It’s time for another look at the Republican presidential contenders’ prospects in Iowa. The 2012 cycle may seem like a long way off, but the serious candidates will probably start hiring staff in Iowa before the end of this year. Since the last time Bleeding Heartland covered this ground, several Republicans with presidential ambitions have spoken out on our GOP gubernatorial contest, visited Iowa or scheduled trips here during this fall’s campaign.
Lots of links and speculation are after the jump.
The 2008 Iowa caucuses winner Mike Huckabee has said he’ll "start thinking" about whether to run for president again sometime next year. He’s not raising as much money as some of his potential rivals, but he has a high public profile thanks to his show on the Fox network. I lean toward the view that he will not run for president in 2012. His rise in 2007 benefited from several other candidates’ decision not to challenge the prohibitive favorite here, Mitt Romney. No one else was committed to courting the Iowa social conservative base down the home stretch of the caucus campaign. Huckabee won’t have that niche to himself if he runs for president again. He has new baggage too, including crimes committed last year by a man whose sentence Huckabee commuted as governor of Arkansas.
Fallout from Bob Vander Plaats’ unsuccessful campaign for governor is sure to affect Huckabee if he runs again. Vander Plaats served as Iowa chairman for Huckabee’s last presidential campaign, so it was no surprise that Huckabee came here earlier this year to endorse Vander Plaats for governor. At the time I thought Huckabee played it smart by declining to criticize Branstad during his campaign stop. Speaking about Branstad, Huckabee said,
“We not only served together as governors, but we were co-national chairs for the presidential election bid for Lamar Alexander at one time. We’ve been good friends during my many visits to Iowa. This is not about Terry Branstad. This is about the very strong, deep, personal relationship I have with Bob Vander Plaats, plus my confidence that he would be a great governor at this time in Iowa.”
I expected Huckabee to endorse Branstad after our Republican primary, but he has kept quiet. Hogan Gidley, who runs Huckabee’s political action committee, recently told Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, “It would be disrespectful to Mr. Vander Plaats and to many of Governor Huckabee’s friends and supporters in Iowa if he were to endorse Governor Branstad without Mr. Vander Plaat’s having already done so.” That’s a risky play. In theory, the 80,000-plus Republicans who voted for Vander Plaats in the primary provide a strong enough base to win the Iowa caucuses. (Huckabee won in 2008 with the backing of just under 40,000 caucus-goers.) But we don’t know many Vander Plaats voters have been alienated by his refusal to get behind Branstad or rule out an independent bid for governor. If Branstad wins without Vander Plaats’ support, it will show that Vander Plaats has little clout left among Iowa conservatives. If Branstad loses in November, many Republicans will never forgive Vander Plaats or anyone closely linked to him.
My take on Mitt Romney hasn’t changed: if he couldn’t win Iowa as the front-runner, he’s not going to win here in 2012. Most Iowa Republicans have a favorable impression of Romney, according to a recent Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa Republican primary voters. On paper, Romney is a good candidate for this cycle. Republicans need someone with a credible voice on economic issues. But if recent surveys by Public Policy Polling are accurate, Romney’s star has been falling among Republicans in other parts of the country:
Mitt Romney is really slipping in these polls. He had the lead in both Pennsylvania and Texas the last time we polled those states but has fallen now to 4th in both. It’s a sign of how fleeting ‘frontrunner’ status can be this early in the game- it’s really not worth much because voters aren’t tuned in enough for it to be particularly meaningful or sustainable.
My hunch is that Romney suffered from the strong resemblance between “Romneycare” and “Obamacare.” Repealing the new health insurance reform is now an article of faith among conservative Republicans.
Assuming he does run for president, Romney might skip Iowa to focus on winning the New Hampshire primary. Then again, he is the presidential contender most closely associated with Branstad. Not only did he endorse Branstad for governor during the primary, he has many allies in Branstad’s inner circle. Romney’s Iowa co-chair for the last presidential race was Doug Gross, Branstad’s longtime top aide during the 1980s and 1990s. Several current Branstad campaign staffers worked on Romney’s staff before the 2008 caucuses. That’s an organizational plus if Branstad defeats Governor Chet Culver and stays popular among the Republican base. But if Branstad loses in November, or wins the election but disappoints conservatives during his first year back as governor, backlash from the caucus-going crowd could hurt Romney.
