Fed up and ready to get off the sidelines, veteran Iowa Republicans are working to wrest control of the state GOP from the evangelicals, tea partyers and libertarians they blame for alienating longtime party loyalists.
Led by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, these Republicans want to grow the state party – one that ideological crusaders have shaped over the past few years – by bringing back into the fold pragmatic-minded voters while attracting more women and younger voters.
These Republicans say success would be Branstad winning re-election next fall and paving the way for a national GOP comeback in the 2016 presidential election by choosing a mainstream Republican in the leadoff presidential caucuses.
“What we need is someone who knows how to get things done, accomplish things,” Branstad told the Associated Press recently. “My goal is to strengthen the party and to try to encourage people, new people, to participate and to show that I think the future for the party can be bright if we are welcoming – and if we really work.”
The power struggle shaping up here has begun playing out across the nation. Some national Republican luminaries are blaming tea party figures like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for demanding ideological purity, inciting the partial government shutdown and damaging perceptions of the party across the country.
In Iowa, it took the party two months to sell all the tickets to its annual fall fundraiser featuring Cruz, who led the failed effort to defund President Barack Obama’s health care law. The event usually sells out quickly, and Branstad allies point to the sluggish pace as evidence that local GOP leaders are unhappy – and ready for a change.
Others dispute that, and accuse Branstad’s backers of trying to weaken the party’s conservative base.
“It’s really unfortunate that a small few who are loud are trying to speak for the grassroots,” said Tamara Scott, a Republican National Committee woman and outspoken Christian conservative who speaks highly of Cruz.
For decades, pro-business, economic conservatives like Branstad controlled the Iowa GOP. In the 1980s, the evangelical wing injected new energy. But those Republicans also rallied behind presidential candidates who ultimately lost the party’s nomination, raising questions of whether Iowa Republicans were reflective of the GOP nationally.
In 2000, George W. Bush broke the mold, knitting business and Christian conservatives together to win the caucuses en route to the White House.
But big budget deficits under Bush turned off centrists, and the war in Iraq roused supporters for former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. That left evangelicals and Paul-type libertarians – many who would also later identify with the tea party – the most engaged Republicans in Iowa. They flexed their power in 2008, choosing as their caucus winner Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose dominant Christian conservative profile further alienated mainstream Republicans.
By 2010, the Iowa GOP was so weak that it recruited the long-retired former governor, Branstad, to run again. This pragmatic, not ideological, Republican beat a well-known social conservative in a tough primary before unseating the unpopular Democratic incumbent. Branstad backers viewed his victory as the start of a complete reclaiming of the party.
Then came the 2012 Iowa caucus debacle.
The state GOP initially declared Mitt Romney the winner. Three weeks later, the party drew ridicule when it said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – a social conservative – had actually received the most votes.
Meanwhile, insurgent tea party conservatives and Paul supporters from his two failed presidential campaigns worked at the precinct level to seize the state GOP committee and chairmanship. They succeeded.
A.J. Spiker, a Paul backer, became the state party chairman. Since then, he’s faced criticism from activists for weak fundraising. Records show that the party was raising more than $40,000 a month four years ago and now is raising less than $30,000 per month. Spiker dismisses the criticisms and the Branstad effort as nothing more than typical squabbling.
“We are in a period of some disagreement within the party. But I think that is happening nationally,” Spiker said.
Branstad’s allies have had enough. They hope to drive disaffected Republicans back into the party’s grassroots, starting with the midterm caucuses in January where party activists will choose delegates who will decide the GOP’s direction heading into 2016.
“If the establishment wants to take over, they have to show up,” said Doug Gross, a longtime Branstad adviser. “And frankly we haven’t.”
The effort doesn’t stop with the caucuses.
Branstad is publicly neutral in the U.S. Senate primary here, but Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is publicly backing Joni Ernst – a state senator from rural southwest Iowa – in a crowded field.
Reynolds says her endorsement is “not just in name only,” and plans to campaign and raise money for Ernst. in hopes that the six-candidate Senate field’s only woman could help the party attract more women voters next fall, and to the 2016 caucuses.
Oskaloosa lawyer Diane Crookham Johnson is among those Republicans Branstad wants back.
The state party’s chief fundraiser in 2000, Johnson supports abortion rights, but dropped out of party leadership after growing frustrated with what she saw as increasing rigidity on social issues.
But Johnson has been contacted by Ernst and rival Mark Jacobs, and likes what she’s starting to hear.
“They want to know where I’m at,” she said “And that’s a good sign.”