doing our best but there are overarching factors that make that marginal difference that we're doing something wrong. I think message is foremost the reason why we're losing those close elections. I think technique is part of it. The democrats clearly understood that it's not Election Day but it's election month. We've got winning on election night and then lost all those races because of the absentees. We've got to understand that and do a much better job in terms of early turnout. So, there's both techniques and messages that have to be accomplished. In terms of me being a candidate that's not on my mind right now.

Glover: So, you're not going to be a candidate again?

Gross: I'm not really thinking about being a candidate. What I'm thinking about is how can we rebuild this party as quickly as possible.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, you come out of the Iowa Christian Alliance and it's a very powerful group in the Republican Party. To what extent is it your responsibility to go out and recruit candidates beyond the sort of social conservative movement to broaden the base of the Republican Party? And do you think you can do that?

Scheffler: Well, number one, that's not my primary role. The LMF and the republican leadership on the house and senate side are by and large responsible for going out and recruiting those candidates but certainly _____ know people who are going to certainly bring them forward. But I think the bottom line is each legislative district is different and you have to find a candidate that is involved in the community, somebody that fits that district philosophically and somebody that can actually win on election day. So, from my perspective anybody else who is not going to be a litmus test we have to find candidates that can actually win because a republican is going to drive the republican message once they're elected.

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, I want to put a finer point on this. You said there's not a litmus test but there are some social conservatives who do have one. I remember the democrats took control of the Iowa house went they went and recruited so pro-life democrats to win and the liberals were just shocked and then they won. I want to know if the flip side is possible inside the Republican Party. Can the republican party now recruit pro-choice legislative candidates to run in urban and suburban legislative districts in this state because that's the message those constituents believe in. Can you do that?

Scheffler: Again, I think depending on what that specific legislative district is composed of, the demographics is if that candidate who would be somewhere on this social issue there's many components that are going to have to go into winning an election and if that's the best candidate they can find within that pool of people within that district then you bet, they ought to go for it.

Glover: Mr. Gross, one of the attritional advantages that republican candidates have had has been money. In this election cycle, certainly in the legislative election cycle and on the presidential level, democrats beat you in money with a lot of small contributions. How do republicans counter that?

Gross: Well, part of that is the fact that the kicker of the Obama candidacy excited an element of the population that wanted to participate in the process and they did that through their Internet contributions. We didn't do that. We didn't have that kind of a candidate at the presidential level and we need to have those kinds of candidates at the state level that will excite people. Now, what I hear from large givers for the Republican Party is they are tired of losing elections. They think we need to do something different, they think we need the kind of candidates who can appeal to a broader scope of the populous, that we can't just have litmus tests associated with one particular issue if we're going to accomplish overall republican goals and we've got to accomplish that if we're going to meet them in terms of the fundraising goal.

Glover: And the flip side of that is organization. I've talked to a number of republicans since this last election who said they just got out organized by the democrats this time. Everybody talks about building up your organization. How do you go about it?

Gross: Well, part of that too is whether you look at Ecclesiastes or the birds depending upon your preference I suppose there is a time for everything, there is a season for everything. The democrats are clearly in their season of ascendency. We had been in control of the White House for eight years, people are not happy with how the war had gone, the economy in September and October was absolutely in shambles, the spirits couldn't have been worse for republicans. You can't expect that we're going to have a higher energetic base during those kinds of times. I think that will come around again. The question for us is can we rebuild the party infrastructure and develop the right kind of candidates so we can take advantage of that when that comes?

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, the same question to you. I hear a lot of republicans who just say well, it'll be fine in two years because these things are cyclical and come and go. It doesn't strike me that's a great strategy for figuring out how to fix it. How do you get that organization turned around?

Scheffler: It's not a strategy to figure out it's going to swing the other way. Again, like I said, elections are not won like they were ten and twenty years ago. You've got to have the best candidate for that district, you've got to work your tail off, you've got to have good organization, you've got to be able to raise money and all those components together. So, we have a long ways to climb up out of the hole and to make things better for our candidates. So, it's not going to happen overnight but I believe that we can make that happen and we will.

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, a lot of talk in this campaign about younger voters. They were overwhelmingly for democratic candidates. What does the Republican Party have to do to start recruiting voters under age 25?

Scheffler: Well, I think we have to have candidates that have their clarity of message. I think Doug and I and every republican in the state who was an activist very enthusiastically supported our nominee. But I think the concern I heard among activists and voters, republican voters was the lack of clarity and the lack of trying to define the differences between himself and Senator Obama. And if you're going to get the republican voters enthused about a candidate you're going to have to basically fight like a republican. The days of saying we're better than the democrats but not providing a clear message just doesn't cut the mustard.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, what do you do to recruit or attract under 25 voters?

