The Social Conservatives vs. the Regular Republicans: The Battle for Iowa Has National Implications by Gregory Hilton

Because of its first in the nation presidential precinct caucuses, Iowa is often at the center stage of American politics. Statewide candidates are frequently linked to presidential contenders, and this year will be no different. A crucial battle is now being waged between social conservatives and regular Republicans, and it will culminate in the June 8th gubernatorial primary.
Voters will be determining the direction of the state party, and this could well be a key indicator of GOP success throughout the nation this year. Will Republicans stick to their base by emphasizing a social conservative agenda, or will they back peddle these concerns in an effort to reach out to independent voters in a swing state?
Iowa put Barack Obama on the road to the White House with his solid 2008 win in the precinct caucuses. Anti-war Democrats flocked to his cause and Hillary Clinton came in third. Clinton spent $29 million but only received 70,000 votes. The results completely changed perceptions about her campaign, and she was no longer the Democratic front runner.
The strength of anti-war liberals on the Democratic side was matched by social conservatives in the Republican contest. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) was outspent significantly but defeated former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) by a 34% to 25% margin. The eventual GOP nominee, Senator John McCain (AZ), received only 13%. In the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, Huckabee is viewed favorably by 70% of Republicans, while Sarah Palin is at 60% and Romney comes in at 58%.
The good news is that 2010 promises to be an outstanding year for Republicans. It has been a long time, but now all of the leading issues are finally on the side of the GOP. Former four term Governor Terry Branstad (R) already has a 57 to 33% lead over incumbent liberal Governor Chet Culver (D).
Numerous state lawmakers and party officials have endorsed Branstad, the longest-sitting governor in Iowa’s history. He has been able to raise $1.5 million even though he will not officially launch his campaign until next week.
Branstad has a 72% approval rating compared to Culver’s 48%. Branstad was in office during the farm crisis but still left the state with a $900 million surplus. Now Iowa has an estimated $1 billion budget deficit, which is unprecedented.
Governor Culver enacted the largest budget in state history during a recession, and prior to this year, rejected calls for spending cuts. He also signed a utility tax increase, raised taxes on employers, and levied $250 million of new taxes on property owners. The Governor has signed over a half a billion dollars in tax increases. He is now cutting the budget but he waited far too long to take this action.
The bad political news is that in-fighting between the Christian right and regular Republicans is causing a serious split which could well lead to Culver’s re-election. This has happened before.
Iowa was once solidly in the GOP camp but Democrats now have a huge edge in voter registration. Furthermore, in the last three election cycles independents broke decisively for the Democrats. This has allowed them to capture control of both houses of the legislature. They currently have a 32 to 18 seat edge in the State Senate.
To understand the current battle it is best to go back to 2002. Then Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), who is now Secretary of Agriculture, was easily re-elected that year. This happened when the Republican Party disintegrated. Doug Gross, the chief of staff for former Gov. Branstad, squeaked out a primary victory that year over Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative.
Gross and Vander Plaats were in agreement on all of the major social issues. Nevertheless, the primary sharply divided the Christian right and regular Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters who didn’t support Gross in the primary never truly came home. The problem for some activists was that Gross’ campaign did not emphasize issues such as opposition to abortion.
Gross called on the GOP to be more inclusive. He wants less of a focus on social issues because they are turning off a younger generation of voters. He is against “a litmus test associated with social issues.” “Social conservatives are an important part of our base,” Gross says. “We can’t win without them, but we can’t win only with them, and we need to understand that and broaden the tent. . . Social conservatives are a minority group within a minority party.”
Some of the same divisions from 2002 are now back again this year. The GOP gubernatorial primary contest is also closely linked to 2012 presidential politics. Gross ran Romney’s 2008 effort while Vander Plaats was chairman of the Huckabee campaign. Huckabee has endorsed Vander Plaats, a former high-school teacher and basketball coach, in this year’s race and is closely associated with him. The manager of the Iowa Huckabee effort is now running the Vander Plaats campaign.
The leading Republican gubernatorial candidates are Branstad, Vander Plaats and State Rep. Rod Roberts. Once again, Vander Plaats lost the 2002 race and in 2006 he was unsuccessful in his bid for Lt. Governor. He should not be underestimated because he already has an 8 point lead over Culver in the Iowa Poll, and recently won the endorsement of the states most prominent Christian right organization, the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC).
