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Republican Party Politics in Iowa

posted on December 23, 2011

Considering possibilities.  Iowa republicans evaluating presidential candidates, not only who is most conservative, but who can actually win the White House.  A conversation with two republican activists, Attorney Doug Gross and Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: In just a little more than a week Iowa republicans will be launching the presidential candidate selection process.  Other than just the past few days campaigning in Iowa markedly differs this year from how republicans four years ago were campaigning for the party's presidential nomination.  But with the January 3rd caucuses coming right on the heels now of Christmas and New Years holidays the statewide bus tours and small town campaigning are now in full force this past week.  We have invited two republican activists, Des Moines Attorney and former republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Gross and Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler who also is the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.  Both of you welcome back to Iowa Press.

Gross: Good to be with you.

Scheffler: Thank you, good to be here.

Borg: And 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.  As Dean mentioned in his introduction we've seen a lot fewer campaign days by presidential candidates in this election cycle and compared to previous election cycles.  Some suggest that a part of the reason for that is the Republican Party has drifted so far to the right that a lot of candidates feel free to either downplay or skip the caucuses.  Is there anything to that?

Gross: Well, I think most importantly, Mike, the reason why we have had a different caucus cycle this time is the debates that they've had.  They've had a number of debates, thirteen I believe, nationally televised, well watched by republican caucus goers throughout the country so it nationalized the campaign in many respects.  It used to be the Iowa numbers, the poll numbers were different than the national numbers, this time they track, largely because it's been a nationalized campaign.  So, you can be in Virginia at a press conference have impact on Iowa.  That is what has changed this time.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, the same question to you.  Is there anything to that argument that the party has moved far enough to the right the candidates are either discounting or skipping past Iowa?

Scheffler: I would agree with Doug.  I think it has become much more of a nationalized campaign but by the same token I think that people still expect to see their candidates in person pressing the flesh, talking to them in small groups, one-on-one and quite frankly those candidates that have spent the most time here will help them marginally with results I think on caucus night.

Glover: What is the condition of the Republican Party in Iowa, Mr. Scheffler?  You're a national committeeman.

Scheffler: I would say it has greatly improved in the last two years under Matt Strawn's leadership.  Before that the party was kind of drifting and not in any disregard to what former chairs did but Matt Strawn is very focused in terms of identifying like-minded independents and being very focused in his message.  So, Matt has done a tremendous job of bringing the party basically from ashes to where it is today and making it very competitive for us to win elections in the coming cycle.

Glover: Mr. Gross, same question to you.  Give me your assessment of the condition of the Republican Party.  You're a former gubernatorial candidate ...

Gross: Unsuccessful, remember that.  I'm reminded of that every day.

Glover: What is the condition of the party?

Gross: Better than it was.  I was here four years ago and I think I talked about the fact that we had some real problems with the party.  Our registration numbers are up.  We have a party base that is I think enthused and excited and just having a caucus campaign tends to help your party because it helps you raise money, recruit volunteers and organize the party in a way that is focused on the next election.  So, the Republican Party isn't great but it is much better than it was.

Henderson: Several of the candidates spent the past week leading up to this holiday break in Iowa campaigning, notable among them Ron Paul who attracted huge crowds wherever he went.  Mr. Scheffler, will the value of a caucus victory be the same if Ron Paul wins versus another candidate winning?

Scheffler: Well, you know, I think Ron Paul has brought a lot of new faces to the party and to the process and, of course, I think that whether it was Pat Robertson back in '88 or Pat Buchanan or Phil Graham or whatever there's new people that bring new people into the process and I certainly welcome that.  So, and he spent a lot of time here in Iowa so I don't know whether he'll come in first, second or third but I don't think his involvement and whatever his standing is initially on caucus night devalues the caucuses at all because he has done his homework, he has got a good staff here too.

Henderson: Mr. Gross ...

Gross: I'd be happy to comment about that.  I think it's dangerous for the Republican Party.  I worry about the fact that he is likely to win the caucuses.

Glover: Is he likely to win the caucuses?