Gross: First of all, I think we were hurt a lot by the fact that the Obama campaign did generate a higher turnout among young people, the 18-35 year olds and they went overwhelmingly to the democrats and we've got to be very fearful of that because that is the future of the country, the future of the state. How do we appeal to them? I just look at my five kids, which I try to keep in the republican camp, but it's difficult. It's difficult because our young people today they have never grown up in an environment that's been discriminatory against race, sexual orientation, sex, whatever the case might be. They believe in a society that is non-discriminatory. They also believe that we should have the opportunity to grow our business, grow our families, the freedom without the government overarching and being in our pocket. Our party needs to enunciate a message that's attractive to them. But when our party has litmus tests associated with abortion and homosexual rights or issues such as this we drive the young people away.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, I can just hear arch conservatives, talk show hosts calling you a RINO, republican in name only.

Gross: The interesting thing about that is there are social issues, ask my kids, I'm more conservative probably than Steve is, that's how I feel. But I also believe that to be a success in politics you've got to win elections and you can't win elections if you're a minority party and you only focus on a minority of your coalition. We have to look broader than that. What we really have to do is speak to the fundamental issues that Iowans care about which is I'm working hard every day, in many cases a couple of jobs, my wife works as well, we take care of our kids and yet the government is going to increase our taxes, they're going to increase spending and they're going to give that to somebody who is not working. That kind of message will win for republicans among the people we have and we've gotten away from that. Yeah, I read about the economic problems we face today, it's a coalition of big business and big government. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Wall Street gave us the problems that we're facing today in our homes and around our kitchen tables. Republicans should have been the first to cry that because that's anti-our philosophy of limited government yet we participated in that when we were in control of the congress and because of that the people punished us. We need to get away from that.

Glover: Can you make the same argument that republicans ought not to have litmus tests on sexual orientation ... ?

Scheffler: Let me just politely disagree with David a little bit. I believe the reason we failed as a party and our candidates have failed to get elected in many cases is because we failed to address issues across the board whether it's social security reform, immigration reform, taxes and spending and we say again and again we're not like the democrats but I see it's a lack of message on all those issues. And for those that say the social issues shouldn't be enunciated at all you look at the marriage amendment passed in California which is not exactly the Alabama or South Carolina of America so I think it's all those issues that need to be enunciated clearly where we differ. And, of course, it depends on how you come across with the message that you're inclusive. But I think all those issues need to be enunciated.

Glover: But are you willing to step in and say, okay, and actively recruit candidates who take a position on sexual orientation, take a position on abortion?

Scheffler: I will repeat what I said one time before is we need to look at those districts one by one and figure out what is a message that sells well to those voters.

Gross: See, here's what we don't need to do. Marvin Pomerantz is a dear friend of mine and no greater supporter of the republican party than Marvin Pomerantz over the course of his life in terms of financial contributions and otherwise. A few months before he died he wanted to be able to go to the convention because he was John McCain's chair, finance chair in the state of Iowa and was prohibited from doing so because some member of his family had given to Planned Parenthood. Now, I don't support Planned Parenthood any more than you do but at the same time you don't punish somebody who is with us 80% to 90% of the time over an issue like that. That's how we narrow the party and that's how we don't broaden it. We have to get away from that.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, your response?

Scheffler: Well, first of all, I would respond to Doug that it was a coalition of people like it has been from the dawning of time that encourage people to support delegates and I guess that Doug would have to talk to those people that put that process together.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, Steve Scheffler just indicated that the message was a little fuzzy from the top of the ticket. What do you think of the message that John McCain delivered?

Gross: I thought it was fuzzy. I thought we were always going to have difficulty in Iowa with John McCain and he was never -- in 2000 he basically dissed us during the course of the caucus, came here only one time basically just to say how much he hated ethanol and then didn't really participate until the very end of the caucuses this time. So, I didn't expect that we were going to have a candidate who was going to be very easy to sell in Iowa and he wasn't. Now, John McCain was a maverick and I think as a result of that was able to appear there was some independence around the country better than he was able to do so in Iowa and from that standpoint I think he probably outperformed the environment.

Borg: To what do you attribute the swing in Hispanic votes between Bush four years ago and John McCain this time? And does Iowa have a lesson to learn there?

Gross: Absolutely, you look at the Hispanic vote was way up. Again, just like the 18-35 year olds if we're looking at the future of the country you better make certain you can appeal to the Hispanic vote. George W. Bush got 40% of the Hispanic vote. I think McCain was lucky to get 30% and maybe even less than that. Why were they so anti-republicans? Well, we spent the last two years bashing immigrants, bashing their families. What would you expect?

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, in Iowa was Sarah Palin an asset or a liability to the ticket?

Scheffler: Well, let's face it, first of all I don't think vice presidential candidates have been a plus or a minus for any candidate. People are basically going to vote for who is at the top of the ticket. Example 1988 when Dan Quayle was on the ticket the press demonized him and still George W. Bush won big. Here is what I think -- I think that had he not put her on the ticket or somebody comparable to her, let’s say as opposed to a Lieberman, you would have depressed the base, they would have not been as excited, many of them would have stayed home even though there was a lot at stake in electing Senator McCain over Obama. But certainly I don't think it was a negative at all. It probably was a wash. But certainly not having somebody whether it was her or a Mike Huckabee or whatever, if you had a Lieberman or Tom Ridge I think that would have greatly suppressed the base.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross?

