UPDATE: All four Iowans voted for Mike Johnson for speaker on October 25. Original post follows.
Iowa’s four U.S. House members didn’t want to be here.
Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01), Ashley Hinson (IA-02), Zach Nunn (IA-03), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) were Kevin McCarthy loyalists from day one of the new Congress. All voted against the motion to vacate the speaker’s position early this month.
Nineteen days after the House of Representatives removed a speaker for the first time in history, the Republican majority is no closer to finding a way out of the morass. A plan to temporarily empower interim Speaker Patrick McHenry collapsed before coming to the floor. House Judiciary chair Jim Jordan was unable to gain a majority in any of the three House votes this past week. Republicans voted by secret ballot on October 20 not to keep Jordan as their nominee for speaker.
At minimum, the House will be without a leader for three weeks. Members went home for the weekend with plans to return for a “candidate forum” on October 23, and a possible House floor vote the following day. More than a half-dozen Republicans are now considering running for speaker; none has a clear path to 217 votes. McCarthy has endorsed Representative Tom Emmer, the current majority whip. But former President Donald Trump, a close ally of Jordan, doesn’t like Emmer, who voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results. Most Republicans in public life are afraid to become a target for Trump or his devoted followers.
The Iowans have adopted distinct strategies for navigating the embarrassing crisis.
MARIANNETTE MILLER-MEEKS: OUT ON A LIMB
Let’s start with Miller-Meeks—not because her district comes first numerically, but because her approach to this epic failure is by far the most intriguing.
Before this past week, Miller-Meeks was best known outside Iowa for winning the closest U.S. House race in the country in 2020. But she made national news and enraged MAGA world when she flipped from supporting Jordan on the October 17 ballot to voting for House Appropriations Committee chair Kay Granger the next day. The handful of vote switchers mattered because they conveyed that opposition to Trump’s preferred speaker candidate was growing in the GOP caucus.
“He did not have the votes”
Miller-Meeks has tried to walk a careful line when discussing the speaker controversy in official statements and interviews. She hasn’t depicted Jordan as unfit for the job due to his failure to stop sexual abuse of Ohio State wrestlers, or his attempts to subvert the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election.
On the contrary: during an October 19 interview with conservative WHO Radio host Simon Conway, Miller-Meeks said she likes and respects Jordan, and the two had worked well together on a House select subcommittee to investigate the coronavirus pandemic. (She didn’t mention it, but Jordan headlined a fundraiser for her in Iowa City early this year.)
So what were her concerns? Miller-Meeks has leaned on a process argument while denouncing the intimidation coming from Jordan’s supporters.
Jordan wasn’t Miller-Meeks’ first or her second choice for the job. She endorsed House Majority Leader Steve Scalise for speaker shortly after McCarthy’s ouster. Scalise bowed out after it became clear he would not be able to win 217 votes on the House floor, despite beating Jordan in a secret caucus ballot by 113 to 99.
Miller-Meeks indicated to Des Moines Register reporter Katie Akin on October 15 that she had backed Jordan in a private caucus vote after Scalise took himself out of the running. But during a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on October 16, Miller-Meeks complained about the pressure tactics being used against members who hadn’t committed to Jordan. She told reporters at the Capitol that night she was undecided on the speaker’s race.
By the time they got to Miller-Meeks in the alphabetical roll call on October 17, it was clear Jordan was well short of the votes he’d need. The Iowan said later in a news release, “I voted for Jim Jordan for the greater good of the House Republican party, based on our Conference meeting and the test Speaker ballot that was cast earlier this week.”
Jordan’s failure to win on that first ballot gave Miller-Meeks a good excuse for bailing on him. As she told Conway, Jordan had floated a new rule: instead of the person who won the secret caucus ballot becoming the House speaker designee, a person would need the support of at least 217 Republican members before going to the House floor. Miller-Meeks added,
So you know, that’s the Jordan standard. I voted for him because I respect him. I think he has the same value system that I have. But it became very apparent that he did not hold himself to the same standard he was holding Steve Scalise to, to the Jordan standard. And he did not have the votes.
“I will not bend to bullies”
The backlash was immediate. In a statement released hours after the second speaker ballot, Miller-Meeks said she had received “credible death threats and a barrage of threatening calls” since voting for Granger. Her office had referred the matter to law enforcement. “One thing I cannot stomach, or support is a bully.” She went on to say:
Someone who threatens another with bodily harm or tries to suppress differing opinions undermines opportunity for unity and regard for freedom of speech. That’s why I spoke out forcefully against censorship and suppression during the COVID-19 pandemic. I did not stand for bullies before I voted for Chairwoman Granger and when I voted for Speaker designee Jordan, and I will not bend to bullies now.
