Politics & Policy

Iowa Divided

It’s daggers drawn between the center-right governor and the libertarian leaders of the state party.

Des Moines, Iowa — The front line of the Republican civil war may be Grand Avenue, a hilly road that cuts through the heart of Iowa’s biggest city.

On one side of the street is the gold-domed state capitol, home to Republican Terry Branstad, Iowa’s longest-serving governor. On the other side is a weathered brick building housing the Iowa GOP, which is chaired by A. J. Spiker and David Fischer. Both men are faithful allies of Ron Paul, the retired Texas congressman who twice ran for the Republican presidential nomination.

These days, relations between the two camps are as messy as eating a deep-fried Snickers bar at the Iowa state fair. Iowa Republicans increasingly find themselves either part of Big Liberty, the libertarian bloc led by Spiker and Fischer, or members of Branstad’s center-right circle.

Confidants of both groups say the tensions have nearly crippled the party, which is known for hosting the Iowa Republican caucuses. Branstad doesn’t trust the co-chairmen, and the co-chairmen don’t trust the governor. Behind the scenes, they quarrel constantly over cash and politics, and many veteran Iowa Republicans fear the infighting will embarrass them, especially as presidential contenders start to fly in for appearances.

“It’s a pretty bad situation,” says Bob Haus, an Iowa-based Republican consultant. “They’ve been at loggerheads for over a year. Traditionally, sitting governors enjoy collegiality with their party and work together to achieve important goals, but none of that has happened here. They’re not coordinating much of anything, from fundraising to strategy.”

“If you’re a Branstad person, you’re donating to Branstad’s expected 2014 reelection campaign; you’re not donating to the party,” explains an Iowa Republican insider. “If you’re a Ron Paul supporter or an anti-establishment Republican, you’re donating to what should be the establishment, the state party, which is controlled almost entirely by your friends. That’s where we stand. The lines are drawn, and they’re unlikely to go away.”

Sources who work within the state GOP say the co-chairmen are furious; they believe that Branstad is maneuvering to put his associates on the state committee and, in the meantime, keep donors away. Branstad’s crew says the governor is angry about rumors of plans to kick members of his administration off next year’s Republican ticket.

Hostility over the emerging 2016 Republican presidential field is another cloud that hangs over the cornfields. “All we hear is that the party has become a conspiracy to help Rand Paul get elected president,” says an operative who works with Spiker and Fischer. “It really pisses us off. Some of us may like Rand, but we’re not going to ruin the caucuses and our reputations to do that.”

Spiker was elected chairman in February 2012, soon after the 2012 Iowa caucuses, which were a disaster for the state party. Rick Santorum won the contest by a hair, but Mitt Romney was declared the winner by party chairman Matt Strawn. After that episode, Strawn left his post, creating an opening.

Spiker, who had a sprawling network from working for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, jumped in and promptly won the chairmanship, upsetting Branstad’s pick, Bill Schickel. A year later he was reelected, and tapped Fischer to assist him.

In an interview at the state capitol, Branstad acknowledges the rift, and worries about the direction of the state GOP. “There is some concern that you have one faction, and the party should be there to support everybody, all the candidates,” he says. “I’m a big-tent Republican. I want to include everybody, but we have some people who don’t.”

Branstad says the Spiker-Fischer coalition focuses too much on purifying the ranks rather than building the party’s numbers, both in the legislature and at the bank. Their efforts, he argues, have turned the party away from the successful model established by Branstad himself and longtime Republican senator Chuck Grassley over the past four decades.

“When I started in politics,” Branstad recalls, “it was the moderates who controlled everything, and I was the conservative. But my approach wasn’t to throw them all out. Instead, I said, ‘I want you to stay.’”

Fischer, in an interview at his office, pushes back hard against Branstad’s analysis. “I resent being pigeonholed as someone who only supports Ron Paul,” he tells me. “Now, Ron Paul is a good friend of mine and remains a good friend, and I support him without reservation. But I was an Iowa Republican long before Ron Paul ran for president.”

“People can say whatever they want, but I’m happy with what we’ve done with the party,” Fischer continues. “We’ve unapologetically worked with the grassroots to advance our founding principles. That’s our job description. I didn’t run to be a leader of this party just so I could be a cheerleader for anybody who happens to hang an ‘R’ behind their name.”

A breaking point came earlier this year when the Republican-controlled state legislature was debating a new gas tax. Branstad was open to the tax, and didn’t expect the state party’s officials to weigh in on policy matters. When Spiker did, sending warning letters to Republican lawmakers, Branstad and his advisers effectively decided to cut ties.

There has also been continued warring over the future of the Ames straw poll for Republican presidential candidates, a major party fundraiser every four years. Wannabe presidents gather in a parking lot at Iowa State University, cook hot dogs, serve funnel cake, and shake hands. Branstad wants to end the tradition, but Spiker and Fischer want to keep it going, and perhaps even expand it.

“It’s the most fun you can have in politics and a boost to our party,” Fischer says. “I don’t understand why some people want to kill it, or say it’s lost its usefulness. It’s still a wonderful way to unite the party and meet the candidates.”

When I mention the Spiker-Fischer team’s love for the straw poll, Branstad rolls his eyes. “It’s a costly circus, a fundraising gimmick for the state party,” he says. “Straw polls are not reliable indicators of who’s going to have the ability to win the caucuses, so it’s usually a waste of time. I want to protect the integrity of the caucuses, not the straw poll.”

The upcoming Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Tom Harkin, who has announced that he is retiring at the end of this term, is the latest area of contention. Branstad was hoping that his lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, would run, but the co-chairmen weren’t enthusiastic, and she ultimately decided to sit out the campaign. The primary has since become crowded, and there’s buzz that Fischer or another Paul-aligned leader will run.

It’s very possible that Branstad World could lose that battle. Per party rules, if no candidate gets more than 35 percent in a primary, the nomination is thrown to a convention. Spiker and Fischer would wield enormous influence over that process. Branstad may be the state’s top Republican, but he doesn’t control the party.

And so it goes. Republicans may come here from far and wide, but up on Grand Avenue, they’re reluctant to cross the street.

— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.


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