Gross: As of today he is, yes.  He is ahead in the polls and he's got a more organized base than anyone else.  The other candidates really did not do a lot of the basic organization we've seen otherwise so he is likely to meet his numbers in the polls while the other ones will likely underperform.

Borg: Does that worry you? 

Gross: Well, it worries me when you have a potential, somebody come out of Iowa who has said that Ronald Reagan's policies were disastrous, who has had racist newsletters that at one point he talked about and another point he disavows, when we have a candidate who disavows the notion that Iran is a significant threat to our country and to Israel, when he blames the United States for, at least partially, for 9/11, that is a dangerous candidate and Iowans should not suggest to the rest of the country that that's who we would suggest be the next President of the United States.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, do you share those fears?

Scheffler: Well, certainly I would agree with Ron Paul and his views on some of his economic policies in terms of getting our debt under control but I, like a lot of people, am concerned about his foreign policy views, especially his response to a question at the debate in Sioux City about if it was proven that Iran had nuclear weapons what would your attitude be and also I think what concerns me is maybe some of his more libertarian views on social issues.  So, there's parts of it that I agree with him but there's other parts I don't.  But, you know, you have to give Ron Paul credit that he is a statesman, I think he is the man who he is, he's not going to tell you something today and something tomorrow.  So, in that respect he is very constant and very consistent.

Borg: Mr. Gross, I'd like to go back to the statement you made just a moment ago in answering Mike's question.  You said, the condition of the Iowa republican party, I wrote it down, isn't great but it is better than it was.  What isn't great about it?

Gross: Oh, we still are very much a divided party in many respects and you see that with what happened during the course of these caucuses.  We had very few candidates in the caucuses who you would call sort of establishment type figures, they were all very much to the right on social issues, almost every one of them was.  We have a division in the party, it's very serious between the social conservatives and the economic conservatives but we need both in order to win.  And I'm just hoping that these caucuses don't accentuate this rift but actually helps heal it.

Borg: Well, that takes me to a question.  Do you think that the Iowa caucuses, republican caucus this time, usually they winnow candidates.  Do you think that that will happen this time or will candidates come out of Iowa actually not affected by what happened in Iowa because of what you say the condition of the party is?

Gross: I'm concerned if Ron Paul wins here we look extraneous because we're nominating or recommending to the rest of the country an extremist and no one wants an extremist as President of the United States.  I think the key will be what happens after Ron Paul in terms of the top three.  Right now it's probably Gingrich and Romney that we're looking at in terms of those next two.  I think it will be very important for those two candidates to be in the top three because Romney then can go to New Hampshire, potentially win New Hampshire.  Gingrich can go to South Carolina, win South Carolina, sets up Florida as the be all end all for the republican candidacy.  So, as a result Iowa still plays an important role.

Glover: Mr. Gross, I'd like you to look at an issue that is bubbling around in the news and that is the role of a former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats and his relationship with the campaign of Rick Santorum who he has endorsed.  What is your comment about his activities there?  Do you see a problem?

Gross: I don't personally have the information, Mike, associated with what exactly was done.  I have read the news reports associated with it and it looks troubling and troubling in the sense that Rick Santorum said that they talked about money and he raises the issue of money in return for an endorsement.  Now, he said it wasn't specifically said that way but instead that what they talked about was the need for money in order to help promote the endorsement.  Whatever, it looks troubling.  And more importantly than that I think, Mike, is what has happened as a result of the social conservatives in the course of the caucuses, they have been divided.  The Family Leader could not endorse anyone and as a result of that they are splintered and they are likely, Dean, this time to have much less impact than they did four years ago.

Glover: Does that impact the caucuses themselves?  Is this just another example of an Iowan coming out with his hand out to presidential candidates trying to make a buck off of them?

Gross: What I think we've got going is Bob is very much interested in his own future candidacy, for some particular higher office.  He has run three times so I think there's a pattern here that is developing and it appears that he wants to run again I suspect.  And any time Bob can help try to promote himself I think he attempts to do that and I think what he was trying to do is get himself in a position where he could play a prominent role to help promote himself for future candidacy.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, do you find that whole episode troubling assuming that the reports we've seen about it are accurate?

