Iowa Public Television


Matt Strawn - Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa

posted on April 10, 2009

Borg: Rethinking. Rebuilding. Redirecting. Iowa's Republican Party seeking to reverse recent election losses is handing the chore to a new state party chairman. A conversation with Matt Strawn on this edition of Iowa Press.

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On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, April 10th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowa republicans are pretty candid at admitting the party has some catching up to do. Statewide 2006 and 2008 elections pushed republicans further into legislative minority status and republicans haven't held the governor's office for nearly 12 years now. Varied reasons are given ... party unity ... out-organized ... messages that aren't motivating voters are all mentioned. Whatever the reasons republicans chose new legislative leaders and they put Matt Strawn in charge of the Iowa Republican Party. He's an Ankeny businessman, veteran party activist now directing a party that, after last November’s democratic sweep, is several thousand voters behind the democrats in party registrations. Mr. Strawn, welcome to Iowa Press. Have I been accurate in that description?

Strawn: You have, Dean. It's great to be here.

Borg: Are you up to the challenge?

Strawn: Without question.

Borg: Across the table we'll be seeing as we ask questions and see your answers Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson along with Des Moines Register Political Editor Kathie Obradovich.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, let's get right to the chase. Dean has described some of the problems the Republican Party in this state faces. What is your remedy for fixing them?

Strawn: Well, we've already started it, Mike, to be honest with you. The first thing we did is went statewide and actually started talking to republicans. Today actually marks my three month anniversary as the new chairman and we've logged over 3000 miles going statewide talking to republicans and finding out what has worked in 2006 and 2008 and what hasn't worked. So, we have rebuilt that playbook going ahead. Now, what that means is it means we go out there with a principal message of who we are, it means that we make sure people understand that there's a clear distinction between the parties and we've seen that not only in Washington with the Obama administration but here in Des Moines with the types of things that Governor Culver and legislative democrats are trying to jam down the throats of Iowans.

Glover: It strikes me that one of the things that any political party leader has to do is find a way when they're in the minority to expand the base, to expand the coalition that you have. What is your recipe for expanding the republican coalition in this state? I understand about firing up the base but how do you make the base bigger?

Strawn: Well, you make the base bigger by bringing people in that share our beliefs. Right now you look at some of these legislative democrats that won by the skin of their teeth in 2008 and 2006, they won by running on a platform of fiscal responsibility. They were running on cutting taxes. But, you know what, they haven't done that when they got in charge, they haven't been responsible with spending, that's why we have that budget hole that we have to fill from last year. We need to go out there and when republicans act like republicans, when we talk the fiscal responsibility game and we act on it that's how we win a majority in this state and we're working on that and we're unified on that. Look at what has happened in the house right now, our republicans are unified. People across the state see that. What you saw last Tuesday night with federal deductibility that wasn't just about federal deductibility, that was about the frustrations that taxpayers have in this state that manifested itself with that outpouring of emotion that you saw in the chamber.

Obradovich: You took over a party that was far from unified. There was a tug of war between those who thought that the social message should be the number one priority in the party and another coalition who thought that the fiscal message should be the number one priority in the party. You say that they are unified, there's one message. Which is it?

Strawn: Well, I tell you right now in three months Governor Culver and the legislative democrats have done more to unify the Republican Party than one party chairman or party leadership team could ever do. Just in the last week whether it was the federal deductibility issue, whether trying to raise taxes, it depends what day of the week it is whether it's 300,000 Iowans or whether it's 500,000 Iowans. That fired up people to understand that you don't raise taxes on people when you're trying to get out of a recession. And then Friday with the ruling with the Supreme Court they see a governor that comes out, everybody in the state had an opinion on that ruling within five seconds of it hitting the newswire except our governor. He puts out a two sentence statement talking about it being a complicated issue that he has to talk to his legal advisors about. That's not leadership and our people see that and Iowans see that, not just republicans.

Obradovich: You're saying it's the fiscal priority and the social priority at the same time.

Strawn: We're not an either or party, we're not a single issue party, the democrats aren't a single issue party. We're a party of broad based coalition beliefs of fiscal responsibility, those pro-family policies and a strong national defense that includes secure borders.

Obradovich: Doesn't the gay marriage ruling tip the scales though one way or the other?

Strawn: Well, it's one issue that certainly it's no surprise where the Republican Party is and why yesterday you saw Christopher Rants and Kraig Paulsen in two different opportunities try and actually get a vote and get democrats on record. I believe there are fourteen house democrats that have a stated public position supporting traditional marriage yet only two voted with republicans yesterday when we actually tried to force a vote on that issue.

