Iowa Republicans’ twin Reagan Dinner fundraisers provided oddly perfect bookends to possibly the most volatile four-day stretch ever in American politics, encapsulating everything the beleaguered party experienced throughout it. The state party hosted their annual Reagan Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday night, while the Scott County Republicans held their own of the same name in Bettendorf on Tuesday night. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton headlined each. I attended both events.
The Des Moines event, held in the upstairs ballroom at the Iowa Events Center, was a dimly-lit affair with red backdrops, a dark setting that matched the mood of the attendees and speakers. Just a little more than 24 hours after the disgusting 2005 Access Hollywood tapes were released, many there still seemed a little shell-shocked and unsure of how to process it. Mostly, they lashed out right back at Bill Clinton.
“I condemn those kinds of comments when Clinton did those kind of actions, and I’ll condemn it again when Trump says those kind of actions,” Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann told reporters before the start of the event, heavily implying that Bill Clinton had committed sexual assault.
Other leaders and attendees had similar thoughts. RNC Committeeman Steve Scheffler outright accused Bill Clinton of rape, as did most rank-and-file Republicans.
Iowa GOPers I talked to tonight said they're not concerned with Trump comments, immediately brought up Bill Clinton and accused him of rape
— Jason Noble (@jasonnobleDMR) October 9, 2016
What followed on stage was a no-holds-bar, blistering tirade against the evils of Hillary Clinton.
“We have one candidate that abandoned our boys at Benghazi,” Kaufmann said of Clinton.
“We cannot trust Hillary Clinton to be our next president,” Joni Ernst said. “She cannot be trusted to lead as our Commander-in-Chief. Her judgement is not suited to sit in the Oval Office. Her character is not suited to sit in the Oval Office. She has failed us … She has failed to stop the expansion of terrorism … Her policies in Libya, in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, I could go on and on, they have created more safe-havens for terrorism.”
Branstad was the only one beside Kaufmann to heavily mention Trump by name, saying Republicans needed to elect the Trump-Pence ticket so they had someone they could work with in the White House. He too lit into Clinton.
“Is there anyone more untrustworthy or corrupt than Hillary Clinton?” Terry Branstad shouted, with the crowd responding loudly in the negative. “Is there anyone more unwilling to protect this country against Islamic extremists that threaten us both at home and abroad? Is there anyone who has been more dishonest with the people of the United States of America?”
The crowd ate it up, united by the fiery anti-Hillary fervor, helpfully distracting themselves from the dark nature of their own candidate.
And then came Tom Cotton.
“Our nominee Donald Trump has let us down again,” Cotton, whose four day trip to Iowa was seen as a jumping off point for a 2020 presidential run, stated. “The words on that tape were demeaning and they were shameful. Donald Trump doesn’t have much of a choice at this point. Tomorrow night at that debate he needs to throw himself on the mercy of the American people. He needs to take full responsibility for his words and for his actions. And he needs to beg for their forgiveness. And he needs to pledge to finally change his ways.”
Cotton proceeded to give Trump an ultimatum.
“If he does not do those things, if he will not do those things, then he needs to consider whether it’s time for him to step aside and allow our party to nominate an elder statesman,” Cotton said.
The pro-Trump Iowa crowd at the dinner gave him only tepid applause, and many donors shared disapproving looks with one another at their tables. The next night, Trump did not do those things, but he had a good enough debate to calm some nerves and revitalize his rabid base of supporters. Many of them then put pressure on the wavering Republican leaders who ditched Trump over the weekend. By the time Cotton gave his speech in Scott County four days later, he had already backtracked on his stance during a radio interview with a home state Arkansas station.
But not everyone had gotten back on board by the time the Scott County Republicans gathered at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf. Five days since the Trump tape was released, it seemed like the weight of their nominee’s words had started to sink in. Anger had been replaced by introspection and, in some cases, despair. Perhaps fittingly the first thing I noticed walking into ballroom there was that it was more brightly lit than the Des Moines event, with colorful yellow mums at every table.
The Republicans I spoke with before the dinner were largely shell-shocked by the revelations and continued nastiness.
“I think they know they’ve got to stay strong,” said Judy Tucker of rural Scott County on Republicans’ unity around Trump. “Hillary’s not the answer, so I don’t know. Yeah.”
Many disagreed with Trump’s tactic at the debate to go so negatively after Bill Clinton’s past affairs.
“The presidential campaign needs to pull itself out of the gutter,” said Tim, who declined to give his last name, of Davenport. “I think you can talk about issues, not each other. Somebody needs to take away Trump’s twitter account … Why would you stoop that low? You just don’t have to.”
One couple attending the fundraiser, Jill and John, had deep concerns of whether they could vote for Trump at this point. Neither wanted their last names used as they worked actively with their county party, and often looked over their shoulders to see if others could hear them speak negatively about the nominee.
