U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks officially has competition in the 2024 Republican primary to represent Iowa’s first Congressional district. David Pautsch, best known as the founder of the Quad Cities Prayer Breakfast, filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission this month and held a news conference on November 16 to lay out his vision.
Based on what we’ve heard so far, Pautsch won’t give Miller-Meeks anything to worry about. She defeated several well-funded opponents as a non-incumbent candidate for Congress, and will take more advantages into next year’s race as an incumbent.
A RELIGIOUS APPEAL, RATHER THAN A POLITICAL CASE
Sarah Watson of the Quad-City Times was first to report on Pautsch’s candidacy. He told her Miller-Meeks “doesn’t have a passion for the relevance of God in our community. She votes wrong consistently.” By way of example, Pautsch cited the incumbent’s vote for the Respect for Marriage Act: “She doesn’t understand that marriage is between a man and a woman, and there’s no such thing as marriage apart from a man and a woman.”
Republican Representative Ashley Hinson (IA-02) and Senator Joni Ernst also voted for that bill, which prohibits states from refusing to recognize any marriage due to the “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” of the individuals involved. President Joe Biden signed it into law last December.
No doubt some rank-and-file Republicans share Pautsch’s view about same-sex marriages, but voters have largely moved on from the issue. Only eight of the 64 Iowa House Republicans co-sponsored a state constitutional amendment this year, which would define marriage as “the solemnized union between one human biological male and one human biological female.”
Pautsch later described his campaign goals at a November 16 news conference. I watched the whole video, thinking I would hear more about why Republican voters should fire Miller-Meeks and hire Pautsch. Instead, the challenger’s remarks sounded more like a Sunday morning sermon than a stump speech.
Watson noted that Pautsch “founded Thy Kingdom Come Ministries in 1988 and the Quad Cities Prayer Breakfast in 1995.” His background in ministry was apparent as he spent the bulk of his press conference making a case for Americans to turn to God. My transcript from an early portion of his speech:
He is not here to condemn you. […] His reputation has been maligned as being bad. You know, the insurance companies are in on this conspiracy. So when a hurricane or a tornado or an earthquake happens, what do they call it? They call it an act of God. Are you kidding? This is not God who does these things. This is the enemy. […] This is Satan. But God is here to do great things for us as a country. All we have to do is ask.
So that is actually my major reason for running. I’m not here to be the first district evangelist. But I’m here to be unashamedly involved in turning us back to God and our dependence on Him.
I thought Pautsch would segue to a more political case for his candidacy as he briefly mentioned his support for “good education,” “security through peace,” “fair elections,” and “healthy families.” (He didn’t delve into conspiracy theories at the news conference, but 2020 election deniers Mike Lindell and Kari Lake were the keynote speakers at the Quad Cities Prayer Breakfast’s events in 2021 and 2023, respectively.)
But Pautsch quickly veered back to more comfortable territory for him, explaining why God wants to be “our shepherd,” and the U.S. Constitution supposedly doesn’t require “separation of church and state.”
More than seven minutes in, Pautsch finally began to explain how he and Miller-Meeks part ways on policy.
She has demonstrated that her convictions are rather wobbly. They’re kind of circumstantial. And so she votes for things that are immoral. She has voted for, actually, the January 6 Select Committee, in opposition to the entire Republican Party. For some reason, she thought it was important to do that.
Actually, Miller-Meeks was one of 35 House Republicans who voted for a bipartisan bill to create a January 6 commission, which would have had five members appointed by each political party and would have given the GOP a lot of influence over the investigation. Then Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy initially supported the idea, before whipping GOP members against the bill at the last minute. Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed the House Select Committee (dominated by Democratic members) after Republicans killed the bipartisan bill in the Senate.
Back to Pautsch’s news conference: He touched on Miller-Meeks’ vote against Jim Jordan—”She couldn’t even get that right”—but never explained why Jordan should have become the House speaker. Pautsch said he was not trying to minimize the death threats Miller-Meeks reportedly received after voting against Jordan, but said “we need to make our convictions known and voted on.”
His main objection to the incumbent seems to be that she is “wobbly.” He characterized his philosophy as follows:
I’m not moved by what I see. I’m not moved by what I feel. I’m moved by what I believe, and I believe the promises of the word of God. […] It’s the only thing that works. Otherwise, I will be wobbly. And I’m not here to be wobbly. And I don’t think we need a Congressman who’s wobbly. We need someone we can trust and who will vote according to our Republican principles and platform.
Pautsch never explained how “the word of God” connects to the Republican Party platform, though he did assert, “I decided to run because I felt the Lord was urging me to run.” He soon veered back to Sunday morning sermon territory: “There is a God, and He is relevant. He wants to help our country. His promise to us is ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.’ What an incredible promise! How about if we give Him a shot?”