I see a lot of potential for Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to do well in Iowa. He’s not as well-known as some of the other contenders, but that will change if he spends more time here. If Romney skips Iowa, Pawlenty strikes me as best positioned to pick up support from this state’s business elite.
Last month Pawlenty formed political action committees in Iowa and New Hampshire to support Republican candidates for state offices. (UPDATE: He’s also scheduled another Iowa trip for the end of July.) I look forward to mocking the hypocrisy of Iowa Republicans who rail against a so-called state budget deficit that doesn’t exist while taking money from Pawlenty. Get a load of Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn:
“I’m pleased Governor Pawlenty recognizes what’s at stake for Iowa in the November elections,” state GOP Chairman Matt Strawn said. “I’m sure Iowa Republicans will look favorably on any national leader who is assisting our effort to take back Terrace Hill and win a legislative majority.”
News flash for Strawn: under Democratic leadership, Iowa is among the states “least like California” in terms of fiscal problems. Minnesota didn’t score as well as Iowa on most of the indicators assessed last year by the Pew Center on the States. Pawlenty has a poor record on fiscal issues, but it doesn’t stop him from pushing for a relic from Republican platforms past: the constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.
Speaking of Republican relics, Newt Gingrich delighted Republican audiences in Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Des Moines in late May. He said he will announce his plans for the next election cycle in February or March 2011. If he does run for president, he will not bypass Iowa, and why should he? The latest Des Moines Register poll of Iowa Republican primary voters showed that more than half had a very or mostly favorable impression of Gingrich.
Public Policy Polling has surveyed Republicans in several other states and found Gingrich to be in a relatively strong starting position:
Newt Gingrich increasingly looks like a very legitimate candidate should he decide to run for President in 2012. He’s showing strong support across the country- he’s led in California, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas and finished just behind in Illinois and Pennsylvania in recent polls. Gingrich may benefit from having less of a ‘loser’ stench to him than the other contenders- Huckabee, Palin, Romney, and Paul were all involved in losing campaigns in 2008 and Gingrich is a reminder of the time when Republicans were in charge.
I lean toward the view that Gingrich will never run for president, but he may seize his last chance (he will be 69 years old by the time of the 2012 general election). He’s giving the base plenty of red meat in his latest book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine. His tax-cutting agenda would be popular among Iowa Republicans. I don’t see many GOP caucus-goers objecting that Gingrich won’t specify federal programs he would cut to pay for the big tax cuts he advocates.
Sarah Palin can’t be counted out in Iowa, of course. The Des Moines Register poll indicated that she is well-liked by most Iowa Republican primary voters. Raising money won’t be a problem for her, and I would bank on her attracting the largest crowds if she campaigns here. I don’t think her half-baked Branstad endorsement before the gubernatorial primary helped her cause, though. Supporters of Vander Plaats or Rod Roberts would be natural allies of Palin, but she backed the less right-wing establishment candidate without even explaining her reasons.
Now for the second tier of GOP candidates. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum came to Iowa again in late June. It was his fourth trip here during the past year. He was spoke at a Scott County GOP event and also during lunch at the GOP state convention in Des Moines. I just can’t take Santorum seriously as a presidential contender. How does a guy seek higher office after losing re-election in a purple state by 17 points? Maybe he will try to run on international issues; Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican has noted that Santorum “will likely have the most foreign policy experience” among the 2012 presidential candidates.
