The Big Story: Iowa’s Cold War

Mushroom CloudBy Bob Eschliman


For Iowa Republicans, 2014 was certainly a year of highs and lows. It started with delegate stacking and a retaking of the reins of party leadership by the Gov. Terry Branstad-led establishment, and it ended with a thorough trouncing of Democrats in many statewide races.

Winning, the old adage goes, heals all things. Except, in the case of the Republican Party of Iowa, it hasn’t. The establishment of the party continues to forge ahead with unpopular gas tax increase proposals, increased spending, and “tax reform” measures that shift financial responsibility to cities and counties in the form of unfunded mandates.

It may not be the “hot war” we saw from 2010 to 2014, but the cold war between the party establishment and core components of its base – Christians, conservatives, the liberty movement, and tea party groups – rages on. Just ask those who have been in the crosshairs.

Shawn Dietz, who was the Republican candidate for Iowa Senate District 27, worked hard to help the GOP secure a 26-seat majority in the Iowa Senate. And, shortly after his win the June 2014 primary, he seemed to have the full support of the party.

But things changed quickly.

“I met with a prominent GOP senator after I won my primary, and he told me that my race was a targeted seat for Republicans and that they wanted very badly to oust my three-term incumbent opponent,” he said. “Fast forward just under three months, at a campaign fundraiser on Sunday, Aug. 31, I was told by the same prominent GOP senator basically that ‘difficult decisions had to be made,’ and unfortunately the ‘numbers for your race aren’t where we would like them to be,’ but due to campaign finance rules about how that polling was done he could not give me any further information on the polling and really didn’t feel comfortable even telling me that they had done polling.”

“He thought I should know that they were confident that they saw a ‘path to 26’ without me,” he said. “So, they were taking me out of the [Iowa GOP Senate Majority Fund] paid media program after already spending nearly $5,000 on shooting TV spots that never were never produced, let alone aired.”

Dietz said he was told “things were happening behind the scenes” to help his campaign. He said he was aware of someone who came door-knocking on his behalf a couple of times, but didn’t see or hear about any other assistance.

“All of the endorsements I received came out of my own campaign, appearances were organized by either my campaign or the Cerro Gordo County GOP,” he said. “Rand [Paul]’s and [Rick] Perry’s endorsements came following Cerro Gordo County GOP appearances; I set up the endorsements myself.”

Dietz said state Sen. Dennis Guth was by far his biggest supporter among the existing Republican senators at the time, making numerous appearances and personal donations, while taking part in parades and door-knocking efforts. Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix also made two appearances, along with state Sens. Jack Whitver and Brad Zaun, who each came up once from central Iowa.

“All lined up by me, my campaign, or local GOP central committees,” he said. “I had an event with [U.S. Sen. Chuck] Grassley that I lined up myself.”

Dietz said Branstad had four campaign stops in his county, but he was only informed of two of them. He said the governor shook his hand, but refused to speak with him on both occasions.

“His staff handed me a script to introduce the lieutenant governor at the last one,” he said.

Dietz said he had enough conversations with existing Senate Republicans to know he would have been welcomed “with open arms” had he been elected. But with the Iowa GOP Senate Majority Fund – a division of the Republican Party of Iowa – refusing to butt heads with Branstad, money that could have gone to help his campaign, where Republicans outnumbered Democrats by a sizable number, went instead “to play defense” in heavily Democratic districts.

“[T]hey never attempted to win my seat. That’s obvious,” he said. “I was able to win 44 percent in my district with effectively zero help from my state party, though the local committees went above and beyond.”

Dietz made personhood a central theme of his campaign, often framing it in the context of a Republican majority in both chambers, usually garnering tremendous applause from audiences. He also championed the elimination of the income tax, and examining the state’s road funding formula – as has already been proposed by state Rep. Steve Holt (R-Denison) – rather than raising taxes or using surplus funds.

He said he doesn’t think Branstad wanted a Senate majority. He said there’s a “clear and distinct disconnect” between the governor’s agenda and that of current GOP senators.

“Early on, a member of GOP leadership told me and about four people who showed up at a Saturday-morning coffee that he didn’t think the governor wanted a Senate majority,” he added. “As he explained, he recalled how in the past [Branstad] had full control of both chambers and he didn’t like it because the bills that would get delivered to his desk were too conservative.”

John Thompson, an early candidate for Treasurer of State, has a darker story of in-party sabotage to tell. The military combat veteran said he harbored no illusions about his potential against incumbent Democrat Michael Fitzgerald, but wanted to put forth a strong, conservative message in the General Election.

He also had a past, as many who enter politics do. But, it was a past he had been honest about in his dealings with others.

“I had talked about that with The Iowa Republican months beforehand and told them it would be spun against me and if I took the nomination I would need help to push back and The Iowa Republican instead waited until right before the convention to use it to ambush me,” he said. “It was 48 hours before the convention.”

Thompson is certain the attacks on him were launched by party insiders who didn’t like his close association with the liberty movement. He believes it was meant to be part of a bigger agenda to create friction between members of the liberty movement and Christians and tea party conservatives.

Enter Dr. Sam Clovis, the then-former U.S. Senate candidate and would-be Treasurer of State candidate.

“I was literally hanging up from a phone call with John, at a meeting in Newton … when I got a call from a supporter in Davenport,” he said. “He said The Iowa Republican had a story pushing Sam Clovis For Treasurer.”

Clovis said he hadn’t given a run for Treasurer serious thought until then. He said he spoke with friends and supporters, and ultimately decided it would be most helpful to party unity if he ran. His overriding goal, he said, was to make U.S. Sen. Harry Reid the Senate Minority Leader.