And again, a few minutes later:
But I’m just saying, we can’t do it without Him. And that doesn’t make this one big evangelistic religious campaign. But it does include that thing without policy, because it’s just normal. It’s normal that people would call out to God. In a sense, whoever would draw near to God must, first of all, believe that He exists, and that He’s a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. So let’s seek after Him! If he has these incredible promises for our country, why not?
After finishing his remarks to the small gathering, Pautsch spoke directly to the camera: “We have a race that is totally winnable. Number one, because we have a current incumbent Congressman who has decided that she doesn’t know what it is to be a Republican. And she hasn’t voted according to the platform and planks of our party, has been wobbly, and we’re just not going to put up with that.”
The Progressive Punch database doesn’t support that characterization of Miller-Meeks’ voting record. On the vast majority of House roll calls, she has landed on the same side as other Republicans. Her overall ranking is tied for the 359th most progressive current House member, whereas Hinson ranks 389th, and Representative Randy Feenstra (IA-04) is tied for 394th. The Progressive Punch scoring suggests that first-term Representative Zach Nunn (IA-03) has a less conservative voting record than Miller-Meeks (235th in the chamber), but the differences are minimal.
In any event, this won’t be the first time Miller-Meeks faces at least one primary rival claiming to be the more conservative option.
MILLER-MEEKS HAS ALREADY WON FOUR COMPETITIVE GOP PRIMARIES
Recent Iowa elections show that some Republican voters are willing to cast protest votes against their own party’s incumbent. State Senator Jim Carlin ran against Senator Chuck Grassley from the right and gained a little more than 26 percent of the vote in the 2022 primary. The almost completely unknown Tom Hoefling gained nearly 17 percent of the vote in the 2014 primary against then Governor Terry Branstad. So Pautsch can probably attract hundreds or even a few thousand votes in the 2024 primary without too much effort.
Putting together a winning coalition against an incumbent is a different story. That rarely happens without strong fundraising, high-profile endorsements, and support from outside groups, which is how Feenstra defeated U.S. Representative Steve King in 2020, and how several challengers beat Iowa House Republicans in 2022.
Pautsch won’t be able to count on any meaningful outside help, and the Iowa GOP establishment will likely close ranks behind Miller-Meeks.
Even if she didn’t have the advantages of incumbency, Miller-Meeks has shown she can win tough primaries. In her first four attempts to run for Congress, she was never the consensus choice of Republicans in her district. She barely won a three-way primary in 2008, then lost the general election to Democratic Representative Dave Loebsack by about 18 points.
Miller-Meeks had to get through a four-way primary in 2010, with the National Republican Congressional Committee officially backing Rob Gettemy. Nevertheless, she easily won the nomination again, carrying every county and winning roughly 50 percent of the vote. Miller-Meeks lost to Loebsack that November by a roughly 5-point margin, despite the GOP wave election.
The third time Miller-Meeks ran for Congress in 2014, she had to compete against two other Republicans, one of whom represented the Muscatine area in the Iowa House. Mark Lofgren carried a few counties, including Scott (the Quad Cities area). But Miller-Meeks again won the nomination with about 50 percent of the vote. She fell about 5 points short against Loebsack in the general election.
Five Republicans filed for the 2020 primary in what was then Iowa’s second district, sensing an opportunity with Loebsack’s retirement. The most prominent was Bobby Schilling, who had served in Congress representing an Illinois district. His supporters argued that Miller-Meeks wasn’t conservative enough and had already lost three general elections. But this time Miller-Meeks had the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Although Schilling carried Scott and a few other counties in the GOP primary, it wasn’t enough to stop Miller-Meeks from winning the nomination with just under 48 percent of the vote. She went on to win the closest U.S. House race in the country in 2020, prevailing in the certified count by six votes out of about 394,000 ballots cast.
Pautsch’s name ID is low outside the Quad Cities area. To mount a serious challenge to Miller-Meeks, he would need to raise a substantial amount of money. But even if he manages to do that, Miller-Meeks has plenty of money to spend; her campaign had nearly $1.4 million in the bank at the end of September.
Miller-Meeks will also have help from outside groups if she is perceived to be in trouble. In fact, the American Prosperity Alliance, a 501(c)(4) organization that promotes conservative views on certain issues, is already running a 30-second radio ad in the Des Moines market praising Miller-Meeks for “making a difference” and “working across the aisle to lower health care costs.” The spot refers to a bill Miller-Meeks recently introduced, which would regulate pharmacy benefit managers. “They say nothing can get done in Washington, but that’s because they never met Mariannette Miller-Meeks,” the voice-over says. “So call Congresswoman Miller-Meeks and tell her to keep fighting to lower health care costs.”
Compare that pitch to what Pautsch will offer IA-01’s Republican voters: “I am not trying to cultivate wobbliness and being driven by the wind. I am here because I have a set of principles that the Lord has placed in my heart, and without apology, I mention him. Because we as a country don’t have to be ashamed of God anymore.”
Unless Pautsch benefits from divine intervention, the 2024 general election will be the rematch political observers expect: Miller-Meeks versus Democrat Christina Bohannan.