Gingrich implodes, Romney skips straw poll and other Iowa caucus news

Political junkies may not have Newt Gingrich to kick around much longer. His whole presidential campaign staff quit yesterday, frustrated by the candidate’s lack of a work ethic.

Iowa Republicans will have fewer chances to kick Mitt Romney around this summer. The former Massachusetts governor won’t compete in the Iowa GOP’s straw poll this August, his campaign confirmed yesterday.

After the jump I have more links on those stories and other Republican presidential candidate news. I’ve got nothing on the Iowa GOP Lincoln dinner fundraiser that was supposed to be held tonight, though, because the state party canceled that event after Donald Trump backed out.

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Gentry Collins could face uphill battle for top RNC job

Longtime Iowa GOP political operative Gentry Collins has formed a campaign organization to back his likely bid for Republican National Committee chairman this January. If elected, he would be the fifth leader of the national GOP from Iowa and the first since pro-choice moderate Mary Louise Smith chaired the RNC in the mid-1970s.

Collins’ resignation letter as RNC political director probably buried Michael Steele’s already faint hope of being re-elected for another two-year term as party leader. Several factors are likely to count against Collins when the 168 RNC members consider the possible successors to Steele, though.

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Rematch coming in Iowa House district 84

Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times reports that Ross Paustian will again challenge State Representative Elesha Gayman in Iowa House district 84. In 2008, Gayman defeated Paustian by about 800 votes, 52.4 percent to 47.4 percent.

It was a dispiriting loss for Republicans on several levels. Paustian led election-night returns until the massive number of absentee and early votes were added to the tally. Gayman was considered vulnerable as a first-termer in a traditionally Republican county. Conservative groups had poured tons of money into negative ads against Gayman. An organization funded by Mid-American Energy, RJ Reynolds and other corporations began running commercials against Gayman and a few other Iowa House Democrats in early 2008. The Republican Party spent heavily in the district too. Shortly before election day, the American Future Fund ran new ads against a group of House Democrats including Gayman. Still, Paustian came up short.

House district 84 didn’t turn out to be one of the closest Iowa legislative races last year, but I expect a Gayman/Paustian rematch to be highly competitive. Democratic turnout tends to be lower in non-presidential years, and Republicans may benefit from an “enthusiasm gap” in 2010. The unemployment rate in Scott County was nearly 7 percent in August 2009 and could be higher next year. The Scott County GOP has an ambitious new chairman, Brian Kennedy. He is raising more money and trying to build a bigger grassroots organization. Gayman and State Representative Phyllis Thede (House district 81) are certain to be targeted.

On the plus side, Gayman was very involved in Barack Obama’s campaign before and after the Iowa caucuses, and since July of this year she’s been consulting for the Iowa Federation of Labor’s Working Iowa Neighbors program. In other words, she has plenty of friends in a position to help her get out the vote. Also, Paustian is a farmer, and as Bleeding Heartland user American007 has noted, Iowans seem to be electing more white-collar professionals and fewer farmers to the legislature these days.

There’s always a chance that the job market will improve significantly before next fall, although jobs tend to be a lagging indicator, and Iowa tends to be slow to come out of recessions.

Bleeding Heartland readers, how would you handicap a Gayman/Paustian rematch?

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Talk about missing the big picture

Craig Robinson has a post up at The Iowa Republican on efforts by the Scott County GOP to “turn the tide” for Republicans in eastern Iowa and statewide. The problem:

Just over a decade ago, Republicans held eight of the nine legislative seats in Scott County, today Republicans only control three of those seats. […] Currently, Republicans control only five senate seats and sixteen house seats east of Polk County. If you want to understand why Republicans have lost their majorities, one need[s] to look at what has happened to the state of the Republican Party in eastern Iowa.

In January of 2000, there were almost 5,000 more registered Republicans in Scott County than there were registered Democrats. Today, Democrats enjoy a registered voter advantage of 8,622 over Republicans. The 13,000 person swing in registered voters explains why Republicans have struggled to win elections in Scott County, the first congressional district, and statewide.

In the late 1990’s, Republican statewide candidates could win if they were able to perform reasonably well in Polk County. Many times, western Iowa counties as along with eastern Iowa Republican strongholds like Scott County could offset the margin that Democratic candidates could build in Polk and Johnson counties. Unfortunately, those were the glory days of Republican politics. In recent years, the only area of the state in which Republicans can build significant margins over Democrats is in northwest Iowa.

Here’s a name you won’t find in Robinson’s piece: Jim Leach. In the “glory days,” Jim Leach represented Scott County in Congress. But other Republicans attacked Congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks last year because she praised Leach’s work (even though she disagreed with his pro-choice position).  Now Christian Fong, the only gubernatorial candidate from eastern Iowa, assures voters that he is a social conservative and ducked a question about whether he’d ever voted for Leach.

In the “glory days,” most of the statehouse Republicans representing eastern Iowa were moderates. But in the 2006 Republican primary in Iowa Senate district 41, right-wing interest groups helped David Hartsuch oust pro-choice incumbent Republican Maggie Tinsman. Legislators on both sides of the aisle respected Tinsman, which can’t be said of Hartsuch. Getting rid of Tinsman helped social conservatives gain more power in the Iowa GOP, but I doubt it helped the Republican brand in Scott County.

The Republican Party in Iowa and nationally has simply become too conservative to compete in much of eastern Iowa. The same process has turned many longtime Republican districts in Illinois and Wisconsin blue.

Robinson praises Brian Kennedy’s organizing and fundraising work as the finance chair of the Scott County GOP. He argues that rising unemployment in eastern Iowa has created an opening for Republicans in 2010. For that reason, Kennedy wants GOP candidates to focus on “job creation and the economy.” But clearly, there is no room in the GOP for candidates who don’t accept all of the religious right’s positions, whether or not they talk about jobs.