Scheffler: Well, naturally I'm concerned about what the reports might contain or not contain.  Certainly Bob is free to do what he wants to do as far as I'm concerned.  My part, you know, I and the organization I work for decided not to endorse anybody and part of that was based on the fact that a lot of these candidates are saying the same thing on several issues and quite frankly the thing that I have learned through, as a staffer for three different presidential campaigns there may be an agreement on most issues but at the end of the day whether people are social conservatives or economic conservatives they would like to make their own decision who they support and so I think an endorsement can actually cause some divisions that don't need to be there and so I just think it's something better to stay away from.

Henderson: Has that happened in this particular case?

Scheffler: Well, I think there's probably some people that support Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry that are probably not very happy with this decision and of course there's also a little bit troubling, you know, the reports that some campaigns like Michele Bachmann's campaign was asked to basically kind of fold in or whatever the terminology was used and quite frankly I think in a process where these candidates have spent a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of energy to ask a candidate to fold their efforts into another campaign is just not the way we do things here in Iowa.

Glover: Have you considered doing what he did?  His organization did not do an endorsement but he did personally.  You mentioned your organization has chosen not to endorse but you're an influential Iowa republican.  Have you considered endorsing a candidate?

Scheffler: I mean, I certainly have got my own thoughts of who the best candidates are but I can tell you with a straight face that I have not totally settled on who my candidate is ...

Glover: But you're going to go to the caucus and you're going to caucus for somebody.

Scheffler: Well, correct but that is going to be a secret ballot and quite frankly ...

Gross: You aren't going to tell us who it's going to be.

Scheffler: Quite frankly, you know, with the role that I play with IFFC and also the role that I play as a national committeeman I think it is best that I stay out of that process and basically encourage candidates to speak on issues but to stay out of it.

Henderson: The other rap on Iowa is the August straw poll, people see it as a pay to play episode again.  Mr. Gross, do you think the party should stop having that straw poll?

Gross: I think it's probably history.  I think because of what we saw this time where Bachmann won and immediately went to the bottom of the pack reflected the fact that it wasn't necessary in order to win the Iowa caucuses so I think you'll see more and more candidates not play there.  You had Tim Pawlenty who put all in for the straw poll and now wishes, I'm sure, he'd have never gotten out of the race because he could have been very competitive at this point.  So, I really think it's probably history.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler, you are the republican national committeeman, you're part of the decision making body for the republican party of Iowa.  What is that group thinking about the next go around, the next straw poll?  Did they see this past straw poll as a positive or a negative?

Scheffler: I think they saw it as a positive.  You know, I think it basically tests a candidate's organizational strength so I think there's still some validity to it plus it brings focus to Iowa.  So, I mean, I still think it's a useful process and I think that we'll see that that event takes place again hopefully eight years from now, not four years from now but I think at the very least it shows a candidate's ability to organize to go to the next step.

Henderson: But what about the specter of money?

Scheffler: Well, the specter of money if you look at the access that all of these candidates had, the 30,000, 35,000 people at the caucuses and stuff, what they spent at a straw poll is miniscule compared to what they spent on TV ads and everything so I think it's a good thing for Iowa.

Borg: You said earlier that, and agree with Mr. Gross, about the campaign has been nationalized because of the debates.  Sitting on the national committee like you do is that part of a grand plan to appease some of the other states who were complaining about Iowa's earlier influence in selecting a candidate and so we more nationalized the campaign this time?  Was that part of the grand plan or was it just coincidence?

Scheffler: I don't understand your question, Dean.

Borg: Well, in other words, was there some strategy in saying we're going to take the emphasis off Iowa this time, yes they can still go first along with New Hampshire, but we're going to nationalize the campaign and the candidates then will be traveling around the country and appearing nationally on debates rather than spending all the time in Iowa and having all the news come out of Iowa and what they're saying in Forest City and Garner and Mount Pleasant?

