Iowa Public Television


Republican Party Politics

posted on February 19, 2010

Seizing opportunity.  Republicans nationally and in Iowa sensing Democratic election vulnerability, but social issues divide Republicans.  Comments from Republican activists Doug Gross and Steve Scheffler on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: There's been intense Republican soul searching in recent years, intensifying after Democratic sweeps in November 2008's election. In Iowa it goes back even further, Republicans losing the governor's office twelve years ago and steadily giving up seats in Iowa's legislature. Indications of voter impatience with the current Democratic control of the federal government doesn't necessarily forecast Republican gains, though.

Deep philosophical differences are dividing Republicans nationally and especially in Iowa. In fact, on this program last week, a Republican activist was threatening that his group with strong beliefs on same-sex marriage would sit out the governor's election if the Republican nominee doesn't meet the group's single issue priority.

Well, today we're getting perspective from two Iowa Republican activists. Des Moines attorney Doug Gross was the Republican Party's nominee for governor in 2002, losing that election to Democratic incumbent Tom Vilsack. Mr. Gross is also chief of staff -- or was chief of staff in Governor Terry Branstad's administration. And West Des Moines Republican Steve Scheffler is president of the Iowa Christian Alliance. He also represents Iowa on the Republican National Committee. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Gross: Good to be with you, Dean.

Borg: Welcome back. You've been here before and you know the two journalists across the table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Mr. Gross, let's start with you. I'd like to get sort of a report card on the health of the Republican Party, and I'd like to ask you that question against the backdrop of what Dean mentioned. Last week the head of the Iowa Family Policy Center said if you guys nominate Terry Branstad, they'll sit it out. What's your reaction to that?

Gross: My reaction to that is that both does a disservice to what Danny is trying to accomplish, which is a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and also doesn't do any good for the Republican Party because we need to be united to win this fall. I think, frankly, the facts are that remarkably the Republican Party is more united today than it has been in many, many months, and I think we're poised for victory.

Glover: Do you take him seriously?

Gross: Do I take whom seriously?

Glover: Danny Carroll. Do you think --

Gross: Danny is a serious guy. I mean Danny is a legitimate guy. He was a state representative for a number of years. At the end of the day, if you look at the polling numbers, Mike, you'll find that the Republicans, whether it's Terry Branstad or whomever it is, are going to unite behind their nominee come fall.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, same question to you. What's your reaction to that position by the Iowa Family Policy Center, arguably a very important social and political conservative group?

Scheffler: First of all, that's a decision that that organization had to make, so that's not for me to make a judgment call. But for me personally, you know, there's a lot at stake in this election. You either have the far left agenda of the Democratic Party or the mainstream views that most Iowans hold that the Republican Party holds. And so my view is any three of the potential candidates running for governor would be a huge improvement over what sits in Terrace Hill right now.

Glover: Is it time for conservatives to sit down and talk to those kind of groups and say you want to rethink this?

Scheffler: Well, again I think, Mike, that's a decision that that organization would have to make, and they would have to make the overtures in regard to if they want to talk about that issue, I guess.

Glover: Mr. Gross, do moderates, whom you largely represent, have a responsibility --

Gross: I do? When did that start to happen?

Glover: Well, a moderate -- the definition of moderate and conservative changes every year.

Gross: They move around, yeah.

Glover: Do moderates have a responsibility to reach out to groups like that and say come on into the tent?

Gross: Well, I mean Ronald Reagan always talked about the 80-20 rule. So long as people agreed about 80 percent of the time, that ought to be good enough to be in the same party, to be in the same tent. Right now the focus in the Republican Party is on economic issues. That's been the case for the last year or more, and you'll find that those issues are resonating with the voters. As a result I think you'll find a united Republican Party in the fall.

Henderson: Mr. Gross, you are a lightning rod, and Danny Carroll on the steps --

Gross: I'm a moderate and a lightning rod?

Henderson: Yeah, exactly, yeah.

Gross: Oh, okay.

