Pairing of religious conservatism with fiscal sets Iowa tea partiers apart

Randy Millam, 52, was resolved to attend a protest rally on the University of Iowa campus where President Obama made a speech on health-care reform on March 25, 2010.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 12:10 AM

URBANDALE, IOWA - Every other week for the past two years, the Westside Conservative Club has met over breakfast at the Machine Shed restaurant to do what tea party groups do: share worries about President Obama, federal spending and government overreach.

But unlike in many of those other groups, another kind of discussion regularly occurs here, too - the religious kind. Those who come for the conversation and the Shed's famous cinnamon buns are just as comfortable talking about their opposition to abortion as they are about federal bailouts and debt ceilings.

At last week's get-together, for instance, businesswoman LaDonna Gratias pulled aside the guest speaker, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), to praise him for likening abortion to slavery. "It's a good comparison," she told him.

Although that sort of mixing of fiscal and social conservatism may suit Iowans just fine, it represents a departure for the tea party movement that could threaten its brand and turn away voters who were drawn to its narrower message last year. With the political world focused on the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses for the next year, that could have a profound effect across the country on the tea party and the candidates courting it.

The movement is not as well-organized in Iowa as it is in other states. The national groups that have helped train, organize and fund tea party organizations across the country have less of a presence here, in part because their exclusive focus on free-market priorities puts them at odds with the evangelical movement that controls the state's Republican Party apparatus.

Sixty percent of GOP caucus-goers in the 2008 presidential election described themselves as evangelical Christians, and they were largely the reason Mike Huckabee won the state. If Huckabee enters the race this time, he will be widely viewed as an instant front-runner in Iowa - even though he increased taxes and spending as governor of Arkansas.

"We have a very different tea party," said Ryan Rhodes, founder of the Iowa Tea Party, which has organized rallies on the steps of the state Capitol in Des Moines. "We're not necessarily actively going out on certain things, but we have teamed up with like-minded people."

Gratias, a building contractor from nearby Clive, has attended several tea party rallies outside the state Capitol over the past two years - events that have focused exclusively on fiscal issues. But she is equally compelled, she said, by a candidate's views on social issues. "You'll have to be good in both areas to win Iowa this time," she said.

The state's particular dynamics present a challenge for Republican candidates, who must speak to both strands of the base without scaring off support in other states. Days after the Iowa caucuses, the nomination battle will move to New Hampshire, where voters are conservative on fiscal issues but fairly liberal on social matters.

Santorum, who has long emphasized social issues, met with a group of tea partyers in Davenport in December and spoke to the Urbandale club last week. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) recently sat down with a small group of activists in Des Moines. And Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) spoke to a fiscal watchdog organization the week before.

Gingrich, Santorum, Bachmann and the other politicians testing the waters in Iowa all use language designed for the times and the tea party. They talk about the spending cuts they supported in office, they tout limited government, and they decry the centralized policies that Obama is putting in place in Washington.

"I'm deeply committed to constitutional government," Gingrich said after a speech to a renewable-fuels conference in Des Moines last week. "I'm deeply committed to returning power from Washington to the state and the people thereof under the 10th Amendment."

There is little question that fiscal issues will play a greater role in Iowa than in past years. More than 50,000 voters have switched to Republican registration since 2008 - cutting by more than half the Democratic advantage that grew largely out of Obama's caucus win. Those voters are sure to participate in the Republican contest in droves next year.

"People right now are a lot more worried about just having a roof over their heads and jobs," said Edward D. Failor Jr., president of Iowans for Tax Relief, a fiscal watchdog of state government.

Home-schooling mom Kim Pearson of suburban Polk County didn't take much notice in 2008 of Huckabee's ample record of increasing state taxes and spending when he was governor of Arkansas. Like other Republican caucus-goers who catapulted Huckabee to victory, Pearson was charmed by the candidate's Christian faith and his stances on such social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Now, Pearson is a freshman member of the Iowa House - elected largely with tea party backing - who is pushing abortion restrictions and a ban on same-sex marriage through the state legislature.

She said she will look more closely at fiscal issues when making her presidential choice next year - though she didn't follow that template in her own election last year.

People told her that "the only thing people are interested in is spending," Pearson said. "And it wasn't true. I did not focus on fiscal issues. I think there's a misperception that you can only do one thing at a time."

Some groups that have traditionally stuck to social issues are also adopting a tea party refrain this year. The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and the Iowa Family Policy Center led efforts last fall to oust three state Supreme Court justices who had voted to block a state law banning same-sex marriage - in part on a tea party message that the justices had overreached their constitutional authority.

These groups and others are meeting with potential presidential contenders, scheduling forums and debates and even planning to endorse depending on where the candidates stand on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. Yet Bob Vander Plaats, who heads a new conservative organization called the Family Leader (and lost the Republican nomination for Iowa governor last year), calls himself a tea party leader.

In the wood-paneled back room of a pizza joint in Winterset last week, about 30 miles west of Des Moines, Vander Plaats invoked the unmistakable language of the tea party. He said that politicians will lose if they "overreach their constitutional authority." He said Iowans want a pro-family president who also takes the right positions on states' rights, the Constitution and the separation of powers.

Rick Poole, 60, a retired postal worker from Madison County who came out for Vander Plaats's talk, said that "it's all about Christian values. If you're an honest person and have some accountability to God, you'd be a good candidate for public office."

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