“[Republican Party of Iowa Co-Chairman] Cody Hoefert talked with me and said the party leadership would really like me to run, because they thought it would help get out the votes, and help Joni [Ernst] get elected,” he said. “I said I would have to talk with the governor about it, because I wasn’t going to do it unless I had his support. So, I talked with the governor and lieutenant governor, and they said they were excited I might consider.”

Thompson and Clovis, who had been friends before the convention, talked it over between themselves, as well. Thompson said Clovis called him to discuss how to “play their hand.” Thompson served as political director on Clovis’ campaign.

“Sam had a grassroots network and far right constituency, people who were mad he lost and would stay home after Joni won,” Thompson said. “After Sam joined the ticket, it gave them a reason to come out and vote for Sam … and Joni while they were at it.”

Clovis said he had run “the perfect campaign” in his senatorial primary run, and ran his war chest down to less than $300 on Election Day. He immediately went back to work, fundraising, for the five-month run to the General Election.

“We got a good start raising money, but it was a very different story when nothing was coming in with four weeks to go before the election,” he said. “The problem was, with all of the federal races, and the $4.5 million Governor Branstad raised for his campaign, there wasn’t any money left to be had.”

Clovis said he remains “objective and philosophical” about what happened. He said none of the candidates at the top of the ballot had coattails for anyone down ballot. But, it was a “strong ticket,” he said.

He noted that after The Iowa Republican’s article, Thompson had become “damaged goods.” Having him remain on the Republican ticket was seen by the party establishment as something that might detract from the strength of the ticket.

“I think disdain is a better word to describe it,” he said, when asked if the GOP establishment in Iowa was hostile to the party base. “There are many people who just don’t understand why we’re so firmly tied to principle.”

Clovis said the establishment isn’t necessarily against issues like life and marriage, but they see them as issues to avoid. The bigger disconnect, he said, is on issues like immigration, tax reform, having a constitutional view of government, and wanting to limit the influence of special interests.

“The most resistance I ever got from the establishment was on my virulent opposition to ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ and my outspoken views on special interests,” he said. “They just couldn’t see why I was so opposed to it.”

Without an opportunity to create friction between liberty and social conservatives right after the convention, the ouster of then-RPI Chairman Danny Carroll became an even more unifying event for the base of the party. Those bonds are still relatively weak and untested, which may explain a new round of establishment attacks on the party base.

“Many members of the liberty movement felt like Danny Carroll was a great chairman and personally I liked Danny as well,” Liberty Iowa executive director Adil Khan said. “When he was pushed out, it amplified the growing issue.”

Khan was upset about a recent article that portrayed former RPI Chairman AJ Spiker, a member of the liberty movement who is now working for Rand Paul’s political action committee, as a problem for the Kentucky senator’s probable presidential campaign. He said the article inaccurately depicted division within the liberty movement.

“While on tour for our Audit the Fed rallies we had across the state, I asked countless activists and former liberty state central committee members who felt AJ did a good job doing the mandate that was given to him by the grassroots: enforcing Republican principles,” he said. “Then it seemed like they were deliberately trying to re-ignite issues that are no longer important while cherry picking quotes from the one member on the state central committee who was part of the liberty slate who has had outspoken personal disagreements with AJ.”

Khan said that as the liberty movement has grown, the tactics have changed to match. In 2008, the establishment fought back by completely ignoring the movement. Four years later, however, the establishment marginalized liberty conservatives, he said.

“Now it seems like the establishment can’t marginalize a growing movement that has made inroads with coalitions in the state, so now it seems like they are creating and magnifying dissent among the movement to try and create in-fighting,” he said. “The most direct attack could be seen when social and liberty conservatives controlled the Iowa GOP and establishment figures went out of their way to tell donors to stop donating to the Republican Party. Then, the governor came out organizing against the grassroots to stack delegates with establishment loyalists.”

Khan said he thinks the establishment sees the social, liberty and tea party conservatives as a threat, particularly when united as a well-organized coalition. He said they don’t like being called out for their support for increasing the gas tax, or when they go against Republican principles.

Clovis said conservatives who are able to argue their points and speak truth to power push establishment Republicans off their talking points. He said they cannot sustain their arguments, cannot engage in real discussion of issues, and fall into the same mode as many liberals and progressives, resorting to name-calling and personal attacks.

“I want those debates,” he said. “I’m still a Republican because I believe those debates are healthy and important. My intention is to hold everyone in the legislature and at Terrace Hill accountable for their actions and inactions.”

Among the “different stripes” of conservatism, Clovis said, there isn’t enough individual power to unseat the GOP establishment. That takes both people and money to accomplish, which can only happen, he added, when the different groups work together as a coalition.

“We have to step aside from the purity checks, and see where we can help each other,” he said. “We cannot allow the establishment of our own party – or the other party – to throw us a bone every once in a while and we just go away. They know they can get away with it. We just have to hold them accountable, and force both the establishment and the Democrats to defend more ground.”

Khan agreed that any future “takeover” of the party leadership needs to more closely resemble the broad coalition that took charge in 2012. To do that, the different groups must be prepared for the establishment attacks, as well.

“The liberty movement is just one of the many factions that have been under attack,” he said. “I think they will continue to disproportionately amplify dissent among the Christian conservative/liberty/tea party community. The establishment is very good at setting a narrative and using their network of consultants and allies to be an echo chamber for its talking points.”

Khan said “there is no question” the upcoming first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucus will be divisive. It is part of the nature of the caucus process. But, focusing on issues and principles, everyone agreed.

“When the grassroots focus more on the issues, personalities and petty attacks take a backseat,” Khan said. “Coalitions have continued to build up leading to 2012 and 2014, and Liberty Iowa worked with many tea party groups and social conservative groups to help fight back.”