Henderson: We may find out more -- exactly. But Mr. Carroll on the steps of the statehouse made reference to you and said this movement has gotten nothing by being part of this Republican Party.

Gross: Well, that movement or that particular organization is one organization that has one particular interest. It is not the Republican Party. The Republican Party has broader interests than just one issue. It has to if it wants to survive an acidic atmosphere. It is not a religious party.

Henderson: Let's talk about the three candidates that you mentioned, Mr. Scheffler. First of all, we've talked about a couple of well-known candidates, Bob Vander Plaats and Terry Branstad. But there is a third gentleman who is running, Rod Roberts. Should he withdraw from the race and let this be sort of a mono-e-mono thing, just fight it out to the end?

Scheffler: Again, that's a decision that he has to make, but I'm a person that happens to believe that primaries can be very healthy. It's an exchange of ideas. And I've actually known Rod Roberts for thirty years, and I think he's a very credible, decent, honorable guy and would make a great governor.

Glover: Mr. Gross, go back and take a look at these candidates. I know you have a dog in this hunt, Terry Branstad.

Gross: He's a good friend.

Glover: Analyze them.

Gross: Analyze him?

Glover: Analyze those three candidates. What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Gross: Well, first of all, Rod Roberts is a genuine, decent person, a good state representative from Carroll. I wish he were running for re-election because that could be a tough seat for us to hold. I think his chances of winning are not very high because he's not very well known. Bob Vander Plaats, the third time that he has run. That's a problem for Bob because he wants to be an outsider running -- a non-politician running. Yet this is the third time he's been on the ballot and hasn't won yet. Terry Branstad obviously a successful politician, a very successful governor in the state of Iowa. What you see is what you get. The only reason he's doing it is because he cares deeply about the state of Iowa. He's likely going to win.

Borg: Kay -- go ahead, Kay.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler, in regards to the people that we've been talking about. There are many Republicans who are frustrated, younger Republicans -- in the past people like former house speaker Ron Corbett who went to Cedar Rapids and worked in business, Steve Grubbs who was a former state legislator who tried to move up and couldn't. If your name isn't Branstad or Grassley in this state, people think that there is a glass ceiling. What do you say to people who have recruited Terry Branstad to run again?

Scheffler: Again, I think that's a decision that each candidate has to make whether he or she wants to run or not. But I mean politics is a lot about timing, you know. And maybe their time just hasn't arrived yet, but anybody is entitled to run. And again, like I said, the more people that get involved in the primary, I think that's really healthy for the party.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, the same question to you. Take a look at these three candidates. I assume that the Christian Alliance is going to stay neutral this primary.

Scheffler: Absolutely.

Glover: Analyze the three candidates. You've been around politics for a good long time. What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Scheffler: Well, I mean I think Terry Branstad's strength is he's been there. He's faced some tough decisions during the agriculture crisis. And you know, by and large he's a person that people can depend on both on social issues and fiscal issues. I guess his negatives would be that he's got a sixteen-year voting record -- or sixteen-year record in office that the Democrats can take a batting ball to. Rod Roberts I think is very calculated. I mean he's likable. He's a policy wonk. Again, I think his weaknesses are that, you know, the money in the organization may not be there. And then the third candidate would be Bob Vander Plaats. You know, he's an outsider that doesn't have a record to take a swing at, but he's been there. And some people might think that, you know, been there and done that. So I think they've all got pluses and minuses, but any of them would be very credible.

Henderson: Mr. Gross, what about the been there done that factor? Terry Branstad has been there, done that. He in some respects is an incumbent seeking election in a year when many people say there is an anti-incumbent mood. How does he address that?

Gross: See, I don't think there's an anti-incumbent mood. I think Iowa pundits want to say there's an anti-incumbent mood. You're misreading it. The issue environment has been consistent for the last year. It remains consistent right now. It's anti-big-government mood and those people in charge of government are in trouble and they happen to be the Democrats. It's interesting people want Terry Branstad to come back because he fixed it before and they think he can fix it again, and certainly the state is broke.