Furthermore, the IFPC has promised not to support Branstad in a general election if he wins the GOP nomination. There is speculation they will mount an independent campaign for Vander Plaats if he is not successful in the primary, and such a move would guarantee Gov. Culver’s re-election.
Branstad and Rod Roberts, an evangelical minister, are both pro-life and they oppose gay marriage. Branstad has participated in many Right-to-Life activities and as Governor he helped to pass the Defense of Marriage Act. That is not good enough for the IFPC. Social conservatives disapprove of Branstad’s support for gambling, his selection of a pro-choice running mate in 1990, former Lt. Governor Joy Corning, and his nomination of the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court who issued a ruling favorable to gay marriage.
The former Governor met with the leaders of the IFPC, Iowa Right to Life and the Iowa Christian Alliance last October. He emphasized his agreement with them, but also said he would focus his campaign on the economy and jobs rather than social conservative concerns. Branstad reviewed past elections which demonstrated candidates who were primarily identified with social conservative issues were not successful in general elections.
Abortion has long been the litmus test for state Republicans, but a new dominant issue for social conservatives emerged on April 3, 2008. This was when a unanimous decision of the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. Iowa then became one of the first states outside of New England to allow homosexual marriage.
Bob Vander Plaats immediately jumped into the forefront of the opposition, and the centerpiece of his campaign involves a gay marriage pledge. If he is elected, on his first day in office Vander Plaats promises to sign an executive order stopping same-sex marriage until the legislature either passes a law legalizing it, passes a constitutional amendment banning it, or the public has an opportunity to vote on it. Because of Iowa laws, a vote could not be held for several years.
The problem with the Vander Plaats promise is that it is illegal. Not only does Vander Plaats acknowledge this, but says he is ready to be impeached for this action. Vander Plaats plans to proceed with this pledge even though the Attorney General says a governor does not have the authority to issue an executive order freezing a decision by the Supreme Court.
This had been acknowledged by scholars on the left and right. Such an executive order would immediately create a constitutional crisis. Branstad and Roberts will not agree to issue an illegal executive order, so they lost the IFPC endorsement. Vander Platts says he is running as a Republican “in spite of the Republican Party.”
During the 2006 campaign, Gov. Culver promised to do “whatever it takes to protect marriage between a man and a woman.” He reversed this position just a few days after the state Supreme Court ruling. The Governor is now opposed to a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage.
The most recent Iowa Poll found 41% supporting a ban and 40% percent in favor of gay marriage. A whopping 63% say other issues are more important. Many Iowa Republicans, but not the IFPC, favor civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage.
A bill to outlaw same-sex marriage has been introduced in the State Senate. It has the support of all 18 Republicans, but it is not expected to pass. In fact, Democrats will probably not allow a vote on the measure. All efforts to secure a vote in the Iowa House in 2009 met with failure. The legislation would amend the state’s constitution to say “marriage between one man and one woman shall be the only legal union valid or recognized in this state.”
In order to amend the constitution, the legislature must pass the resolution in two separate General Assemblies. The measure would then go to a public vote. If advocates of a same-sex marriage ban are unsuccessful in 2010, it would likely be 2014 at the earliest before the public would weigh in.
State Rep. Rod Roberts, the third candidate in the GOP primary, is an ordained minister, but this is also not good enough for the ultra-conservative IFPC. Roberts’ big issue is getting rid of business income taxes as a way to stimulate job growth.
The IFPC wants candidates talking about abortion and gay marriage. Their press release says, “Roberts can be counted on to interject godly counsel and to cast principled votes. He has not, however, demonstrated the bold resolve and drive necessary to successfully confront those in leadership positions who actively promote wrong-doing in Iowa.” Roberts represents a Democratic leaning district and says the IFPC wants candidates who will be “mean” and “mad,” but that is not his style.
If Iowa Republicans are united this year they will have an excellent chance to finally regain the governorship, win back at least one Congressional seat and to make gains in the state legislature. If social conservatives insist on a gay marriage pledge and abandon Branstad than Culver’s re-election is assured. It is hard to think of a time when the outlook has been better for the state GOP, but some members of the Christian right may be capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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