Gross: I think he needed Palin, frankly, because I think he had a very lethargic party headed into the convention. It could have been a disaster. Instead it was a big plus and really gave him a boost. And until the middle of September when the economy totally imploded he was actually on top. And so Palin was an asset, David, not a negative.

Glover: Let's look at another thing that you both sketched out your problems you see with the republican party here in the state, you both come up with some ideas to fix it, how long is it going to take? Is this a one election cycle fix? Can you turn it around by 2010? It is longer term?

Gross: That's a great question, Mike, because we've got such deep problems you have to really wonder whether we can get together and put this together from an organization, financial and a message standpoint that quickly. Generally '10 ought to be a republican year. You've got a democratic president, it's in his off year first term, usually that's a good year for the opposition party. In Iowa we're going to have a situation where you've got a first term democratic governor who is up, the economy is probably going to be in pretty tough shape, they have way overspent the budget, they're going to be looking at tax increases, serious problems. It would be an excellent time for republicans to make a comeback. That’s why it's so imperative that we get together, realize that we can coexist in a big tent so long as we achieve our overarching goals and get our act together prior to '10. Can we do that? I hope so. I don't know if we can or not.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, same question to you based on this premise. The republicans are going to elect a new state chairman in January. But that state chairman or chairwoman is going to be elected by a central committee that is already in place. You were elected as a national committeeman by activists who were already in place. Can you fix it with the current crop of people who are running the party?

Scheffler: Well, we are going to have a new state party chairman and we're going to have to look very, very inwardly and figure out how we can fix this. And I would agree with Doug that we're going to have to have the input of legislators, we're going to have to have the input of activists, we're going to have to have the input of donors, people all across the board because, again, when we're outnumbered 106,000 voters we can't afford to eliminate or to not have people involved that can make this party click. So, we're not going to climb out of this hole completely in two years but I think we're going to be able to be a viable and a vibrant party within two years that we can make gains in the legislature hopefully and then go on to 2012 to take back the Iowa house, you bet.

Glover: Mr. Gross, you said you're not terribly interested right now in running for governor again. That is the next big election in the state. What names do you hear?

Gross: I think '10, to answer your biggest question, having the right gubernatorial candidate in '10 is critical for this party. One of the reasons why parties start to atrophy is when they don't have the governorship because it's such a powerful office from which you can raise money and build organization. We haven't had it for a number of years now. So, we've got to select the right kind of candidate. That's a critical thing that we need to work together on. Who am I thinking of? I don't have a list. I'm approaching this without a list at all.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, have you heard any names floating out there about who might be potentially a candidate on the republican side?

Scheffler: You're talking about for state chairman?

Glover: No, for governor.

Scheffler: Oh, for governor ... Mr. Rastetter, I guess, the big ethanol guy, Bob VanderPlatts, I guess I've vaguely heard maybe Jerry Bain.

Yepsen: Nobody has front runner status?

Scheffler: No, this is absolutely wide open.

Yepsen: Look down the road to 2012. Last time I checked Iowa will still be first in the caucus fights, the republicans you all will likely now have a contest. Mr. Scheffler, what are you going to tell candidates like Bobby Jindahl of Louisiana who was here November 22nd, what do you tell them about the message when they sit down and ask you what are Iowa republicans looking for? What are you going to tell Governor Jindahl?

Scheffler: Well, they're basically looking at the republican party to take a stand and, again, it has to be framed in a message that is appealing to the average Iowan, the average American so it doesn't become looking like it's exclusive. But it's going to have to be a message, again, like I talked about before there is a whole wide range of issues whether it's immigration reform or whether it's taxes and social security and spending, a whole broad range of republican issues that basically have been put on the back shelf or when republicans were in control basically got drunk on wild spending and so he was kind of a self-serving purpose as opposed to enunciating issues.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, same question. What do you tell these presidential candidates from your party who are about to start traipsing through Iowa?

Gross: Well, first thing if you're realistic with them you have to say it would depend upon your ideological makeup, you may or may not want to operate here because what has happened in Iowa with our caucuses is because we've gone so far to the social right in terms of particularly caucus attendees that unless you can meet certain litmus tests, if you will, you have a very difficult time competing in Iowa. So, as a result of it I think you'll have some candidates who won't compete here unless they perceive that that's somehow changed.

Yepsen: Isn't that what John McCain did? Isn't that what Rudy Giuliani did? Does the bypass Iowa strategy ever work?

Gross: It did for John McCain, he became the nominee, it worked perfectly for him.

Yepsen: ... to the White House.

Gross: But he got the nomination because what happened for him is Mitt Romney was not perceived as conservative enough on social issues and Mike Huckabee was, Mike Huckabee also, by the way, happened to be a very, very good candidate in my opinion, won and opened the door for John McCain in New Hampshire, that's precisely what occurred.

Borg: Gentlemen, I think we're out of time. I wish we could go on. Thank you for your insights. That's this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. I hope you'll watch again next weekend, usual times 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. For our guests and our panelists, I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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