Borg: Mr. Scheffler, polls show the job approval for the current incumbent, Chet Culver, are declining. But is the Republican Party -- Mr. Gross consistently says here in the past few minutes that the Republican Party is united and can take advantage. What's your appraisal? The Republican Party may be, if you stretch Mr. Gross's definition of united, at least bruised. Can they take advantage of somewhat apparent vulnerability?

Scheffler: I think so. You know, as an example, I think our state party chairman Matt Strawn is the best person we've had as state chairman in many, many years, and he knows how to get things done. He's articulate. He's well spoken on the issues, and he's driving a message on different issues. He did a jobs tour here. I don't know when that was. Six or eight months ago. And I think by and large the party is united. I mean the bottom line is I think we have to encourage people in the Republican Party and I think that's being seen more all the time that the differences that divide us are pretty minor compared to what the left and the Democratic Party have to offer. So I mean I think we're going into this election pretty united.

Glover: Mr. Gross, same question to you.

Gross: Are we united? Of course we are.

Glover: Can you beat Chet Culver? I mean Dean's right, the polls are down, but the last time Iowans defeated a sitting governor was 1962.

Gross: 1962, Norm Erbe. And this will be the next time if -- [ laughter ]

Gross: -- if Chet Culver is on the ballot. I mean I keep hearing rumors that some prominent Democrats are trying to figure out a way to get him a job in Washington, D.C., so he won't be on the ballot. Look at his numbers, Mike. His approval ratings among union households, 37 percent! That's why you're seeing him do all things -- these union issues to try to buy back his core base. That's his core base. He doesn't have it. Tom Harkin's approval rating is 77 percent among Democrats. His is 57 percent among Democrats. They're seriously -- he's seriously flawed politically.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, there's another election this year, and that's for the senate seat held by Senator Charles Grassley. There's a Democratic primary for the right to oppose Grassley. Should we just assume that Roxanne Conlin is going to be the nominee because she's better known than her two rivals?

Scheffler: I mean I think it's about a 90-percent assurance that she is going to be the nominee because she's got the money and she's got the manpower and she's got the machinery behind her. So I think that's probably a given.

Glover: Mr. Gross, the same question to you.

Gross: Yeah, I think Roxanne Conlin will be the nominee and Chuck Grassley will get over 60 percent of the vote.

Glover: That's the question for you, Mr. Scheffler. Is Grassley vulnerable? I've seen some polling that shows at least a relatively competitive race. Is there a realistic chance that --

Scheffler: I don't think he probably is but he's doing all that he has to do like he does every year. He visits all 99 counties and he works his tail off like he's 20 points behind.

Borg: But he is an incumbent.

Scheffler: He's an incumbent, I understand that. But I think -- I think Grassley's hand was strengthened through these town hall meetings where he basically -- when it became apparent that he couldn't work with the Democrats in trying to work out a health care plan that was market driven that he laid the gauntlet down and said, you know, we can't have -- we can't have socialized medicine.

Borg: Mr. Gross, why isn't the anti-incumbent mood going to affect Mr. Grassley?

Gross: Because the Democrats are in total control of state government and federal government, and so they're being held responsible for the things that the voters don't like, i.e., too much spending, too many high taxes, and too much debt. As a result, those people that aren't responsible for that are going to be advantaged, and that's Republicans.

Borg: But they're also holding people who are saying no responsible for gridlock.

Gross: They're holding people responsible for saying no to big government and they're giving them credit for it, Dean, and that's why Chuck Grassley will get over 60 percent this fall.

Henderson: You know, you mentioned those town hall meetings that Senator Grassley had in August. I attended them. And actually activists booed him when he said he voted for the troubled asset relief program. He's certainly not done things that some people in that movement, the tea party movement, support, and they're upset with him. Are they going to come home in the end?

Scheffler: I believe so. You know, the tea party movement I think is kind of a coalition of people that maybe are not knitted together on every single issue, but I think they are knitted together by their dislike of big out-of-control spending and big government. So I think we can -- we don't want to co-op those people as a party, but we certainly want to work with them. And I think they will -- they'll support our nominees.