Henderson: One of the objectives you identified when you took over the party was to attract more young people. Polls show that most young people don't care about gay marriage. Aren't you alienating a vote base that you want to bring into the party by stressing that issue?

Strawn: It's one of many issues we're talking about, Kay. I'm going to go back again to federal deductibility. You look at who those republican speakers were on the floor that night, they were people that are going to graduate from college in a couple of months or a couple of weeks and there's no jobs for them, they're small business owners, they're people under 40 that want to make their lives and want to raise their families here who don’t' have that opportunity. You look at the most recent Survey USA poll at the end of March on Governor Culver's ratings the lowest demographic approval rating of our governor right now is people who identify themselves of students. Only 28% of Iowans who identify themselves as students approve of the job Chet Culver is doing. So, I would submit that he has a problem with the youth of this state right now, not the republicans.

Henderson: One of the objectives republicans have long held is that they wish to bring more African-American voters and more Latino voters, more minority voters into your ranks. How do you do that?

Strawn: You go talk to them, you reach out to any group.

Henderson: But what is the issue that motivates them that will prompt them to join the Republican Party?

Strawn: I'm not going to presuppose to know what motivates a single Hispanic voter or a single African-American voter because as a republican I don't believe in issue identity politics. That's something we see the democrat party doing. If you're a citizen who shares our beliefs in the free market, in the power of the individuals to decide what's best for their families and themselves then we welcome you with open arms.

Borg: You have said that you are hoping to leverage the tax issue and the gay marriage ruling to republican's advantage. Look at it from a national scale and on the issue of the caucuses and perspective of national candidates, for example. What will this mean to the caucuses in Iowa and to gay marriage?

Strawn: That's a good question. I think some of that will play out over the next few months and the next year as to what actually happens on the issue. Obviously we tried to force a vote in the house yesterday, that was unsuccessful. Now there is discussion about residency requirements. There is discussion about constitutional convention. There's discussion about again trying to figure out a way to push a constitutional amendment. I think it's too early to tell what impact that will have on potential 2012 ...

Glover: One of the issues that has been raised that I have heard is people are saying that the republican party of this state has drifted so far to the right that it has given potential presidential candidates an obvious out if they don't want to play in Iowa, they can skip Iowa because they can make the argument Iowa is too conservative to offer a level playing field. What is your response to that? And has the party become so conservative it's no longer relevant in national politics?

Strawn: Well, the first part to your question, no, I don't think that's accurate. I think what you saw with the 2008 ...

Glover: I saw Mike Huckabee win the 2008 caucuses and then fade quickly.

Strawn: Well, certainly but he didn't win it with 51%. Any republican has the opportunity to come to Iowa and connect with those voters. What Iowa voters want -- and it's one thing Mike Huckabee had -- he really had that authenticity and connected with Iowa voters because of the unique nature of the caucuses and I think a candidate no matter where they fall on the republican ideological spectrum has an opportunity to showcase that to Iowans.

Glover: Who are you hearing from for 2012?

Strawn: I have not heard from any potential candidates yet.

Obradovich: Do you think Iowa should continue to be first in the nation especially to launch republican presidential candidates? How big of a priority is that for you?

Strawn: Oh, it's a tremendous priority. I can speak to two things on that. One, I think Iowa does play that unique role, it is the only place where the size of your bank account and campaign contributions aren't necessarily indicative of success. So, we really do get to test those candidates in our coffee shops, in these town hall meetings and for myself I've had that conversation already with Michael Steel, a relatively new chairman and I know we need to remain vigilant, currently 2012 we're safe but you never really know so we need to maintain constant vigilance and it is one of those areas where the parties do need to work together. I look forward to working with the new chairman of the IDP and making sure that we do everything we can to keep Iowa relevant and first.

Glover: You spoke to Steel about the caucuses and you're assured that 2012 is safe?

Strawn: I didn't say that, Mike. We had conversations and I did not sense there was any animosity towards Iowa's position in the process, I did not sense that he went in as RNC chairman with a set agenda to remove Iowa's place in order. Now, when I say constant vigilance I think it's something we always need to be mindful of because there are states that look at Iowa like a dog looks at a steak, they're jealous of what we have and are hungry for it.

Henderson: Two former republican legislators this past week on the steps of the Iowa statehouse said Iowa voters should reject three Supreme Court justices who are up for retention in 2010. Will the Republican Party actively campaign against the retention of those three justices?

Strawn: Kay, it's too early to tell. When we make those campaign decisions those are made based on the resources you have available at the time and right now we're about a year and a half out so we don't know where the resources will go for our statewide constitutional officers or even potential constitutional convention or retention of justices and keep in mind those are non-partisan positions.

