The 16 Bleeding Heartland posts that were most fun to write in 2016

Freedom to chase any story that captures my attention is the best part of running this website. A strong sense of purpose carries me through the most time-consuming projects. But not all work that seems worthwhile is fun. Classic example: I didn’t enjoy communicating with the white nationalist leader who bankrolled racist robocalls to promote Donald Trump shortly before the Iowa caucuses.

Continuing a tradition I started last year, here are the Bleeding Heartland posts from 2016 that have a special place in my heart. Not all of them addressed important Iowa political news, but all were a joy to write.

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Group polled Iowans on Supreme Court retention vote (updated)

Leaders of the campaigns to oust Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 and 2012 have chosen not to engage in this year’s retention elections, which will decide whether the last three justices who participated in Iowa’s marriage equality ruling will stay on the bench.

However, the coalition formed to stop “extremists from hijacking Iowa’s courts” is taking no chances. Justice Not Politics commissioned a statewide poll last week to gauge voters’ attitudes toward Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht, as well as some issues related to controversial Iowa Supreme Court rulings.

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Key funder confirms no plans to go after Iowa Supreme Court justices

The National Organization for Marriage does not plan any “campaigning or intervention” in this year’s retention elections for three Iowa Supreme Court justices, Grant Rodgers reported for the Des Moines Register on September 5. The group was the largest single funder of the two previous anti-retention campaigns, contributing more than $635,000 to help oust three justices in 2010 and more than $148,000 to the unsuccessful effort to remove Justice David Wiggins two years later.

The last three justices involved in Iowa’s 2009 marriage equality ruling will be on the ballot this November: Chief Justice Mark Cady, author of the Varnum v Brien decision, and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht. National Organization for Marriage spokesperson Joe Grabowski told Rodgers, “There’s nothing planned at this time,” adding that “We always keep our options open.”

Those options are fading fast, with early voting set to begin in Iowa on Thursday, September 29. The previous two anti-retention campaigns, led by social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, were well underway by the end of August 2010 and 2012. As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, Vander Plaats and his allies have not signaled any plan to go after the Iowa Supreme Court justices. It’s a remarkable admission of weakness on their part, but also a rational decision. Convincing voters to remove justices over same-sex marriage (now allowed in all 50 states) would be a tall order, especially in a presidential election year, which brings out hundreds of thousands more voters than a typical midterm election.

This year’s high-profile voting rights case could have provided fodder for an anti-retention campaign, but that scenario failed to materialize when Cady joined three other justices to uphold Iowa’s current broad lifetime ban on voting by most people convicted of felonies.

Rodgers discussed another possible peg for a campaign against Cady, Appel, and Hecht: all joined a 4-3 decision (authored by Appel), which held that “juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution.” You can read the majority opinion, concurring opinions, and dissents in Iowa v. Sweet here. The majority ruling drew heavily on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which invalidated mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, and several 2013 Iowa Supreme Court cases related to juvenile sentencing. Cady, Appel, and Hecht were all part of the majority in those 2013 cases.

Rodgers spoke to Lyle Burnett and Josh Hauser, who have experienced the tragedy of losing a loved one to a teenage killer. Both oppose retaining the three justices on the ballot this November, but “So far, neither Hauser nor Burnett have been contacted by any group or political organization that could elevate their personal campaigns.” Two victims’ advocates quoted in the Register said they do not support ousting Cady, Appel, and Hecht over this issue. It’s worth noting that neither the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in State v Ragland nor this year’s decision in Sweet guaranteed the release of any convicted murderer. Parole boards will still have discretion to approve or deny parole, based on expert assessments of whether the prisoner has been rehabilitated or still poses a danger to society.

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Weekend open thread: Improbably smooth GOP state convention edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

The Republican Party of Iowa finished all party business at yesterday’s state convention in under six hours. (For comparison, all four of the Iowa Democratic Party’s district conventions lasted more than twice as long.) You’d never guess that a candidate not named Donald Trump won the Iowa Republican caucuses in February, or that his supporters dominated the four GOP district conventions last month. State party chair Jeff Kaufmann assured journalists that the project of uniting the party was well underway after a sometimes bitter primary season.

During their speeches to convention delegates, Governor Terry Branstad said, “We need to support Donald Trump and his choice for vice president because he will make America great again.” Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds echoed the call to stand united against Democrats. As O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst didn’t mention Trump’s name but argued, “We’ve got to come together, because you know what my motto is going to be this year? Never Hillary! Never!” A massive wall display symbolized the delegates’ commitment to “Stop Hillary” from becoming president.

