Dream recruit may spark Republican infighting in Senate district 45

Iowa Republicans have landed Sandy Greiner, their dream candidate against first-term Democratic State Senator Becky Schmitz in Senate district 45. The southeast Iowa district includes all of Washington, Jefferson, and Van Buren counties, plus part of Wapello and Johnson counties (map here). Schmitz defeated Republican incumbent David Miller by 184 votes in 2006, but the area leans slightly Republican in terms of voter registration.

Greiner represented Iowa House district 89, which makes up half of Senate district 45, for four terms (1993 to 2001). She then served for two years in the Iowa Senate before redistricting prompted her to return to House district 89 for another three terms (2003-2009). Consequently, she starts the race with high name recognition in the area and will be able to campaign almost as an incumbent. Republican blogger Craig Robinson sounds ready to declare this seat won for the GOP.

Greiner will be a stronger opponent for Schmitz than the three Republicans who had previously declared for the seat (Richard Marlar, Randy Besick and Dan Cesar). However, I would not assume that local Republicans will be united behind her this fall. Greiner is linked to business elites who have battled with activists on the religious right for control over the direction of the Iowa GOP.

Join me after the jump for more background on Greiner and why I suspect some social conservatives will fight her candidacy.

Greiner retired from the Iowa House in 2008. Her wikipedia page (updated less than 24 hours after she announced her plans to run against Schmitz) claims,

Greiner had previously passed on a run [in Senate district 45 in 2010], choosing retirement instead, but because of the lack of a candidate she believed could win, Greiner reconsidered.

On March 7, Greiner disputed that account:

I don’t know WHO entered that drivil [sic] on Wikipedia. I certainly didn’t. Most likely it was someone attempting to create hard feelings in the Primary. Anyone who was at the County Conventions in Washington, Jefferson, Wapello or Van Burean [sic] Counties yesterday can attest that I repeatedly spoke about the respect I hold for my Primary opponents.

In the same thread at The Iowa Republican, commenter IM4Klein asserted that Greiner was approached about running in Senate district 45 last summer (which makes sense, since Robinson was touting her as a strong challenger for Schmitz in May 2009). I assume that is the same IM4Klein who wrote last summer at Bleeding Heartland that he had been recruiting Stephen Burgmeier to run against Schmitz but had an even better Republican candidate in mind.

If I were a Republican, I’d also want to draft Greiner for this race. She is an experienced candidate and legislator who represented part of the district for more than a decade. In her last re-election before retirement, she won 55 percent of the vote despite the prevailing winds favoring Democrats in 2006. In contrast, none of the previously declared Republican candidates against Schmitz (Marlar, Besick and Cesar) have ever won an election to my knowledge. Greiner will raise a lot of money and should have no trouble winning the Republican primary.

That said, Greiner’s candidacy has a downside: it could aggravate the tensions between so-called country club Republicans and the religious right wing of the party.

In the summer of 2008, Greiner sought the position of Republican National Committeewoman for the Iowa GOP. She and longtime Republican National Committeeman Steve Roberts lost by a big margin at the state convention to Kim Lehman, the head of Iowa Right to Life, and Steve Scheffler, the head of the Iowa Christian Alliance. The Des Moines Register’s David Yepsen commented at the time,

Roberts and Greiner were seen as the older, more centrist candidates who sought to make the party a big tent that appealed to a wide, diverse group of people.  Scheffler and Lehman said the party needed to take strong stands on social issues in order to attract voters and inspire workers.  Yet centrists argue these positions turn off independents and mainstream voters needed to win elections.

The loss frustrated Greiner’s allies, because she holds conservative views and was backed by the entire Iowa House GOP caucus:

And Greiner is hardly known as a moderate. She was an early Reagan supporter, and in 2008 she served as a state co-chair for the presidential effort of former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

“She’s as conservative as they come,” said retiring state Rep. Carmine Boal. “I’ve watched the woman vote for 16 years; it’s ridiculous.”

In Greiner’s defeat, Boal sees a troubling aspect of how some conservative Christians and their allies conduct their politics–that is, without regard to whether they alienate many Republicans who agree with them on a host of issues, including social ones. “As far as the future of the party, do we take a sharp right [turn], and that’s all we’re going to have?” Boal wonders.