Henderson: Just a few moments ago you criticized Governor Culver for on the day of the ruling not coming out and saying what he thought about gay marriage. How is that consistent with not making a decision yet on the Supreme Court justices that made the decision that you object to?

Strawn: Well, I can't commit party resources that don't yet exist.

Borg: Kay, do you want to follow up on that?

Henderson: Go ahead, Dean.

Borg: Okay. Constitutional convention, you said you haven't made up your mind yet. Wouldn't that be political suicide for the republicans to be pushing for a constitutional convention at a time when the democrats control the legislature and the governor's chair?

Strawn: That's why I don't think any decision has been made by proponents of banning same sex marriages in Iowa because I think the discussion has just started on what the various pros and cons are pushing for that. That's why the party has not made any decision. We're hearing from our activists, we're hearing from our legislative leaders, we want to make sure we exhaust every other possible avenue first.

Borg: But is it even an option? It's a bad option wouldn't you say?

Strawn: Well, that's why we have to discuss it. I don't make decisions immediately out of hand. I think you have to think about things first and listen to your constituencies.

Glover: One of the first jobs you have, the top elected office in the state is the governor's office, Governor Culver is up for election next year, we know that Bob Vander Plaats is interested in running for that, we hear a couple of other names, what does it say about the health of the party that you don't have what I would call a top flight, high profile opponent for a sitting governor?

Strawn: I think there's plenty of individuals in this state that are looking at the race right now -- I'm not going to go through name by name. Those individuals that are looking ...

Glover: I keep hearing that, there are all kinds of people out there but let's not talk about names. If you can talk about names who do you have?

Strawn: I'm not going to talk about names but what I can tell you what is happening is other candidates who I'm sure you see their names in the paper and some whose names aren't in the paper being talked about right now are seeing a party, a republican party that is unified again, they see leadership at the party, they see leadership in the house and senate that is speaking with a clear, principled message, they see increased activists showing up to central committee meetings, they actually see a republican party that if you look at the latest FEC filings we outraised the Iowa democrat party from one of the last filings which I believe is at the end of February. Our candidate recruitment is up, it's way ahead of schedule. So, right now those individuals that are looking potentially at running for governor ...

Glover: I look at mechanics and I see Chet Culver and I see his campaign organization, I see it's on the ground, I see it's raising money, he's putting the organization in place, it's doing the kinds of things he needs to do to get re-elected. I don't see any republican at that stage of organization right now. Aren't you in fact starting off behind?

Strawn: Well, any time you're the challenger candidate you're starting off from behind, Mike. I fully anticipate that we will have a robust primary for governor. Now, as a state party our job is to make sure that we're building that machinery in the off year so when we do have a nominee that first Wednesday in June of next year they can plug right into the rebuilt republican machine and we can beat Chet Culver. When you look at Governor Culver right now he's got numbers that are in a slide whether it was the latest Iowa poll that showed that or whether it was the Survey USA poll at the end of March that showed for the first time his approval ratings were under 50%, only 40% of no party voters in this state approved of him. I already talked about the student and the 18-34 numbers that are where his highest disapproval ratings are right now. Those are the very people that are credited with the Obama phenomenon. So, when you talk about that organization there's a real question right now in this state whether that exists for him.

Borg: I'm just a bit curious and I'm sure viewers are too as to just how you see your role in recruiting candidates for governor. You say you don't want to talk about candidates but you say you are going to have a robust campaign against Governor Culver. So, what is your role as you see it in getting that candidate to conduct a robust campaign? What is your role?

Strawn: Right, the role as party chairman ...

Borg: Are you to go out and tap people on the shoulder, take them by the nap of the neck and say please run?

Strawn: No, because quite frankly if there's somebody that we have to drag kicking and screaming into running for governor I don't think we want that person. We want somebody that has the fire in their belly to lead this state back to the recovery that our citizens deserve. So, the role of the party -- the party is going to remain neutral in the primary because we need to make sure that it is a fair fight based on republican issues. I think that will help us grow party registration, I think it will help attention on republican solutions for what ails this state and at the end of the day once we have a fair fight in the primary and know who our nominee is the party is in a position to move forward and defeat Chet Culver.

Obradovich: Is Mike right when he says that nobody besides Bob Vander Plaats is really taking the steps to start raising money and building the kind of statewide coalition that you need in order to mount -- it's going to be a hard hill to climb against a sitting governor, it always is in Iowa no matter what the issues are.