Glover: Mr. Gross, let's talk about that tea party movement, if we could for a second. What is it? Tell me about it.

Gross: It's people that are disaffected with the way things are going in the government and, frankly, in a lot of cases in their personal lives and economically in our country. These are people that a lot of them voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election because they thought it was change and something new and they thought it was hope. Now they've been disaffected in a terrible way. They're largely driven economically by economic issues because they are troubled and hurting right now. As a result, that's why they're going to be drawn to the Republican Party in the fall.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, is it an organized group that Republicans can energize and take advantage of them, or is it just a group of really angry people?

Scheffler: I wouldn't describe them as angry people. I would just describe them as a lot of Joe-Blow citizens who are just disgusted with government and is not knitted together by any one group or one leader but people that have come together for a common purpose. And I think you saw the effects of that in Massachusetts, which is a state we didn't think was possible for a Republican to win a statewide office.

Glover: Is there a danger that they could stay home or that they can split off into a third party?

Scheffler: Sure, and I think that's where the Republican Party and its candidates has to show that there's a big difference between our philosophy and the Democratic Party's philosophy. And that includes social issues and economic issues, showing that big picture as an example like Bob McDonald did in Virginia. I think he pulled off a phenomenal feat in the respect that he knitted all those groups together and where he stood strong on fiscal and fiscal issues.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler mentioned the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts as the senator replacing the late Ted Kennedy. Mr. Gross, how would you analyze that election and its impact on Republican Party politics?

Gross: Well, that particular election was a vote against health care, nationalized health care.

Henderson: But he voted for a similar statewide plan.

Gross: State owned, state developed, and state run, not nationalized health care. He made it very clear. He made it a referendum on what the Democrats had made their number one priority for a full year, and the public resoundingly -- even the most liberal state in the country said no way.

Glover: And explain to me that election a little bit. I saw some exit polling, 59 percent of the people who voted in that election favored national health care reform, and yet they elected a candidate who said I'll be the 41st vote against it.

Gross: Well, I favor national health care reform, just not the way that the Democrats and Barack Obama want to do it. The first thing they want to do is expand the system by a trillion dollars when we have trillion dollar deficits. And fundamentally there's a disconnect there, and the Democrats don't seem to get that.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler, there are some conservatives who are concerned about the Scott Brown victory in that he is definitely not conservative and now he's being made sort of a poster child of a Republican resurgence.

Scheffler: Well, again, he was nominated in a primary. And, of course, Massachusetts is a little bit different than some states maybe like Iowa or southern states. And even though he didn't describe himself as a self-identified pro-lifer, you know, you look at his views on the life issue -- you know, he voted for a conscience clause with hospitals when he was in the state senate. He supported a ban of partial-birth abortion. So again, people going in the voting booth are going to have to decide do they want the far left policies of Ted Kennedy and the Democrats or do they want somebody that's going to get them there most of the way and certainly they'll vote against health care.

Borg: Mr. Gross, there's some bills working their way through the Iowa legislature that would favor organized labor. Are bills like that, if they were passed, legislation like that, along with gay marriage, going to be the bedrock of the Republican campaign in the coming election?

Gross: No. The key issues in the Republican campaign in the coming election are going to be economic issues, basic issues like is the state government spending too much, are they taxing too much, are they going too far in debt. Those will be the elements of the campaign.

Borg: But are those sufficient issues to energize the party?

Gross: They're energizing the entire country right now, Dean. We've got trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. We've got billion-dollar deficits at the state. The governor has done a terrible job of managing the state finances, and people are upset about it.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, do you agree with that assertion that this next election as far as Republicans are concerned is going to be about economic issues, or do you think issues like gay marriage and organized labor issues that Dean mentioned will drive the Republican base?