Representative Steve King, who said a few days ago that he is “not ready” to endorse Trump yet, left little doubt yesterday that he will be able to do so by the time of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

The at-large slate of RNC delegates chosen yesterday included Branstad, Reynolds, King, and Bob Vander Plaats, who like King was a high-profile endorser of Ted Cruz before the caucuses. Vander Plaats and Trump had a big dustup on Twitter in January. This week, Vander Plaats told Neil Cavuto of Fox News that he recently met one-on-one with Trump, adding that there was “no endorsement” but that the two men had a “good conversation.”

At least a handful of #NeverTrump types, such as conservative blogger Shane Vander Hart, were among the more than 1550 delegates at yesterday’s state convention, but they did not make their presence known in any organized or vocal way.

The party platform debate proceeded briskly, with no big floor fights. Planks approved by voice vote included one that would eliminate more than a half-dozen federal agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration along with the long-hated-by-Republicans Internal Revenue Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Education. The Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble highlighted some platform planks that are at odds with Trump’s positions.

Some Iowa GOP conventions have involved intense battles over electing the man and woman to represent our state on the Republican National Committee. However, Tamara Scott was unopposed yesterday for re-election, and Steve Scheffler easily outpolled his little-known opponent David Dicks, a homeschooling dad from Des Moines.

Speaking of Scheffler, how about that guy’s survival skills? The founder of the Iowa Christian Alliance, whom conservative talk radio host Steve Deace has called the “least trustworthy & most gutless person in Iowa politics,” was first elected as RNC committeeman in 2008. His victory over a legend of the Iowa Republican establishment was seen as a sign the Iowa GOP was moving to the right. Scheffler held on as RNC committeeman in 2012 amid the takeover of Iowa GOP machinery by Ron Paul supporters, winning a spot on their approved delegate slate. (Craig Robinson described here how Scheffler did “a 180” on Paul.) The “Paulinista” faction was mostly swept away in 2014, but Scheffler is still standing.

His ability to align himself with establishment figures goes back a long way. Scheffler first made a name for himself as a “lead organizer” for Pat Robertson before the 1988 Iowa caucuses. Robertson’s second-place finish in that contest shocked the political world. Scheffler went on to become a prominent Christian Coalition activist but disappointed some allies in social conservative circles by endorsing Bob Dole before the 1996 caucuses. As head of the Iowa Christian Alliance in 2007, Scheffler did not endorse a presidential candidate but “often spoke highly” of Mitt Romney (see here) and “was accused of trying to undermine Mike Huckabee’s campaign,” which had much more support among Iowa evangelicals at that time. I’ve posted more background on Scheffler below.

UPDATE: Every Iowa Republican who has endorsed Trump should be asked about this article by David Cay Johnston: “Just What Were Donald Trump’s Ties to the Mob?” Johnston won a Pulitzer prize in 2001 for his reporting on loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code.

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IA-04, IA-Gov: Kim Reynolds endorses Steve King

Yesterday Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds became the fourth Republican who has won a statewide election to endorse seven-term Representative Steve King in his primary race against State Senator Rick Bertrand. Speaking exclusively to the Sioux City Journal’s Bret Hayworth,

Reynolds said she doesn’t usually get involved in contested primaries, but said King has been an effective congressman.

“He has been an effective advocate for his district and for Iowans,” Reynolds said of King.

Reynolds said she appreciated his support in 2010. She alluded to a floor flight that year at the state Republican convention, where King ultimately placed her name into nomination for lieutenant governor.

I had forgotten that King formally nominated Reynolds. Even in politically active circles, Reynolds was barely known when Branstad announced two days before the Iowa GOP’s state convention that the first-term state senator would be his running mate. Many Republican state delegates were social conservatives who had backed Bob Vander Plaats in the gubernatorial race, so when State Representative Dwayne Alons nominated Vander Plaats for lieutenant governor, there was a real chance the vote might go his way. King’s support for Reynolds must have been helpful. In the end, 749 convention delegates voted for Reynolds to appear on the GOP ticket, while 579 voted for Vander Plaats.

Reynolds will almost certainly run for governor in 2018, either from her current position or (I suspect) as the incumbent, if Governor Terry Branstad resigns before the end of his sixth term. One of her likely rivals in the next gubernatorial campaign is Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, who was the first statewide office-holder to endorse King for the fourth Congressional district primary. U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have also publicly backed King. A poll recently commissioned by a new group supporting the incumbent showed King leading Bertrand among likely voters by more than a 4 to 1 margin.

I enclose below the King campaign’s statement on the Reynolds endorsement. Any comments on the IA-04 race are welcome in this thread.

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