Strawn: It certainly is but right now when you look at where his numbers are, you look at where I think his numbers are going, again, having someone who has traveled the state constantly over the last three months, I don't spend most of my time in the corridors of the capitol, people are frustrated out there and it's not just republicans and it's not just independents and no parties, it's democrats. They are frustrated that we have a governor who seems to be afraid to govern, this state isn't seeing any leadership and our job as the party is to make sure that we're building the infrastructure and creating those mechanics right now so when we do have that nominee they can plug right into that.

Glover: I don't want to seem like I'm one note Charlie here but you can't beat somebody with nobody and you don't have a candidate right now. What does that say about the party?

Strawn: Well, Bob Vander Plaats has created his exploratory committee so we do have that and I do anticipate that it will be a full field based on what I hear from individuals that are out there making calls to their prospective donors, making calls to their prospective support networks. Sitting here today it's not my position to name names of people that are thinking about running for governor because those are decisions that have to be made ...

Glover: But it ought to be obvious at this point who those people are if you're going to mount a serious challenge. We shouldn't have to be asking you who they might be, it ought to be obvious.

Strawn: I can tell you this, given the enthusiasm that is out there among the republican activists in this state, given the frustration that is out there with no party voters and even conservative democrats and given the absolute frustration with small business owners and job creators in this state the recipe is there for republicans to win this state back.

Henderson: You mentioned frustrations. There are some within your own party who are frustrated with Senator Chuck Grassley. In fact, he was not elected to be a delegate to the national convention for the first time in a long while. Does he have serious problems in the party?

Strawn: No.

Henderson: Why not?

Strawn: I haven't seen it. Again, I've been statewide, I've been in front of I would probably say almost a dozen to two dozen central committee meetings, we've done seven listen and learn forums across the state, not once have I had a single republican activist or county leader approach me with a concern about Senator Grassley.

Glover: You talked a lot when you were elected about technology, bringing new technology into the Republican Party. What do you mean by that? How are you doing it?

Strawn: I'll give you a couple of actually real world examples. Take the prevailing wage fight, for example. In that we were able to use these new technologies to communicate to republican activists statewide. When we heard that the prevailing wage legislation was going to come up on the house floor we had some of our representatives but it was Chris Hagenow, Renee Schulte, Christopher Rants using their Twitter accounts and sending live tweets from the floor, when we heard that Larry Marek or McKinley Bailey were the pressure points on that we were able to send out an e-mail action alert to our statewide network, we were able to send out action alerts via our Facebook network and actually hammer down, rain down calls, e-mails, faxes to the state capitol and make sure those representatives knew that people are paying attention and that didn't cost us a single dollar in direct mail or paid advertising. That's a simple way to really connect our citizens and our activists of what's going on at the capitol.

Obradovich: The other party infrastructure issue that you face going in is that democrats had a big advantage in the absentee ballots and how to get people to vote early. What are you guys doing on that front?

Strawn: Absolutely and that is one area where we certainly need to improve. When we talk about absentee balloting I think you need to define it more broadly because it does include early voting and we just need to make sure that election day isn't just election day anymore, it's election 45 days, election months, we need to start our campaigns earlier, I know most citizens probably don't like that but it's a fact that's going to have to happen. We had some legislative districts where the paid media campaigns in those districts didn't start until about 30% of the electorate had already voted. So, we need to change the way that we communicate with the electorate.

Glover: How do you change the culture of the republican party because the culture of the republican party has always been to fight early voting, to fight absentee voting, to find ways to limit it, that has been the culture of the party, how do you change that?

Strawn: I think we embrace what the rules are and use them to our advantage because at the end of the day it doesn't matter if somebody votes 40 days early or if they vote on election day, how many votes you have at the end of the day is what matters.

Glover: But that has not been where the Republican Party has been in the past.

Strawn: Mike, I'm telling you where I'm taking it. I don't like the notion that -- I'll use a sports analogy because I'm a football guy -- hey we won the second half but how come the score board standing show that ____ won? It's nonsense so that's why we have to embrace there aren't going to be change in satellite voting and early voting in this state. What we need to do is make sure that we're communicating our message with the voters no matter whether that's a voter who is going to vote early or is going to vote on election day and we need to make sure that we're putting our voter programs together whether it's poll workers poll watching, the legal apparatus, that those early voting on election day continues to conform with voter integrity and those things that Iowans hold dear.

Borg: Staying with the football analogy that you brought up here how do you see the playing field right now? I characterized it as you several thousand registrations behind the democrats now, your republican party is a minority party, how are you going to change that?