Representative Ron Paul came to Des Moines in May for a regional conference of the Campaign for Liberty. He returned in June to headline the Iowa GOP’s “Celebrating Our Constitution” event on the eve of the state convention. My view on Paul’s prospects in Iowa hasn’t changed in the last couple of months. He has friends in high places in the Iowa GOP, as well as a loyal base of supporters, but his opposition to our military interventions in the Middle East may limit his appeal. Paul has built up goodwill among some Iowa wingnuts by raising money for Kent Sorenson, Republican candidate in Iowa Senate district 37.
U.S. Senator John Thune of South Dakota may become a presidential candidate one day, but I doubt he will take the plunge during the upcoming cycle. He has low name recognition and won’t be able to compete with several others on the fundraising front. His Senate seat is safe, and he’s young enough to wait for four or eight years.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels also isn’t known to many Iowa Republicans. He won’t get far if people hear that he believes the next president should “call a truce on the so-called social issues.” Huckabee has already blasted Daniels for seeming to downplay the importance of abortion and “traditional marriage.”
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence may become a dark-horse candidate. In October, he is scheduled to keynote the annual banquet for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and Iowa Christian Alliance Education Fund. If Republicans take back the U.S. House this November, Pence’s stock could rise. His problem, in addition to being unknown, is that he’ll be tied up in Congress in 2011, when several other presidential candidates will be campaigning full-time. (UPDATE: Pence’s chief of staff says his upcoming visit to Iowa is linked to “his duties as the No. 3 Republican in House leadership. Pence has been doing what he can to help Republicans win in November, and that includes raising money for candidates and party organizations and firing up grass-roots groups, [Bill] Smith said.”)
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour seems interested in running for president. He headlined an Iowa Republican event in June 2009, and he is raising lots of money for his political action committee. I don’t see him doing well here. He won’t be like Huckabee was last cycle, the lone candidate fighting hard for the Iowa religious right. Also, Barbour chairs the Republican Governors Association, and Iowa’s socially conservative representatives to the Republican National Committee (Kim Lehman and Steve Scheffler) didn’t approve of the RGA spending money on a moderate candidate in Massachusetts. Iowa RNC member Steve Scheffler told Hotline On Call’s Reid Wilson,
“He’s toast in Iowa, as far as I’m concerned,” said Steve Scheffler, a social conservative activist and the state’s RNC committeeman. “I traditionally stay out of presidential contested races, but this kind of information will be distributed far and wide.”
Scheffler recalled a fundraiser with pro-life activists last year in DC, where Barbour told activists they had to accept some pro-choice GOPers in order to win races in otherwise blue states. Barbour has often stressed his own conservatism while promoting those who couldn’t make it through a GOP primary in other states.
But that doesn’t sit well with many party activists. After Barbour implored the abortion foes to consider backing candidates who didn’t agree with them, Scheffler said, “you could hear a pin drop.”
Scheffler and Lehman must have gotten an earful from Iowa Republicans who understand reality: the party’s candidate for governor will need financial assistance from the RGA. They walked back their criticism in a statement expressing strong support for “the efforts of Haley Barbour and the Republican Governors Association to support and help elect all duly nominated Republican candidates for Governor all across this country.” But I suspect this episode will hurt Barbour among the highly-engaged Iowa GOP activists who are involved in the caucuses.
Scheffler reacted sharply when contacted this spring by a little-known California Republican who may run for president. Fred Karger has worked for many Republican candidates and elected officials during his career, but his most recent work was opposing California’s Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Karger happens to be gay. His support for civil rights, including marriage equality, didn’t sit well with Scheffler, who sent him this incredible e-mail:
You don’t care about transparency-you and the radical homosexual community want to harass supporters of REAL marriage. I am the Republican National Committeeman for Iowa. As a private citizen and knowing literally thousands of caucus goers, I will work overtime to help ensure that your political aspirations are aborted right here in Iowa. Have you studied our past caucuses-you have NO chance here in Iowa!
No one would expect Karger to do well in the Iowa Republican caucuses, but Scheffler’s tone was totally mean-spirited and unprofessional. The head of the Iowa Christian Alliance should speak with more grace and compassion.
Bleeding Heartland readers, what’s your take on the Republican presidential field?