Scheffler: That was never a part of the discussion.  I mean, when we put this process together a year ago August in terms of what states go first the process was put in place to try to pull out the process a little bit longer so that all the candidates could be vetted all across the country.  As you probably know there were four carve out states in the month of February and any states that went during the month of March that was a proportional take in terms of national convention delegates and then if you wanted to have a winner take all system you had to wait until the month of April.  So, our thought was pull the process out a bit longer, allow the candidates to be vetted and unfortunately some people in the republican national committee just don't have the will or the backbone to make these states say uncle in terms of the penalties that are imposed.  So, as an example the rules committee meeting that we had this last summer we decided not to have that conversation on additional penalties so nationalizing the debates was ...

Gross: Yeah, I didn't think it was a grand plan.  In fact, the chairman of the republican national committee attempted to limit the number of debates for that very reason and unfortunately the candidates didn't abide by his wishes.

Borg: Mr. Gross, I'd like you to look, the Iowa caucuses since 1976 have been run on the Jimmy Carter model which is the unknown comes to Iowa, does a whole bunch of one-on-one campaigning, meeting people face-to-face, surprises in Iowa, moves on to the nomination and the White House.  Is that model good?  I mean, you've talked about the increased use of television advertising, the increased role of debates, the increased role of other states, nationalizing the campaign.  Is the Jimmy Carter model all gone?

Gross: We also have lack of organization, Mike, to add to that.  We used to have much more focus on organization, much more focus on living room style campaigns, community center type campaigns and we have much less of that now.  I'm afraid that a lot of it is, Mike, and I don't think it's for the good because as a result these candidates may get tested on the tarmac but they'll never get tested in the living rooms of Iowans and so they don't get questions they don't anticipate from people that are just, real people that are just wondering about things.  And we're losing a lot of that, Mike, and I think it's to the detriment of the country.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, same question to you.  Is that whole era of Jimmy Carter one-on-one, face-to-face politics a thing of the past?

Scheffler: I would hope not because as Doug said you need that personal contact and quite frankly after the four early states you get to states like Florida it's all going to be about big media buys and candidates are not going to be tested one-on-one to be asked the tough questions.  So, I still think there's a useful process and hopefully this is not the beginning of the end.

Glover: But is it in danger?

Scheffler: I mean, I think it is a little bit and quite frankly, as Doug said, I have worked on three caucus campaigns and I don't see any of the campaigns, except maybe Ron Paul's, that is organized near to the degree of the three that I worked on.  Actually 25 years ago I came on staff October 13, 1986 would be comparable to a year ago whatever so campaigns just don't have the staff and the resources on the ground like they used to and quite frankly it's very surprising since this is a wide open race.

Henderson: Here's the key question -- will Iowa be first ever again, Mr. Gross?

Gross: We certainly will on the democrat's side.  Barack Obama helped get the nomination because of what Iowa did, shot him to the front and obviously he can't, even if he wins he obviously can't succeed himself so they're going to have caucuses.  It's an open question I think with regard to republicans.  We almost lost it last time, Kay.  There were people within the highest levels in the republican party who are not interested in seeing Iowa go first last time and so I think it is at risk.

Henderson: As an insider, Mr. Scheffler, will Iowa be in danger next time around?

Scheffler: Let's put it this way, it's a big challenge.  The one thing that was a little bit of a shock to my system when I got on the RNC was they're basically trying to ward off the wolves every year, not every four years, states like Michigan and Florida, now you talk about Arizona that constantly are harping at why is Iowa first.  So it's a constant process of trying to make allies on the RNC and convincing them that there is validity to having our process start right here in Iowa.

Glover: Mr. Gross, I'd like you to look past the Iowa caucuses if you could, in fact look past the primary season and look at the general election.  Is Iowa a swing state this time around?  It was a very big swing state in the last election.  Is it going to be a swing state this time around or has the focus on the party's base put that in danger?

Gross: I think it's very much a swing state this time.  First of all, Iowa's economy is in relatively decent shape and we have republicans in control of the House and the republicans control the governorship and we have an increased number of registrations from last time.  So, as a result of that I think the Republican Party is in good, as I said before, much better shape than it was and so I think we'll be very much a swing state in the next presidential race.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, the same question to you.  Iowa has been historically a swing state, there are some who argue that because of the focus of the party's base during this primary season that will aid democrats.  President Obama has had a campaign up and running here for months, a general election campaign appealing to independents.