Strawn: First I think we need to take a little bit of a look at history here in Iowa and if we're going solely as party registration as a lead indicator for electoral success we never would have had Governor Terry Branstad, we never would have had Governor Tom Vilsack, they did not enjoy party registration when they ran and won. It is a key but it isn't the only key to winning. Really we need to get out there with a consistent principled message of who we are and show that there's a difference between a party that is ready to lead and a party that every time there is a tough decision tries to kick the can down the road another day.

Borg: Get out there how though? How are you going to reach those people who are now democrats and say change your registration?

Strawn: Well, what matters even more important than registration is how many votes your candidate has in the bank at the end of Election Day. That is the primary goal of the party is to win those races.

Henderson: What about the history you mention? Iowans have a history of re-electing folks to both the governorship and the U.S. senatorship. We have long-term senators in Senator Grassley and Senator Harkin, we had long-term governors in Bob Ray, Terry Branstad and Tom Vilsack limited himself to two terms. How do you fight the history of Iowans keeping the help around?

Strawn: Well, one thing we do is we actually look at history in the traditional mid-term elections of the party in power. 2010 if you look at historical trends shapes up to be a very good year for republicans. But we're only going to do as good a job next year as the work we do this year which is why we are rebuilding this party precinct by precinct, county by county with fantastic candidates across the board and then going to the voters with a compelling message.

Glover: Bob Ray used the job of Iowa Republican Chairman to lay the groundwork for his future in politics. What is your future?

Strawn: My future? To defeat Chet Culver with a republican governor and give that republican governor legislative majorities to work with so we can get Iowa back on its good feet and then I'm going to go back to selling 50 yard indoor football for a living.

Henderson: So, you don't have any aspirations to have your name on an Iowa ballot at some time in the future?

Strawn: Kay, right now no. If you would have told me six months ago that I'd be sitting here with you four wonderful individuals talking about the future of the party as chair I would have told you you were crazy. I really did -- when I left day-to-day politics and brought back the Barnstormers with my good friend Jeff Lamberti I really thought I left the day-to-day politics.

Glover: Why are you back here?

Strawn: Because I believe in Iowa, I had made the decision a few years ago to move home to raise my family here, to grow a business here and I didn't want to be that guy that sits on the sidelines and complains about what a better job he could do but he's too busy.

Glover: So, there's no place for you on a ballot somewhere in the future?

Strawn: You never know what happens but right now my top priority is making sure that we have a republican occupant at Terrace Hill.

Glover: Talk to me about next year. It strikes me that next year is a very interesting year. You're right, the first mid-term of a sitting president's first term is usually good for the party out of power so it ought to be a good year for republicans. On the other hand the economy is in the toilet, that's good for democrats. Give me your take on what next year looks like.

Strawn: I actually disagree with that premise with the economy being in the tank is good for democrats. What we've seen in this state is, again, no matter what the decision is we have a governor that is going to lead. When they left town last May, this is before the disasters hit Parkersburg, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, they knew that they were going to have nearly a half a billion dollar budget hole to fill. Why? Because our liberal legislators and the governor wanted to be all things to all people with the taxpayer's money. They put the tough decisions off to another day. Iowans understand that, they understand when their democrat legislators tell Iowa that it has a revenue problem, they know that's not accurate, it's a spending problem.

Obradovich: There was a lot of characterization in the last presidential election that what American voters and Iowa voters really wanted was the parties to pull together and work together to solve some of the really serious problems that we have in this country and in this state. It doesn't sound like there's a lot of room for bipartisan work in the kind of vision you're laying out.

Strawn: Well, I don't define bipartisanship as abandoning one's principles which I think when you're the party in power that's how you tend to define it, you want the other party to abandon their principles so you can get your agenda across. But on those issues that do matter to Iowans that aren't partisan like expedited flood relief which I think is one of the first things that the legislators did pass on bipartisan lines early in the session. But when it comes to turning a state around we're going to stand up for those small businesses that create two-thirds of the jobs in this state.

Glover: If voters are getting it why is there a lopsided democratic majority in the senate, a lopsided democratic majority in the house and 110,000 more registered democrats than republicans in the state and Barack Obama carried the state easily? If voters get it why isn't it showing it?

Strawn: Because we need to go out there and make sure that Iowans understand that our solutions and our principal position lines up with theirs. Look at the positions that some of those -- even Barack Obama tried to run on a tax cut as did many legislative candidates on the democratic side -- but now they're not, now they're actually going to be raising our taxes ironically maybe even on tax day next week.

Borg: I'm sorry that we're out of time. Thanks for spending time with us today.

Strawn: Thank you. Have a wonderful Easter.

Borg: Thank you. I hope you'll join us next weekend for another edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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Tags: Iowa politics Republicans