“We need to support Donald Trump and his choice for vice president because he will make America great again!” boomed Governor Terry Branstad at the Republican Party of Iowa’s state convention this May.
“We have an opportunity once again to make America great again,” Senator Chuck Grassley said in a warm introduction of Trump in Pella way back in January, one of the first Republican U.S. Senators to stand with him on a stage.
“If you vote for him, Donald Trump, as the Republican nominee, the Republican Party of Iowa and this Republican chair will be behind him one thousand percent,” state party chair Jeff Kaufmann pledged while with Trump in Muscatine, also back in January.
While Donald Trump has faced significant difficulties with top Republican leadership in other important swing states, the same certainly cannot be said about Iowa. None of them endorsed in the caucus, but key statewide Iowa Republicans were out front very early with praise for Trump and have defended him at nearly every step of the way. Chairman Kaufmann’s pledge to back Trump a thousand percent has stayed solid through all of the candidate’s ups and downs. Governor Branstad often sidesteps Iowa reporters’ repeated attempts to get him to comment on the negative Trump controversy of the day.
And it’s not just words. Governor Branstad’s son, Eric Branstad, was recently hired as Trump’s state director. Senator Joni Ernst is now under serious consideration for Trump’s vice president nominee. Senator Grassley has very publicly defended Trump’s role in potentially picking the next member of the Supreme Court, for which Grassley has blocked President Obama’s current nominee. During the caucus Governor Branstad was perceived as helping Trump with his attack on Ted Cruz. Now he’s staying close with Trump in advising him about ethanol.
Compare that to other states. Senator Mark Kirk in Illinois is running anti-Trump TV ads in his re-election campaign. Sure, that’s in a blue state, but look at Senator Mike Lee in deep-red Utah. He still refuses to support Trump, harshly criticizes him in interviews, even saying Trump “scares me to death.”
In Nevada, Republican Senator Dean Heller says he will “vehemently oppose” Trump. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse decided early on he wouldn’t back Trump and was even floated as a potential third party option. Governor John Kasich of Ohio won’t even attend the Republican national convention, held in his own state.
But Iowa? No such dissension from any of the state’s most prominent Republicans.
“I do not think we have any high profile Republicans actively working against Trump,” Kaufmann told Starting Line. “A failed and rejected former party chair (likely gaining monetarily from doing so), an unknown delegate being used by national Never Trump forces, and a smattering of amateur bloggers, many moving toward Trump every day, hardly counts as high profile resistance.”
The party chair is correct. Only a small smattering of Iowa Republicans have spoken out harshly against Trump. State Senator David Johnson up and left the party, citing Trump’s Judge Curiel comments as the last straw, but Johnson has been a thorn in legislative Republicans’ side for years. His departure was about more than Trump. A Ted Cruz-supporting delegate to the national convention made a few news stories by saying he wants to vote against Trump. Conservative radio show host Steve Deace has been unrelenting in his criticism of Trump, but no one would mistake him for an actual party leader.
Congressman Steve King, a staunch Ted Cruz supporter, crossed swords with Trump a few times earlier on, but has indicated in recent months he’s growing more comfortable with Trump. Congressman David Young has distanced himself from some of Trump’s policies, but hasn’t criticized him too harshly.
There’s a number of other state legislators and major activists rumored to be part of the #NeverTrump crowd, but they’ve largely kept their views private. If there is a larger frustration among mid-level Iowa Republican leaders, they’re keeping their mouths shut.
Some of that may actually be due in part to Kaufmann, who has been unafraid to publicly lambast those who stray from the party line. And his kind words for Trump early on has helped avoid situations where he would have to disavow things he said in the past.
“I have said from Day One that I would support any of the 17 candidates running for president if they were our nominee,” Kaufmann said. “I have had many good conversations with Donald Trump both face to face and by phone. He is a conservative Republican, he is our nominee and I couldn’t be more excited to help him win in November … I am seeing Iowa Republicans begin to coalesce around Trump. Each and every day their support moves to higher levels of energy and excitement.”
The strategy may be a smart one. Unlike in other states, there are not constant press stories in Iowa about how this or that Republican luminary is uncomfortable with Trump. While it might be personally advantageous for a politician to distance themselves from Trump in case the nominee implodes, it likely undermines the greater Republican effort. Like it or not, Trump will be the party’s nominee. Constantly pointing out how extreme some of his positions are may only convince swing voters and moderate Republicans that the Republican Party as a whole has left them.
Iowa Republicans’ favorable stance toward Trump helps in other ways too, including better coordination between the Trump campaign, the RNC and the state party. Tana Goertz, one of Trump’s advisers in Iowa since the caucus, joined Kaufmann yesterday on a conference call with reporters to blast Hillary Clinton’s email server and the results from the FBI’s investigation. You might not see that in other states.
And it just makes everything run smoother for all the party operatives involved.
“As the first state in the nation to cast their vote, the Iowa GOP recognizes the importance of a strong relationship between the RNC, the state party, county parties, and grassroots activists,” Lindsay Jancek, the RNC spokesperson in Iowa, told Starting Line. “Which is why the RNC has provided a historic early investment in Iowa and has been in the field here since 2013. We couldn’t be more proud or grateful for the help and support from the Republican Party of Iowa and Chairman Jeff Kaufmann.”
This dynamic probably helps Trump more than anyone else, considering how small his staffing presence is in most swing states. How much more difficult is his task in must-win Ohio, where Trump finally hired a state director a few weeks ago and where Kasich, who runs the state’s political operation, refuses to endorse and the state party still gives signs of hesitation? Trump’s Iowa state director didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story, so it’s hard to tell for sure.
Of course, there’s still the danger that Trump really does go down in flames in November. Iowa Democrats will then gleefully chain Branstad, Grassley, Ernst and Kaufmann to Trump for years and years. But so what? The alternative is fraught with dangers too and also means abandoning the party’s presidential nominee, something that simply isn’t done.
For that matter there’s other considerations at play for Iowa Republicans, the Iowa Caucus’ role in the nominating schedule chief among them. Playing ball with the nominee and the RNC could help stave off any efforts to change the early state process at the convention, and it will likely help Iowa’s image as a fair place to campaign for future White House hopefuls.
“It is simple. The Never Trump mantra from any Iowans, even those without a great deal of credibility, hurts our First in the Nation chances,” Kaufmann told Starting Line. “These folks are either vigilant about hurting Iowa, arrogant, or unable to process the ‘big picture’ of stopping the tide of liberal forces.”
Compare that to Colorado, where the state Republican Party there inadvertently tweeted out “We did it. #NeverTrump” after Ted Cruz won all the delegates at the Colorado state convention. If a future candidate isn’t the preferred choice of the Colorado Republican establishment, would they hesitate in stumping there?
It’s not all strategy, however. There’s also real reasons why many Iowa Republican leaders honestly do like Trump. Branstad has utilized executive actions more often in his recent term as Governor and may appreciate Trump’s willingness to act unilaterally at times to get things done. Kaufmann has always relied on a brash, outsized personality himself, and likely recognizes the benefits of Trump’s style.
What will it all mean for Trump and down-ballot Republicans’ chances in Iowa? It could well be a net-positive for all involved for this election and the Iowa Caucus. Long-term impacts for Iowa Republicans will rest heavily on how Trump performs in November. But if Trump does win Iowa, or at least keeps it relatively close, he’ll have much of the Republican establishment here to thank for it. Just one more way Iowa politics are particularly unique in 2016.
by Pat Rynard