Scheffler: I think because the party is in much better shape that it is a swing state.  My only concern is if Mitt Romney is the nominee because he has not spent the time here like he should have or could have then he might find it a little bit more challenging than some of the other candidates to get the volunteers motivated to do the hard work it takes to carry this state.

Glover: But Mitt Romney is often considered the front runner for the republican nomination in some circles.  Has he run a smart campaign by putting less reliance on Iowa in the big picture?

Scheffler: I don't think so.  Mitt Romney just plain needs to be here more often.  He's been here what nine or ten days and quite frankly I know he is a known commodity but I still feel that four years has passed since he's been here last time and he needs to be here like every other candidate and be vetted by the voters.

Borg: But he got burned here last time ...

Gross: I think what you need to understand is our system ...

Glover: But isn't, Mr. Gross, isn't that a smart primary strategy overall?

Gross: His strategy is both smart and dumb.  It was smart at the beginning when he stayed out of the straw poll, he didn't need to expend resources for the straw poll, it's a very narrowly focused group of people and he was already well known and was perceived as a front runner.  What he should have done is right after the straw poll should have been out here in September and October and aggressively campaign.  Gingrich would have never gone up in the polls, he could have secured the nomination right here in Iowa and been very, very strong here but didn't do so.  He waited until Thanksgiving and I still think he can win it in Iowa.  In fact, today I think it's likely he would win it in Iowa because the other side is so divided, the social conservatives are so divided.  Those who don’t like him are incredibly divided.

Borg: What can he do in the next few days, just a little over a week?  Can he still do something?

Gross: Do what Steve says, be out here.  Iowans expect to see you.  If he wants to energize those 24% that were with him last time they need to see him and he needs to be here.

Glover: Put on your thinking cap, Mr. Gross, we'll start with you.  Who wins the Iowa caucuses?

Gross: Today or on January 3rd?  We have probably the most fluid race we've ever seen and that in large part is because there isn't organizational basis behind any of them except Ron Paul so this is hazardous to guess but right now it would be Ron Paul, I would suggest it would be Ron Paul.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, same question to you.  Who wins the Iowa caucuses today?

Scheffler: I'd hate to guess.  I mean, I'd hate to put any bets on this but I would guess it would probably be Ron Paul or Mitt Romney.

Henderson: Let's talk about the 2008 caucuses.  There were some questions about the legitimacy of the results and who actually finished second, I mean third and fourth, John McCain or Fred Thompson.  There were allegations that some of the precincts didn't actually announce their results.  Can you assure Iowans and the rest of the country that these caucus results on caucus night will be legit?

Scheffler: I think Matt Strawn with the republican party of Iowa has done an excellent job in terms of trying to make sure that that process is validated and that there's not going to be questions in minds of rational people that it was valid and I know there's also work going on behind the scenes to make sure that certain outside groups who might try to disrupt events will not be able to get by with doing their crazy thing.  So, I feel very confident that the results will be very well validated and will be in good shape.

Henderson: Mr. Gross, you've got hackers out there who might like to ...

Gross: We're still waiting for the real results from 1980 to come down ...

Glover: But doesn't that uncertainty have an impact on the role the caucuses play?

Gross: Sure, sure, we need to make certain that the integrity is unquestioned.  I think it is.  I think we've got security people, Department of Public Safety, intelligence folks working with Matt and Steve and his team.  I think the central committee and the staff of the Republican Party are doing an outstanding job.  I don't think there's any question about the integrity of the results.

Glover: Mr. Gross, let's look once again past the Iowa caucuses but let's focus on Iowa and the Iowa electorate.  There aren't a lot of high profile campaigns on the ballot next year in Iowa.  There's no statewide election.  A couple of congressional races may be competitive, maybe just one competitive.  How do you keep activists engaged after the caucuses?

Gross: I think Christie Vilsack won't have any trouble keeping activists engaged in northwest Iowa which is where it's very important to be a large republican base turnout.  So, the irony of this is the fact that they got Christie to run against Steve King who actually energized a lot of the republican base.  Then you've got the Boswell-Latham race which, again, will energize a lot of republicans in, again, a republican area of the state.  So, I think we'll have a very, very good turnout.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, the same question to you.  Once you get past January 3rd, the Iowa caucuses are history, there's no high profile statewide election on the ballot, just a couple of congressional elections that may be competitive.  How do you keep activists engaged?