I understand that voting against Rep Jordan is not popular at this time. I respected Jim enough to vote for him, knowing he did not have the votes to be elected. We have had numerous calls to all our offices, and many have urged that I support Jim Jordan and many others urged me to look for a conservative consensus candidate.
Our party needs a consensus candidate so we can get back to the work forwarding appropriations, supporting Israel, and stopping the insane policies of the Biden Administration. Policies that are causing sky high prices and interest rates, an invasion of our southern border, undermining our national security, and bringing countless pounds of fentanyl and other illegal drugs into our country.
Miller-Meeks struck a defiant tone at a fundraiser for her campaign in Coralville on October 20. The Register’s Akin quoted her as saying, “I am never going to quit fighting for Iowa, and I am never going to quit fighting for this country. So if you think you can intimidate me, go … suck it up, buttercup!”
I admire Miller-Meeks for standing up to be counted. Dozens of her colleagues took the coward’s way out: they opposed Jordan in secret ballots behind closed doors, then voted for him on the House floor three times.
That said, let’s not pretend Miller-Meeks hasn’t done her best to avoid antagonizing the MAGA wing in the past. Despite voting to certify the 2020 electoral vote count, she lent credibility to Trump’s lies by highlighting alleged “fraud” and “irregularities” in some states Joe Biden carried. She also attended and spoke at a Trump rally in Des Moines in October 2021.
On the rare occasions Miller-Meeks has cast a Congressional vote likely to upset the GOP base—supporting a bipartisan January 6 commission, or a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act—she did not announce those votes in any news release or social media post. Her public persona in interviews and on social media platforms is a steady stream of crowd-pleasing material attacking President Biden on the southern border, COVID-19, the economy, and so on.
The “I-was-for-Jordan-before-I-was-against-him” stance may end up being the worst of all possible worlds.
Some House Republicans who opposed Jordan will attract 2024 primary challengers. Miller-Meeks may not be too worried about that scenario, because she won competitive GOP primaries in 2008, 2010 (when the National Republican Congressional Committee backed a different contender), 2014, and 2020. Even so, she probably won’t want to spend down a big chunk of her war chest before next year’s primary.
Assuming Miller-Meeks wins the nomination and Trump is the GOP nominee for president, some MAGA voters may leave the IA-01 ballot line blank in the general election, or write in some other candidate. No matter how much Miller-Meeks talks about inflation or the southern border, she’s not widely viewed as a Trumper. She underperformed the president in 2020 in all but one county of her district.
Trump snubbed Miller-Meeks last year, even as he gave other Iowa Republicans on the 2022 ballot his “Complete and Total Endorsement!” I expect her to return the favor by endorsing Nikki Haley for president sometime before the Iowa caucuses. If that happens, some Trump fans will remember in November.
Meanwhile, supporting Jordan on the first ballot could fuel general election attacks. Democratic challenger Christina Bohannan sent a statement to news media minutes after the October 17 vote in the House.
Rep. Miller-Meeks’ choice for Speaker yet again shows her true values. Instead of working together to empower a moderate option that can get things done for Iowa, Miller-Meeks prefers an extremist who is the author of the GOP’s nationwide abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest – which she also herself supported.
And at a time when the farm bill has expired, with no replacement in sight, Miller-Meeks has chosen a politician who has opposed every farm bill that’s come before him in Congress.
Miller-Meeks is a part of the Washington Republican machine whose extreme agenda puts nationwide abortion bans ahead of real results for Iowans like the farm bill. And sadly, Iowans are going to continue to pay the price until we have new leadership that actually fights for our communities.
ASHLEY HINSON: MAINTAINING HER BRAND
She returned to the talking point dozens of times during her first term in Congress. On a telephone town hall: “I’m working every day to cut through the chaos and dysfunction in Washington to deliver for our families, workers, small businesses, and farmers.” While Congress was negotiating a continuing spending resolution: “Let me tell you, the chaos and dysfunction in Speaker Pelosi’s House is on full display.” After the House passed another big spending bill: “Iowans sent me to Washington to stop the chaos and dysfunction in Congress, not enable it further.” After voting against the CHIPS and Science Act: “This is yet another example of Washington chaos and dysfunction standing in the way of legitimate solutions to serious challenges.”