The 2008 state convention vote was just one battle in a war between Republicans with roots in the business elite and those who are motivated primarily by social issues. Doug Gross articulated some of the battle lines during a November 2008 appearance on Iowa Public Television:

Now, what I hear from large givers for the Republican Party is they are tired of losing elections. They think we need to do something different, they think we need the kind of candidates who can appeal to a broader scope of the populous [sic], that we can’t just have litmus tests associated with one particular issue if we’re going to accomplish overall republican goals and we’ve got to accomplish that if we’re going to meet them in terms of the fundraising goal. […]

The interesting thing about that is there are social issues, ask my kids, I’m more conservative probably than Steve [Scheffler] is, that’s how I feel. But I also believe that to be a success in politics you’ve got to win elections and you can’t win elections if you’re a minority party and you only focus on a minority of your coalition. We have to look broader than that. What we really have to do is speak to the fundamental issues that Iowans care about which is I’m working hard every day, in many cases a couple of jobs, my wife works as well, we take care of our kids and yet the government is going to increase our taxes, they’re going to increase spending and they’re going to give that to somebody who is not working. That kind of message will win for republicans among the people we have and we’ve gotten away from that.

Greiner is conservative, but she is closely linked to the Iowa GOP’s business wing. In July 2009 she became board president of the American Future Fund, a conservative advocacy organization with ties to ethanol baron Bruce Rastetter.

Greiner was in the news last fall as the public face of the Draft Branstad PAC, a 527 group that spent money urging Terry Branstad to run for governor. However, the real work in getting Branstad into the governor’s race was done by major Republican donors during the summer. The Draft Branstad PAC looked more like an astroturf operation than a grassroots movement. Greiner converted the organization into the NextGen PAC in October after Branstad formed an exploratory committee and hired a campaign manager. Two former staff members of the American Future Fund took jobs with the Branstad campaign soon after that.

Recent polls indicate that Branstad is the strongest potential Republican candidate for governor, but a sizable minority in the Iowa GOP don’t welcome his return to politics. The Iowa Family Policy Center made a splash by vowing not to endorse Branstad if he becomes the Republican nominee. Some prominent Republicans have even said they wouldn’t vote for Branstad over Democratic incumbent Chet Culver.

Now, I expect the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Senate district 45 would support Greiner against Becky Schmitz. However, her loss to Lehman in the 2008 state convention vote indicates that a significant number of party activists aren’t interested in letting bigwigs from Des Moines call the shots. Likewise, some who prefer Bob Vander Plaats for governor may resent Greiner’s role in drafting Branstad as a candidate.

One might think Greiner’s conservative views would insulate her from discontent on the right, but that may not be the case. When Greiner began her career, only moderate pro-choice Republicans earned the wrath of conservatives. Now even candidates who hold the “correct” position on the issues may be found lacking if they aren’t outspoken enough about those issues.

We saw this dynamic in last year’s special election campaign in Iowa House district 90, which makes up half of Senate district 45. Republican candidate Stephen Burgmeier was against abortion and same-sex marriage rights, but his campaign focused on economic and fiscal topics. Consequently, two conservative candidates, including Dan Cesar, waged their own campaigns for the special election. Here’s what Cesar said of Burgmeier last August:

“[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.”

Even though an outside group spent huge amounts of money making gay marriage an issue in the House district 90 race, Cesar and another social conservative candidate, Douglas Phillips, won a combined 282 votes, which was larger than Democrat Curt Hanson’s 127-vote margin over Burgmeier.

Greiner’s greatest strength as a candidate is her vast experience in the Iowa legislature, but the flip side of that experience is that she has a long voting record. Who knows what committee or floor votes lurk there, which could be blown out of proportion by activists or talk radio hosts seeking to depict Greiner as a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only).

To sum up, I would not be surprised if a spoiler candidate emerged in Senate district 45, or if some conservative Republicans don’t check the box next to Greiner’s name. Some Republicans would rather lose to a Democrat than give a rival faction greater power over the future direction of the GOP. In a tight race against Schmitz, such divisions could make a difference.

I will write more about this race later in the year. Although this is one of the better pickup opportunities for Republicans in the Iowa Senate, I sense that Schmitz is a stronger candidate than Republicans suppose. True, she won by a narrow margin in 2006, and 2010 isn’t shaping up to be another Democratic wave year. But she defeated an incumbent in 2006, which is much harder than winning an open seat. As the incumbent, Schmitz can talk about money she brought to the district and her work as chair of the Senate Education Committee. For instance, she can highlight Iowa’s improving teacher salaries, which was a key campaign promise she made in 2006. (A recent survey indicated that Iowa ranks 26th in teacher salaries, up from 40th in 2007.)

The floor is yours, Bleeding Heartland readers.

LATE UPDATE: John Deeth got a preview of the case Schmitz will make against Greiner at the Johnson County Democrats convention on March 13:

Calls the GOP “the party of has-beens,” referring to all the comeback kids.”They’re trying to bring back Branstad, and now they’re trying to bring back Sandy Greiner,” she said of her likely opponent. […] “She gave all sorts of reasons to leave two years ago, I don’t know what’s changed.” Schmitz says under Greiner’s tenure as chair, people referred to “the environmental degradation committee.”

“She’s very tight with big business and she has deep pockets,” Schmitz said of Greiner.

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