The Republican Party appears to have learned at least one important lesson from the 2008 Iowa legislative races: making social issues like abortion the centerpiece of the campaign was a poor strategy in competitive districts.
This year Republican leaders in the legislature and the state party apparatus have talked much more about economic and fiscal issues than about the religious right's agenda. Even in the weeks following the Iowa Supreme Court's Varnum v Brien ruling, the state party said little about gay marriage.
Republican candidate Stephen Burgmeier is sticking to the new GOP script in his campaign for the September 1 special election in Iowa House district 90. The "views" page on his website doesn't spell out his views on abortion or same-sex marriage, and his first television ad focused on the state budget and taxes. The decision to downplay social issues doesn't seem to bother the Iowa Family Policy Center, which has one of its staffers working on the ground in district 90.
However, some social conservatives don't appreciate being told to keep their mouths shut while doing heavy lifting for Republicans. One of them is Dan Cesar, who ran in House district 90 last year on the Fourth of July ticket when Republicans declined to field a candidate against incumbent John Whitaker. Cesar is running in the special election too and is bashing Burgmeier:
"[Burgmeier] has avoided the words pro-life in everything he says. He's avoided the fact that he's a Catholic and belongs to a faith community. I take exception to that. His handlers are telling him to do that." [...]
"The [Republican] party told me they don't want to focus on pro-life," he said. "So I either run again as a third party or shut up. Shut up and let a coward run as a Democrat and someone I consider a sellout run as a Republican. I stood up and said I will run."
Cesar also doesn't like Burgmeier's record of raising taxes as a county supervisor.
The Iowa GOP will likely repeat the district 90 playbook across the state next year, especially if Burgmeier wins on September 1. Social conservatives won't appreciate being marginalized. If Democratic candidate Curt Hanson prevails in district 90, the religious right-wingers will probably be even more angry, claiming that social issues could have won the day.
This argument is sure to continue during the Republican gubernatorial primary, which will come down to Bob Vander Plaats against someone backed by the business wing (Terry Branstad, Chris Rants or Christian Fong). Vander Plaats believes the GOP can win by embracing "core principles" and "bold-color conservatism that inspires faith, family and freedom."