Which way will the Republican Party go in 2012? Keep an eye on Iowa.
An internecine battle is brewing among Iowa Republicans. Some want their candidates — both state and federal — to double down on social issues while others put their money on the economy. Because all the party’s presidential candidates must pass through Iowa first on the way to the 2012 nomination, the argument today over the future of the Republican Party is centered in Iowa.
The personalities in the 2012 presidential nomination and the 2010 gubernatorial contest are yet to be fully cast although likely candidates are emerging. Should an Iowa conservative like Sioux City business consultant Bob Vander Plaats or U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, win the party’s nomination for governor, then the stage would seem to be set for a socially conservative presidential candidate, such as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Palin drew the largest crowds of any Republican in the 2008 presidential race in Iowa and Huckabee won the caucuses.
But if a more moderate messenger comes out of what may be a large Republican field for governor in 2010, then it may signal a shift in the party here that could clear the way for a socially moderate presidential candidate with a strong economic message — perhaps Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican who holds traditional GOP positions on abortion and taxes, for example, but supports civil unions for gay couples and has angered conservatives with environmental positioning. (Huntsman recently accepted President Obama’s appointment to be ambassador of China, a move that takes him out of the domestic political scene for the time being.)
“This is really a turning point for Republicans and the conservative movement,” says Tim Albrecht, an Iowa Republican strategist who operates The Bean Walker.com, a conservative Web site The Washington Post ranks among the best in the Hawkeye State. Albrecht, who was Mitt Romney’s communications director in Iowa during the former Massachusetts governor’s presidential run, says “there’s a new guard that’s emerging” for the GOP.
“Barack Obama was a real unknown,” says Russ Cross, who was the Story County Republican chairman during the 2008 cycle. “A lot of people didn’t think he (Obama) would make it all the way.” Cross, an executive with Wells Fargo who lives in the central Iowa city of Ames, is urging his party to make the economy its primary selling point. “I think the party’s focus ought to be on the economy, creating jobs, government financial responsibility,” Cross said.
Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Gross, a prominent Des Moines attorney who is a native of the rural Western Iowa town of Defiance, commissioned a study he says shows that Iowans are now more concerned about the economy than social issues , such as gay marriage.
David Oman, who served as co-chair of the Iowa Republican Party from 1985 to 1993 and was a candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1998, is among those veteran politicos in his party urging a primacy of economics over fire-breathing rhetoric with a right-wing social agenda that alienates independents, moderates and conservative Democrats. “I would come down on the side of suggesting we have to rally Republicans on core principles of limited government and sanity when it comes to spending and individual responsibility and freedom and growth,” Oman said.
Some Iowa conservatives agree with this. Cedar Rapids businessman Tim Palmer, chairman of the Linn County Republican Party, is passionate about social issues, and has the Web log HawkeyeReview.com to back it up. “I’m also a county chair who realizes I can’t wear that as my first issue,” Palmer said.
Meanwhile, conservatives like Vander Plaats, the only candidate to announce a run for governor, plan on making the Iowa Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing gay marriage central to their campaigns. Vander Plaats and other conservatives argue that they talk about the economy and want limited government, too, but that issues like gay marriage afford voters a revelation of character.
The Republican Party is deciding what it wants to be, and the 2010 Iowa governor’s race will be an important milestone in that process. If the the socially-conservative Vander Plaats-King crowd prevails, the Republican presidential nomination will begin with a debate over social issues. Should the Gross-Oman camp, or even a conservative with some moderate instincts, win the party’s GOP nomination for governor, Iowa, then the national party could have a different future.
Either way, the vast stretches of heavily Republican rural western Iowa will have an outsized voice in the future, and perhaps viability, of the party for the next generation.