Straw poll: In Iowa, GOP leans to the right of the right

Iowa's GOP is dominated by social conservatives whose focus is on opposing abortion and gay marriage, say party insiders. That explains why not all Republican presidential hopefuls are competing in the Iowa straw poll on Saturday.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin visits at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday, Aug. 12. Her husband Todd Palin is at left.

Time was when Connie Schmett, a longtime Republican activist from suburban Des Moines, considered herself to be quite conservative. But not compared with the dominant forces in today’s Iowa GOP, who she believes have put social issues front and center even at a time of great economic hardship for many Iowans. Ask her about it, and the passion rises in her voice.

“I was one of the first people at the capital when the tea party movement started,” says Ms. Schmett, who serves on the Polk County GOP executive committee. “It was Democrats, independents, all kinds of Republicans; we were of one accord. Then somehow the very far right took over, and kind of said, 'If you don’t believe how we believe, then you’re not in our party.' ”

The problem, she says, is their singular focus on abortion and gay marriage. “There are other issues we need to include in what Republicans stand for,” she says, adding that while she, too, opposes abortion and gay marriage, she doesn’t believe in judging others. “It’s fiscal conservatism, it’s financial, it’s jobs, it’s all-inclusive. When you visit with them, they’ll ask what you believe in, and you can’t be conservative enough.”

That, in a nutshell, explains why not all of the Republican presidential candidates are competing in the Iowa GOP’s straw poll taking place here in Ames on Saturday. The event favors the most organized constituency in the state party – and right now, it’s the most conservative wing, which blends the long-time Christian-right activism in the state with the new tea party energy. For candidates like former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, who represent a more mainstream, establishment brand of Republicanism, it’s not their crowd.

Schmett supports Romney and will vote for him in the Ames straw poll, even though he’s not actively campaigning for votes.

The split in the Iowa GOP has been a long time in developing. Twenty-four years ago, televangelist Pat Robertson won the Iowa straw poll, rocking the GOP’s world. He went on to lose in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, and his presidential candidacy faded. But out of that campaign was born the Christian Coalition, which was the premier Christian-right political operation through the 1990s.

In Iowa, the religious right has been a political force since the 1980s. In 1986, the state party platform added a plank opposing abortion. In 1992, religious conservatives won a majority on the Republican state central committee. Three years ago, Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, defeated the 24-year incumbent for Republican national committeeman from Iowa. The state’s RNC committeewoman, Kim Lehman, is the former longtime head of Iowa Right to Life (who made news last summer by suggesting President Obama is Muslim).

At the Iowa GOP caucuses in 2008, an entrance poll found that 60 percent of attendees were “born again or evangelical Christian.” But even that may be understating the conservative bent of Iowa’s most active Republicans – those who attend the Ames straw poll and then the nominating caucuses a few months later, early in the presidential election year.

“I’m guessing that four years ago, 80 percent of all Iowa caucusgoers were staunch, very conservative people, whether they were evangelical or not,” says Mr. Scheffler. “There are no more country club Republicans. They’re basically all pro-life. They all support traditional marriage. We’ve had Republicans that wouldn’t support the state marriage amendment, but they’ve either retired or been defeated.”

To Iowa Republicans, the days when Mary Louise Smith – an Iowa women’s rights activist and big supporter of Planned Parenthood – served as the first female chairwoman of the Republican National Committee (from 1974 to 1977) feel like ancient history.

Still, Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines, doesn’t see the Iowa Republican Party as completely monolithic. Yes, the religious conservatives are quite powerful, he says. But the more traditional, establishment Republicans still hold some sway.

“They’re more corporate-oriented, concerned with taxing and spending and government regulations in the traditional sense, not the tea party sense,” Mr. Goldford says. “Certainly Romney is the candidate of that crew.”

Then there’s the more angry, populist, insurgent wing of the party. “Traditionally it had been the religious conservatives,” he says. “But add to them the tea party people. I don’t think the tea party is as powerful in Iowa as in other states. But certainly they’re on the same page as the Christian conservatives.”

Iowa’s top politician, Gov. Terry Branstad, now on his second tour of duty in the state capital, falls into the first category of Republican. In last year’s primary, he defeated one of the leading Christian conservative activists in the state, Bob Vander Plaats. But Mr. Vander Plaats has made his mark in other ways. He led the successful charge to defeat three Iowa Supreme Court justices last November in recall elections over their ruling in favor of gay marriage the year before.

And it was Vander Plaats’ group, the Family Leader, that authored a controversial “marriage pledge” that implied that black children were better off under slavery and that homosexuality is a health risk. The pledge was signed by two presidential candidates, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, before the language about slaves was removed. Governor Branstad called the pledge “over the top.”

The deepening division of Iowa’s Republican Party has big implications for the 2012 GOP nomination race.

“It means that every Republican who thinks he might win the nomination and beat Barack Obama is either saying, 'I’ve got to move far to right and win the Iowa straw poll and the caucuses, and then try to move back to the center,' ” says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. “Or they’re saying, like Romney, 'I don’t want to take a position that’s so conservative that it will get me the nomination, but lose me the independents and moderates I need to win the general.' ”

If Romney’s strategy is successful, and he wins the nomination, Iowa could lose some of its clout the next time the GOP has a competitive presidential nomination race. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to enter the race on the day of the straw poll – thus bypassing the need to participate – has irked some Iowa Republicans. But Governor Perry’s big prayer rally in Houston last weekend certainly cemented his image as a wear-it-on-your sleeve evangelical. And he could do quite well in Iowa come caucus-time.

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