“I don’t think anyone who supported Trump is going to stop supporting him,” Jill said. “I think he’s just not gaining anyone.”
They weren’t too enthusiastic about Trump in the first place, so they didn’t fall into that camp.
“It didn’t surprise me,” John said of the 2005 tape. “By the same token, it didn’t bother me.”
“It didn’t bother you?” Jill questioned.
“Not necessarily. I mean, I don’t treat people that way,” he replied.
“Well, you’re a man. I guess I had low expectations in the first place. So it didn’t change my opinion one way or the other. I’ve questioned…” Jill said, then stopped to look to see who was nearby. “I’ve never 100% felt good about supporting him, and it didn’t change my opinion. I just continue to think of what I’m going to do when I get in the voting booth. I’m concerned, I don’t want to vote for him, but I don’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton.”
“In the back of my mind, somehow the Republican Party will do an end around,” John started to say of replacing Trump.
“I don’t think they can!”
“I know, but I guess that’s my fantasy. Somehow, Trump says I’ve exposed Hillary, I’m out … All he had to do was, 2 months ago, shut up. It would’ve been a walk-in. He just had to shut up. Don’t get confrontational.”
Both were frustrated over the Bill Clinton attacks as well, saying there was plenty of ammunition Republicans have against the Clintons that don’t deal with the personal issues. But they understood why Iowa’s Republican leaders were standing with Trump despite all the fallout.
“I think they want the local candidates to succeed and I understand that,” Jill said. “I don’t know. I kind of am honestly speechless, because you almost in good conscious can’t allow it to go on, but you also don’t want to throw away everyone else’s chances. They’re just put in a terrible position, I feel sorry for anyone who is running. They really are between a rock and a hard place, aren’t they?”
“You want to be supportive and yet every day he forces me to not be supportive, it’s sad,” she added.
Not all were so conflicted. Others laughed it off. A group of three older men joked with one of their wives who had walked over that they were “having some locker room talk, you know, getting real amorous.”
As for the actual speeches at the dinner, Clinton was not mentioned nearly as much in Scott County. Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds called her the “Secretary of the Status Quo” and framed the election as a choice between two visions, but also stuck to a lot of positive things about the Branstad-Reynolds administration. Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Secretary of State Paul Pate didn’t mention Trump’s name at all. Branstad stuck mostly to praise of Mike Pence, while also slamming Clinton with a line of “She hates Iowa!”
Pence himself added the dinner to his schedule at the last moment, giving a quick pitch at the start of the dinner. He called Trump the “most bold truth-teller ever,” quipping that you don’t have to doubt what he thinks. He recounted the newest hacked email revelations of the day. But when he proclaimed “we’re going to make Donald Trump president,” only half the crowd stood to clap, and those who did were slow to rise in the first place. No cheers were heard when he said Trump would be the next president to make Supreme Court appointments, typically one of the best go-to lines.
Ernst apparently drew the short straw and was the only one to really vigorously defend voting for Trump. She had clearly been taking heat from fellow women for being the only remaining female senator (at the time) to not break with Trump.
“Folks have asked me, ‘Why are you still supporting this ticket?'” Ernst said. “I am fighting for our country … It is more than individuals. It is more than one state. It is about the direction of this country. Where is that leadership? That leadership is going to come from our party, folks, it’s going to come from the Republican Party! I will not turn my back on my party and I will not turn my back on my nation.”
And she admitted she’s been hearing concerns.
“I’ve had folks come up to me and say, ‘Joni, I can take four years of Hillary Clinton. I can take eight years of Hillary Clinton.’ No, folks, we can’t,” she said.
Cotton did not broach the presidential race or his comments he made on Saturday night during his turn at the podium. In fact, his speech sounded as if 2016 wasn’t happening at all. Instead he laid out his vision of American greatness, how the “new normal” in America was a failure in his eyes and how we needed new, young, service-oriented leadership (which sounded a lot like it was describing him).
“I thought it was interesting he didn’t mention Trump,” one woman told me afterward.
Many didn’t seem to mind, and all I spoke with said they loved his delivery. Cotton’s was a high-minded speech without the anger, personal attacks or red meat that had dominated recent days.
The audience applauded politely for him, but for the entire evening it was a calmer, more low-key affair than the whipped-up crowd in Des Moines a few nights prior. It was a fascinating contrast between the two Reagan Dinners, and could have been caused for a number of reasons.
Trump has held far more rallies in the Des Moines area than the Quad Cities, perhaps keeping his base motivated better there. The proximity of Branstad, Reynolds and Kaufmann in Central Iowa might have kept those activists better in line. The difference in time from the tape’s reveal could have given people more time to reflect upon it.
Or maybe they were tired of defending Trump as he wages a civil war against his own party.
Or maybe they were tired of arguing amongst their own activists what constituted “locker room” talk.
Or maybe they were just tired.
25 more days.
by Pat Rynard