Scheffler: Like Doug said, that race in southwest Iowa is going to be very competitive and I wouldn't count out the second congressional district where Loebsack has at least a couple very strong, very competent competitors that are running in the republican primary and then if you look at the ___ that is going to take place for control of the state Senate knowing that a lot of good legislation that passed in the House was stopped in the Senate so there's going to be a lot, a lot of competitive races, maybe not a U.S. Senate race, maybe not the gubernatorial race but certainly a lot of others are going to keep people active but not to discount the presidential race that will be very competitive here too.

Henderson: Let's talk about those legislative races.  How hot is that going to get?

Scheffler: Well, you look at new lines were drawn, I think probably the new lines are drawn probably helped the republicans marginally.  You look at several races around the state and I think the republicans have a real good opportunity as long as we're well funded and well organized to take back the state Senate so it's going to be a very ...

Glover: Mr. Gross, the Senate is 26-24 right now after the special election up in Marion.  Is the Senate the only part of the legislature that is in play?  The republicans have the House 60-40, realistically that's not in play is it?

Gross: I really don't think it is, Mike.  Obviously the democrats are going to try to recruit candidates, we're a competitive two party state but if you look at the numbers at worse they're probably 55, 56 republicans, the Senate is where it's at.  That will be a pitch battle and I think you'd have to favor the republicans right now in the Iowa Senate.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, same question to you.  Is the Senate what is really in play and the House is pretty much safe to the republicans?

Scheffler: Yeah, I mean, I would be very happy to keep 60 seats and I wouldn't discount we could even maybe pick up a couple but certainly I don't think we're going to go below 55 or 56 and I think the Senate is what is in play and I think we will pick it up.

Borg: Let's go back to something you said about the danger of Ron Paul winning the caucuses.  Is there anything -- Iowa republicans, Steve Scheffler, I think he sort of agreed with that, that the integrity of the Iowa caucuses could be damaged.  Should Iowa republicans be endorsing and how much weight would an endorsement by anyone mean?  The past endorsements, have they meant anything at all and could a future endorsement by Governor Branstad or someone else ...

Gross: I don't think endorsements -- I agree with Steve entirely on that. I don't think endorsements have a lot of impact.  I still remember the cartoon of Bob Ray riding the Howard Baker bandwagon.  Ray was and is an enormously powerful political figure in this state so I think they have limited impact.

Henderson: Mr. Gross, when House Speaker Kraig Paulsen endorsed Newt Gingrich this past week he said he saw an intensity of purpose in Terry E. Branstad in this past year that he hadn't witnessed before and that was why he endorsed Gingrich.  Have you seen an intensity of purpose?  You were an insider, now you're an outsider.  What do you make of Terry Branstad's first year in office?

Gross: I think he set the stage to do some great things.  They're not done yet but I think he set the stage.

Henderson: Is he a different kind of person, or different kind of governor?

Gross: A different kind of governor, oh yeah, absolutely.

Henderson: How so?

Gross: Well, he's older.  But he is more focused and he's there for a purpose, he's not there, despite what Bob Dole says, he's not there to run for vice president or any kind of higher office, he's there to do some things.  The first year he wanted to balance the budget, get it fixed, he did, now the question is can he do more.

Glover: Does he run again?

Gross: I think so.

Glover: Mr. Scheffler, does he run again?

Scheffler: I think so.  He's a relatively young man yet, he's what, 65 years old. 

Gross: Sounds younger all the time.

Borg: Time overtakes us here too and we're out of it right now.  Thank you Mr. Scheffler and Mr. Gross for being with us today.  Next week on Iowa Press we'll be convening Iowa and national political journalists for our conversation on what they have been seeing and hearing as they are covering the pre-caucus campaigning in Iowa.  A reporters' roundtable next weekend, same times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.  In whatever way you are celebrating the holidays, best wishes from all of us here at Iowa Public Television.


Tags: campaign 2012 Doug Gross government Iowa news Republicans Steve Scheffler