Until the Republican Party makes room in the tent for people who admire Jim Leach, they won’t regain a dominant position in places like Scott County. A weak economy can help the GOP make up some ground next year, and raising more money can improve their grassroots organizing, but that won’t solve their fundamental problem.

Eastern Iowa Bleeding Heartland readers, tell me if I’m right or wrong and why.

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Are Bruce Rastetter and the Iowa GOP laying a trap for Tom Harkin?

(I'm skeptical than any prominent Republican would want to take on Harkin this year, but this diary has original research and is worth promoting. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A number of signs indicate that Rastetter has been be quietly gearing up for a campaign for quite awhile. His involvement in Iowa Future Fund, the shady 501(c)(4) that ran anti-Culver ads, was my first clue. (I first posted about Rastetter and IFF/IPP at Bleeding Heartland here.)

Another clue was that someone privately registered “brucerastetter.com” and “brucerastetter.org” in early December 2007. 

An even bigger clue was that Rastetter hired Nicholas T. “Nick” Ryan in January 2007. Ryan had just come off a stint as campaign manager for Jim Nussle's failed gubernatorial bid.

Bruce Rastetter is CEO of  Hawkeye Energy Holdings, Iowa's largest ethanol producer and the third largest in the nation. In September, the Cyclone Conservative commented that “a Rastetter candidacy would also be attractive because Rastetter would carry a tremendous amount of gravitas on renewable fuels and agriculture issues.”

CC also speculated that Rastetter's $1.75 million gift to Iowa State University was a political ploy to garner favorable publicity for Rastetter, the candidate. Sounds plausible to me.

If Rastetter runs, Iowa Dems can expect an enormous amount of money to be poured into his campaign, both on and off the books. The  probable reason for the secrecy about Rastetter's intentions is to catch Tom Harkin and Iowa Dems off guard about how stiff Harkin's competition will be in terms of the candidate and money.

Richard O. Jacobson, founder of Jacobson Companies, is chairman of Hawkeye Energy. Jacobson kicked in $50k to Nussle in '06.

Rastetter is very close to Peter M. Castleman, chairman of J. H. Whitney & Company, a private equity firm based in Connecticut. Rastetter is also linked to Whitney partner, Russell Stidololph, through Altenergy LLC. Nick Ryan uses nryan@alternergyllc.com

Thomas H. Lee Partners, a Boston private equity firm, has a majority stake in Hawkeye Energy. Expect financial support for Rastetter from the THL partners.

At one point, Rastetter and his partners at J. H. Whitney planned to make a $200 million investment in Iowa wind farms but not much as been mentioned about it recently. I am particularly curious about the wind farms because I read yesterday that T. Boone Pickens is investing $10 billion to create a chain of wind farms that stretches from Texas through the Great Plains. 

If Pickens is behind Rastetter, Iowa Dems are in big trouble. In 2004, Pickens contributed $1 milion to Swift Boat Vets and $2.5 million to Progress For America, another 527, that raised $48 million. The DCI Group, the premier Republican slime shop, was behind PFA.  

I strongly suspect that Iowan, Brian Kennedy, is managing Iowa Future Fund/Iowa Progress Project. Kennedy, a DCI Group exec, is co-founder of PFA. More on the link between the DCI Group, the Iowa Future Fund and its affiliate, the American Future Fund here.

Kennedy made a failed primary bid for an Iowan congressional seat in 2006. He is also the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.   

The brucerastetter.com website lists 400 Locust Street, Suite 330, Des Moines, IA 50309 as its address. I checked the online phonebook and couldn't find an organization specifically listed in Suite 330 but I did find Summit Capital Group at Suite 480.

Summit Capital, a Rastetter company, is the one that employs Nick Ryan. Although Ryan claimed he was first employed by Summit Capital in January 2007, Summit Capital was only registered with the Iowa Secretary of State on February 21, 2007.

The Arag Group, curiously enough, is also listed at 400 Locust St, Suite 480.

That's it for me and Bruce Rastetter for the moment but first a question. If I am right about Rastetter running, did Rastetter violate any campaign laws by raising money without declaring his candidacy? Me, I'd go after Rastetter with a chainsaw if I were an Iowa Dem.

(Crossposted at TPM Cafe)  

Update: As senateguru noted in the comments, the deadline to register for the June senate primary has passed. But let's take a look at the candidates who did register: George S. Eichhorn, Christopher Reed and Steve Rathje.

Steve Rathje is the only candidate to register his campaign committee with the FEC. Since he registered in September 2005, he has raised $123k which came mostly from relatives, friends and Rathje personally. At 3/31/08, Rathje had a whopping $7k in cash on hand.

Compare Rathje's fundraising to that of Harkin's 2002 opponent, Greg Ganske. At 3/31/02, Ganske had $1.3 million in cash on hand and had spent $800k in the first quarter of 2002 alone. Ganske ultimately spent a total of $5 million vs Harkin's $8 million.

Interesting that Rathje's website is on the National Republican Party's server of choice, Smartech. Smartech was host to the off-record email accounts of many White House staffers and many of the so-called “missing” emails went through Smartech's servers.

Conventional Iowa wisdom is that the Republicans won't run a strong candidate against Harkin but this field of candidates is so pathetic, it lends strength to my argument that Rastetter could very well make a surprise run. I just don't know enough about election law to know if it is doable.  What if all three primary candidates dropped out?

If anyone can tell me more about Harkin's likely opponent, I'd appreciate it. I'd appreciate it even more if anyone knows how the prospective candidate will raise a few million bucks to run a respectable race.   

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