GRINNELL, Iowa — Two years from now, Republicans will formally kick off the process of nominating a presidential candidate with caucus meetings in church basements, community centers and school classrooms. The candidate they nominate will rise or fall, in part, based on the grass-roots prowess of the Republican Party’s organization here and in other swing states.
But as they gather for biennial caucuses Tuesday evening, many Republicans, including Gov. Terry Branstad, worry that their party, run by supporters of former congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian firebrand, isn’t up to the challenge. Branstad is leading a not-so-quiet push to wrest control of the Iowa party, one front in the war for the soul of the GOP. And though the presidential contest is two years away, the health of the state party could affect the GOP’s more-immediate chances at winning control of the U.S. Senate.
The fight mirrors feuds within other Republican Party organizations, from states such as Arizona, Nevada and Maine to the Republican conference in the U.S. House of Representatives, where insurgent outsiders seized control in 2008 and 2010. Now, the establishment — led by long-time operatives and party elders, including Branstad and House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) — is fighting back.
In Iowa, the bank balance tells the story. Under the leadership of Chairman A.J. Spiker, the state party has seen its account dwindle. The party ended November with about $260,000 in the bank, down from $295,000 at the beginning of 2013. That month, the state GOP raised just $5,500 and spent $45,000. The party had raised a little under $600,000 between Jan. 1 and the end of November, less than half the total raised by the Iowa Democratic Party.
As finances have suffered, the battle between backers of Paul’s liberty movement, led by Spiker and a handful of conservative operatives, and Branstad’s political establishment, worried about the viability of the first-in-the-nation contests, is breaking out into the open. At a recent fundraiser in Des Moines, celebrating the start of the annual legislative session, Steve Scheffler, one of Iowa’s representatives to the Republican National Committee, used the opening prayer to ask God for party unity.
Off-year caucuses are normally sleepy affairs attended by die-hard loyalists that lead to party elections interesting only to a committed few. But in Iowa, this year is different: Branstad’s reelection campaign has paid for three fliers urging a higher attendance.
The popular Branstad is likely to cruise to an unprecedented sixth term when he faces voters in the fall. Spending some of his $4 million to drive turnout to the caucuses, Branstad allies say, is less about his political fortunes and more about those of his lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds. The lieutenant governor is selected at a party convention. Four years ago, Reynolds faced a challenge from a top conservative activist; Branstad allies say attracting Republican regulars to the off-year caucuses will help dissuade any significant challenges to Reynolds when she is renominated this year, and will set her up to run to succeed Branstad in a bid to become Iowa’s first female governor four years later.
“They definitely want to make sure they have people who support Branstad-Reynolds at the convention, which is conservative and cautious on their part,” Spiker said.
Expanding turnout at precinct caucuses is important to Branstad and to presidential candidates who will run in two years, because the caucus process extends long beyond January. Delegates selected on caucus night head to county conventions, then district conventions, the state convention and, finally, in a presidential year, the Republican National Convention, where they cast votes for a presidential candidate of their choosing.
That process takes months, and it rewards the most committed supporters, who must show up at each successive event before national convention delegates are chosen. In Iowa, after caucus winner Rick Santorum’s campaign faded during the spring of 2012, those most committed to showing up were Paul’s fans. Although Paul finished in third place that January night, with about 21 percent of the vote, the Paul delegates who continued to attend successive conventions succeeded in taking over the delegation; at the Republican National Convention in Tampa that year, Paul won 22 of Iowa’s 28 delegates; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who captured the nomination, won just six.
Paul may have lost, but his delegates stayed involved and took over the state party. Members of the establishment watched with increasing frustration as donor phone calls went un-returned. Long-time activists were de-friended on Facebook. The party’s bottom line sagged.
“A lot of those people who came to the caucuses joined our central committee throughout the state,” Diana Hansen, the secretary of the Poweshiek County Republican Party, said at a recent party meeting, held at a pizza restaurant in Grinnell. “Those people didn’t stay around to help our candidates.”
Branstad, allies say, has his eyes on the 2016 presidential caucuses.
“The caucuses are a tremendous logistical undertaking that require the cooperation of 99 county chairs and thousands of volunteer activists across statewide precincts. The caucuses, even in a presidential cycle, are an intra-party function and must be entirely financed by the state party,” said Matt Strawn, Spiker’s predecessor as party chairman and a Branstad ally. “Being combative with Republicans who have actually been elected to public office has not endeared the current state party leadership to many of those longtime volunteer statewide activists who actually run the Iowa caucuses and with the donor community who helps finance it.”
Several county party organizations have called on Spiker to resign. Congressional district-level executive committees have formed to provide more oversight over the state party, a step party operatives said was unprecedented in recent history. And Branstad has turned his campaign’s attention to organizing Tuesday’s caucuses; if Branstad succeeds in installing allies on the central committee, the committee can force a chairman out of office immediately.
“There are people still living in 2012, but the 2012 cycle is long gone. The last presidential candidate I supported was Mitt Romney,” said Spiker, a former vice chairman of Paul’s campaign. “It is a little bit sad in the way that people continue to focus on who different folks caucused for.”
In a state with several hotly contested races on the calendar, including an open U.S. Senate seat and two open House districts, the fight between the factions will have electoral impacts long before the presidential race.
Several candidates, including a wealthy former energy executive who has donated to Democrats, a conservative radio talk-show host, a former U.S. attorney under George W. Bush and a state senator seen as the closest candidate to Branstad, are vying for the right to face Rep. Bruce Braley (D) for a Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D). A large field of Republicans is racing to replace retiring Rep. Tom Latham (R) in a competitive district based in Des Moines and southwest Iowa. And a growing group on both sides is vying to replace Braley in his northeastern Iowa district.
Some candidates worry that strife within the state party could hurt their chances in November.
“It could be better. No one hides that there’s some tension in the state party,” said Walt Rogers, a state representative from Waterloo and one of four Republicans seeking Braley’s seat. Lower fundraising and internal feuding, he added, “means less coordination and help from the state party.”
“This is a year when the wind’s at our back,” Branstad told supporters at the legislative breakfast. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to win.”