Scheffler: I mean there's no doubt polling shows that economic issues are the most important thing, but I guess I would just caution Republican candidates they can't de-emphasize those social issues either. It's all kind of that package that's molded together to win the message. I think where Republican social conservatives will want assurance is, once they're elected, that they're not just going to basically be ignored or their issue. So it's not that I think most of them expect it to be front and center, but they certainly want those issues addressed if they're elected.

Henderson: I think it's worth noting that we're having this discussion about the election in February, and there's a lot of real estate between now and June and again November. And I'm reminded of Governor Lightfoot who --

Gross: Who?

Henderson: Exactly. Exactly. What lessons do you draw as a supporter of Mitt Romney in the caucuses --

Gross: Who?

Henderson: Yeah, exactly. In the caucuses, because Mr. Huckabee was able to energize supporters who are now supporting, many of them, Bob Vander Plaats?

Gross: The only thing we know for sure, obviously, is that things won't stay the same. They'll change. But that being said, the issue environment in this state and in this country over the last year, Kay, has been remarkably consistent. It focused largely on economic issues, concerned about spending taxes and debt, and those kind of bread-and-butter Republican issues. Unless there's a remarkable turnaround in the state budget or the state's economy between now and November, I think the issue environment will stay the same. New economic indicators just came out today saying we had a downturn again for the first time in a long time. If you look at our state revenues in January, down 17 percent. I think the Democrats have a tough row to hold with this environment.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, we're starting to see the first of the potential Republican presidential hopefuls. We don't know quite what to call them at this point in the process, but they're starting to show up. Analyze that field. Do you think there will be a large active field? Do you think it will be as conservative as it was last time?

Scheffler: I think it's going to be a wide-open field. In fact, I would hate to even dare say who might have the nod at this point or who has the upper hand. It's a whole wide range of candidates looking at the environment and is it going to be doable to take out Barack Obama in 2012. But I mean I think it's going to be an exciting field but, again, where that's all -- where the dust is going to settle is unknown right now.

Glover: Mr. Gross, same question to you. Take a look at this Republican field. Is it going to be big? Is it going to be conservative? And is Iowa going to be first again?

Gross: Iowa will be first. That will be clear. We'll have that -- frankly, John McCain helped make certain of that and Steve Scheffler as well. Thank you. But Iowa will be first. Just like the birds are starting to sing a little bit even though it's still snowing, well, the candidates are starting to come back to Iowa too. I’m starting to get some phone calls. We're going to have a big field. It's going to be a relatively conservative field, because I think people are going to sense that Barack Obama is vulnerable. So you're going to have a lot of people get in the race.

Glover: That's the next question. Can you get Barack Obama? Is he a one-term president?

Gross: You know, if the election were held today, we would beat him.

Glover: The election is not held today. Mr. Scheffler, can you beat Barack Obama in 2012?

Scheffler: Again, I think it depends on the environment and, secondly, if Republicans have a message that shows the differences and points out Barack Obama's march toward socialism. So you bet.

Gross: I mean part of it is Barack Obama. He needs to -- he needs to move. This is a center right country, and he's been governing from the left. He needs to get back into the middle. If he does get back in the middle of the field, he'll be tough to beat. But so far he hasn't shown any evidence of that.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, elections are not about whether you like the current president. Elections are about the choices between a sitting president and an alternative. Things will change when that happens, right?

Scheffler: Correct.

Glover: Mr. Gross?

Gross: Sure.

Glover: So the polls will come together?

Gross: Well, it's going to be close. This country is evenly -- relatively evenly divided. Let's not forget here Republicans look like they're in good shape, but from a party registration standpoint, we're still down significantly in Iowa. Elections are turning that around. This coming election is absolutely critical for the Republican Party to get a big turnout and as part of that changing that voter registration model.

Henderson: Has the apparatus of the party changed? There have been a couple of legislative elections in which Democrats have still outperformed Republicans when it comes to getting absentee voters, early votes cast in those races. Has there been a sea change at the state party level, or are people still counting on Election Day only?