Hinson has continued to use this rhetoric as a member of the majority party. A column her office submitted to Iowa news media last month began, “It’s no secret: Washington is broken and deeply dysfunctional. We need to root out corruption, end the chaos and dysfunction, put a check on lazy, unelected bureaucrats, and drain the swamp.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention lately knows the chaos and dysfunction are coming from inside the House Republican caucus. Longtime Congressional reporter Jamie Dupree characterized the lower chamber as “The Do-Nothing GOP House” in a recent column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Hinson has done her best to preserve her political brand throughout this awkward situation.
McCarthy and some other House Republicans have tried to shift blame for the speaker fiasco onto Democrats. Hinson has echoed those points, without minimizing the part some GOP members played. Her goal seems to be to assure Iowans she’s not one of those Republicans.
In her floor speech urging House members not to remove McCarthy, Hinson pleaded with colleagues not to “be a chaos agent” and criticized those “who are causing chaos for their own personal benefit, while ignoring the needs of their constituents and this country, grinding our work here to a halt.” Following the motion to vacate, she said in a news release, “I will continue working to end the embarrassing chaos and dysfunction and pursuing solutions to the challenges Iowans are facing each day.”
She has since tried to distance herself from the spectacle in many social media posts, such as this October 18 video:
The House is clocking out for the day without a Speaker or consensus to move forward – it’s unacceptable. We should be on the Floor voting for Speaker or meeting as a Conference to work out a plan.— Ashley Hinson (@RepAshleyHinson) October 18, 2023
There’s no time to waste. pic.twitter.com/m3mANMoLUT
Hinson’s most recent weekly newsletter, dated October 19, again sought to separate herself from those causing the problems.
The chaos and dysfunction we are seeing in DC is exactly what I came to Congress to combat. This embarrassing drama cannot continue as Iowa families are facing challenges each day, Israel is under attack, and our border remains open.
Let me be clear: this never should have happened in the first place. The chaos agents who worked with every single Democrat to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy because of personal vendettas with no forethought for how it would impact our critical legislative agenda or national security are shameful.
The House was just adjourned for the weekend without electing a Speaker. To say I’m disappointed and frustrated is an understatement. I think we should have locked ourselves in a room and worked through the day and night until we came up with a solution so that we could restart work on our legislative priorities. We’re losing valuable time, and the only ones who really stand to lose are hardworking people in Iowa and across the country.
Even those who didn’t open the email would get the drift from the subject line: “Speaker Update – No Excuse to Send Members Home.”
That same post sought to portray Hinson as a team player: “I voted for Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, and Jim Jordan for Speaker. I voted for Jim Jordan three times on the Floor, including today. […] At each stage of the dysfunction, I’ve advocated for solutions.”
She closed with a promise: “Serving you in Congress is the honor of my life and no matter the circumstances in DC, I will fight for you, bring some Iowa common sense to the crazy situations up here, and never lose sight of what is important.”
One more point worth noting: Dave Price observed that Hinson was the most prominent Iowa Republican to publicly denounce the death threats Miller-Meeks allegedly received after voting against Jordan. Those who have not posted on their social media feeds about the threats include Nunn, Feenstra, Senator Chuck Grassley, Senator Joni Ernst, Governor Kim Reynolds, and Republican Party of Iowa state chair Jeff Kaufmann.
ZACH NUNN: KEEPING HIS HEAD DOWN
Iowa’s newest House member has kept a lower profile than Miller-Meeks or Hinson during the speaker drama. Early on, Nunn criticized those who put the speaker’s job at risk: “We have just 45 days to pass bills to get spending under control. Wasting even one day voting on a motion to vacate instead of budget cuts is self defeating & DC politics at its worst. I am a NO on the motion to vacate & a YES to getting back to work for Americans.”
In a statement released to some news media on October 3, Nunn characterized the vote to remove McCarthy as a “stunt” and “DC politics at its worst, repeatedly obstructing the real work that must get done to secure our Southern Border and cut wasteful spending.”
To my knowledge, Nunn never disclosed whether he favored Scalise or Jordan to replace McCarthy. Nor did he release any statement or post explaining his decision to vote for Jordan on the House floor last week. His press releases, social media feeds and emails to constituents have focused on the crisis in Israel, bills he’s introduced, upcoming office hours, or other topics.
Nunn has made a few gestures like Hinson’s to distance himself from the troublemakers. An October 10 email blast began,
As the last few weeks have highlighted, the status quo in D.C. is critically broken, but I refuse to give up.
