There are two reasons state and local campaigns don’t typically engage in extremely personal attacks on political opponents: 1) The candidate or people running the campaign are decent-enough human beings to not bring up their opponent’s very personal failings, embarrassing moments or private life, and 2) It usually backfires.
Now, as we all know, some times the desire to win will overcome that first reason. It is the second that keeps our Iowa politics from devolving into tabloid-style muck. Yes, Iowans are seeing a lot of very nasty stuff in TV ads right now, but it revolves mostly around policy differences or obscure votes and spending (well, except in Chris Hagenow’s nasty race). It certainly doesn’t raise to the level of Donald Trump bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to sit in the debate audience where Hillary Clinton has to look at them.
But Iowa very well could head down that path soon enough, and that would be lousy for everyone – candidates and voters alike. Because Iowa Republicans, in their emphatic defense of Trump, are creating a base of voters who will accept those personal attacks as legitimate and who will be convinced by them in the future. They are creating a culture in which intimate, personal attacks are successful among the Republican base.
Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann probably thought he was just going along with what must be done in the madness of 2016 by his comments on Saturday night. But a state party chair heavily implying Bill Clinton committed sexual assault, while downplaying his own candidates’ actions in relation to it, was a vast break with tradition. Jason Noble from the Register asked him to expand on it, calling it a rather strong accusation.
“I don’t think that’s an accusation, I believe that I condemn those actions when Bill Clinton was president, and I condemn what’s been said by Donald Trump. I think that speaks for itself,” Kaufmann replied.
Indeed, it does speak for itself, including to many Republican rank-and-file voters.
In 2018 there will likely be a lot of competitive Republican primaries for numerous statewide races, and maybe even some for Congressional seats. The national Republican civil war that’s waging between establishment leaders, evangelical social conservatives and Trump populists won’t spare Iowa. A Trump-inspired outsider could run a nasty race against a longtime elected official, casting them as corrupt. A social conservative from the Bob Vander Plaats wing could wage a crusade against the moral corruptness of Iowa’s establishment leaders.
And they would have an audience. The same voters who wear “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts out to rallies could be whipped up by some raging Iowa populist. Evangelicals aghast at Trump’s debauchery and other Republicans’ acceptance of it might respond well to messages aimed at rooting out other elected officials who are immoral in their eyes. Several Iowans shouted “You’re a rapist!” at Bill Clinton as he traveled the state this week. Who will they be shouting at in 2018?
That could lead to some uncomfortable campaigning, turning things only whispered about at the Statehouse and East Village bars into public campaign talking points, whether it be factual or simply perceived. Would conservatives take a closer look into Kim Reynolds’ personal life? Would people look at David Young’s personal life? Would they scrutinize Terry Branstad and his family more?
People all over the country are rejecting Trump not just for the vile things he’s said, but for the vileness that he has brought into the American political system. The type of nastiness that makes such topics legitimate ones for public discussion for some of the crudest in our society. The same crude people who are being justified and welcomed into a party with Trump at the top of the ticket.
These are not legitimate public topics, and no one should engage in them in the future. But with a base of voters already being swayed by similar things, it will only take one opportunistic candidate or consultant on the right to spread them.
Again, there seems to be many who think American and Iowa politics are going to have this magical reset once 2016 is over and Donald Trump is no longer in the news. It won’t. We are living in a new reality.
No one wants to live in that kind of state. Iowa Republicans should fully reject Trump and the nastiness he is making mainstream before they drag all of us down into the gutter for years to come.
by Pat Rynard