Scheffler: No. you know, I know absentees are part of the big puzzle that we need to do a better job at. But by and large I think where we failed and where Matt and the Republican Party are doing a much better job on where we're going to be, I think, this fall is we need to do a lot better job of targeting those independents that agree with us on a wide range of issues and making sure that we turn those people out. The Democrats have done that very successfully. We haven't done that until now.

Glover: Mr. Gross, we touched on legislative elections. This coming set of legislative elections -- by the way, the Democrats have a pretty good margin in both the house and the senate. This next set of legislative elections will be particularly important because the legislature elected in November will draw new congressional district lines after the census. Is there a realistic chance that you'll get one or the other house back?

Gross: Yeah, I think we'll get the Iowa house. I think Kraig Paulsen and his team have done an outstanding job of recruiting candidates, and that's where it all starts. We actually have people self-selecting to be candidates in this issue environment. They want to run. As a result of that, we're getting very good candidates. We're going to have well-funded, good campaigns, and I think we'll win the Iowa house. In the senate I think we'll make some progress. Right now I couldn't exactly predict we're going to take control because the margin is so great, but we'll win the house.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, the same question to you. Is there a realistic chance that Republicans can get either chamber back?

Scheffler: I think there's an excellent chance to take back the Iowa house. In fact, just for the future of our kids and grandkids, I think we have to take it back. But I think it looks very promising. In the senate I think we're within reach but, you know, there's like 25 seats of the seats that are up, I think 19 of them are held by Democrats.

Glover: Are any of the sitting Democratic congressmen in trouble?

Scheffler: I would say at the present time probably not.

Glover: Mr. Gross, same question to you.

Gross: I think they could be. I think the key in a race like this, this could be one of those sea change type of elections where the electorate shifts from left to right. When that occurs, you want to be teed up. You want to have as many candidates -- as many districts in play as you possibly can. Leonard Boswell is in very great risk. In fact, I hear they're trying to get him not to run, not to file, that there is an effort underway to try to get him a job somewhere else so they can get another candidate in there. We will beat Leonard Boswell if he's on the ballot this fall.

Borg: Will the Supreme Court decision on campaign finance, Mr. Gross, have any effect on this November's election?

Gross: Well, it depends on what both congress and the state legislature does in response to it. Right now the Democrats in both cases are trying to restrict those dollars from going into campaigns as much as they possibly can within the constitution. That being said, the people that will benefit the most, Dean, will be the television stations -- unfortunately not this one -- but the television stations because you'll see the amount of commercials greater than we've ever seen before.

Borg: Mr. Scheffler, how do you see it, the effect of the Supreme Court decision essentially saying corporations are a person and can contribute to --

Scheffler: Again, I'm not real well versed in that decision, but I know overall that it's a positive for the Republican Party and our candidates, so I think it's a positive, especially for free speech.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler, in your capacity as a member of the Republican National Committee, you were among those who supported an effort to ensure that candidates who receive financial support from the Republican National Committee adhere to a core set of principles. Explain why you wanted to do that and what has happened with that.

Scheffler: Well, first of all, unfortunately it was dubbed -- or it was tarred and feathered by the press as being a purity test. And I think a lot of us were concerned about the -- people like DeeDee from New York 23 who basically took a quarter of a million dollars from the RNC and then basically dropped out of the race and endorsed a Democrat. It's not that we're trying to read anybody out of the party. If you look at the ten issues that were on there, even most moderate liberal Republicans could pass that test with ten out of ten. Scott Brown certainly did. So I think there just was a concern among activists that our party is funding a very, very small minority of people like the DeeDees and like the Jim Jeffers and so forth. I think it was totally misread by the press. Of course, that isn't one that passed. There was an alternative one that was passed that basically said that we want the chairman of the Republican Party to vet these candidates and to make sure to the best of his or her ability that they line up with the principles laid out in the 2008 Republican Party platform.

Borg: That will have to be the last word. We're out of time. Thank you, Mr. Gross and Mr. Scheffler, for being with us today. Well, that's it for this weekend's edition of Iowa Press. I hope you'll watch next weekend, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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