I’m a glass half full person, and I’m on a mission to bring a little Iowa commonsense to the battles that matter – like cutting wasteful spending, protecting the critical programs Iowans rely on, reining in out-of-control inflation, and securing our Southern border.
After coming out of a GOP caucus meeting on October 12, Nunn told a group of reporters, “I came to Washington not to have palace intrigue, but to start moving out on policy bills that actually help people in my home district.” He touted his work to help constituents affected by the events in Israel and Gaza, and emphasized how important it is for the House to pass budget bills and move ahead on policies.
In response to a reporter’s question about how to move forward, Nunn said he cared less about who will be the speaker and more about their willingness to bring policy to the floor. He added, “I’m only on this job for ten months. There’s a lot of people with a lot of baggage. They need to move beyond what’s in their personal interests and start putting their own 750,000 bosses’ interest before their own.”
An October 18 email to constituents, linked on his official Facebook page, didn’t mention Nunn’s votes for Jordan on the first two speaker ballots. Instead, it led with his professed commitment to protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits. (The Republican who nominated Jordan for speaker had specifically praised his “courage to talk about a long-term plan and to get at the real drivers of debt,” which he identified as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.)
Nunn’s message then pivoted to this paragraph, in bold type:
Bottomline: We can’t let the so-called representatives in Washington, many of whom are more focused on their five minutes of fame rather than getting work done, use your earned benefits as tokens in a political game. I’ll keep fighting on your behalf.
How does Nunn think Republicans should accomplish that? Your guess is as good as mine.
RANDY FEENSTRA: PRETENDING NOTHING IS HAPPENING
The speaker fiasco has no precedent in U.S. history. But if you received all your news from Randy Feenstra, you would have no idea anything unusual was happening in Congress.
Feenstra and his staff have kept up a steady stream of social media posts about bills the Republican introduced, “Bidenomics,” support for Israel, the southern border, meetings with constituents, and so on. I found no references to any upheaval in the House or votes for speaker on Feenstra’s official Facebook page or in his press releases. Out of dozens of posts on the IA-04 Republican’s X/Twitter account since October 3, only one referenced the drama.
There was no follow-up after the failed attempts to elect Jordan, so X/Twitter followers would have no clue how Feenstra wants Republicans to proceed from here.
Feenstra’s office has sent out three weekly newsletters since the motion to vacate the speaker’s position. None alluded to the leadership vacuum in any way. Topics covered in the October 6 edition of “Randy’s Roundup”:
- criticism of Biden’s trade policy
- thanking Iowa law enforcement
- meeting with the CEO of a major health system
- House floor remarks honoring a slain police officer
- support for U.S. energy production
- national 4-H week
- poll question: “Do you think President Biden should have forgiven $9 billion in student-loan debt?”
From the October 13 missive:
- praying for Israel
- veterans deserve benefits they’ve earned
- thanking Iowa law enforcement again
- opening new markets for Iowa producers
- condemning Hamas, standing with Israel
- fighting for our farmers
- solar eclipse to be visible in Siouxland
- poll question: “Do you think that we should prohibit American tax dollars from funding Iran?”
From the latest “Randy’s Roundup,” which hit inboxes on October 20:
- standing with Israel
- securing the southern border
- meeting with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry
- bill to make tax cuts permanent
- staff visited the 85th Refueling Wing in Sioux City
- bill to expand trade, help farmers
- celebrating National Pork Month
- a ribbon cutting ceremony in Sioux City
- Medicare open enrollment runs through December 7
- column on Feenstra advocating for a new Farm Bill
- poll question: “Do you agree with me that we must deliver aid to Israel?”
It’s ludicrous to brag about introducing this or that bill. My good man, your caucus can’t even elect a speaker or keep the government funded! Even if the House were functioning normally, none of this legislation would get through the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Although Feenstra’s “nothing to see here” posturing is laughable, his approach reveals a serious shortcoming. By glossing over an impasse that has paralyzed the House for weeks, Feenstra insults his constituents’ intelligence. These people are politically engaged enough to follow a member of Congress on social media, or sign up to receive his weekly emails. Is he hoping they won’t hear about the “chaos and dysfunction” now reigning on Capitol Hill? Does he think they don’t deserve to know whether he preferred Scalise or Jordan to lead the caucus, and why?
I don’t know whether ignoring the elephant in the room reflects arrogance or simply a fear of getting crosswise with any segment of the GOP base. Feenstra may stand more than a foot taller than Miller-Meeks, but this episode has made him appear very small indeed.