Power struggle in Iowa GOP sees establishment on top

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was in Iowa this weekend, speaking before 1400 delegates attending the GOP state convention. In his remarks, Paul made it clear that he believes the Republicans must change or continue to lose presidential elections.


“You guys have a strong force here but frankly the president won Iowa twice so we can’t do the same old same old,” the Kentucky senator told the Iowa Republican state convention here. “The definition of insanity is thinking the same thing will get you different results.”

Paul said he wants Republicans “to be the dominant party again,” and noted that he’s been spending time in African-American areas and on college campuses trying to broaden the base. He said talking about the drug war and his emphasis on privacy resonates.

The likely 2016 candidate spent most of his 20-minute speech throwing red meat to the about 1,300 delegates at Hy-Vee Hall.

“There are people who say we need to be more moderate,” he said. “I couldn’t disagree more.”

“I think the core of our message: we can be even more bold,” he added. “When Ronald Reagan won a landslide, he ran unabashedly … that’s what we need … It isn’t about being tepid.”

Before his speech, Paul met with Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst. He opened his speech with jokes about the campaign commercial in which she talked about castrating hogs as a kid on the farm.

“I can tell you the purveyors of pork are shaking in their boots and worried that Joni Ernst will win,” Paul said.

Ernst received the backing of both the Tea Party and establishment in her primary - a rarity that doesn't seem to be repeating itself anywhere else.

But behind the scenes, Ernst's biggest backer - Governor Terry Branstad - cut the legs from underneath Senator Paul as he engineered a takeover of the Iowa GOP by center-right moderates.

Politico reports the takeover was in the works for months:

For all the attention showered on the Iowa caucuses in the presidential sweepstakes, they suffer from a credibility crisis. It is fueled by the perception that the competition favors the most conservative candidates in the field or forces more moderate contenders to the right, damaging their prospects in the general election. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee won in 2012 and 2008, respectively, only to lose the nomination.

The battle for control of the party was primarily an effort by Branstad to reestablish himself as the undisputed leader of Republican affairs in Iowa — perhaps most critically the future of the caucuses.

After the 2012 results, Ron Paul supporters mobilized at district-level conventions to take over the party — despite the fact he finished third on caucus night — and wound up controlling the delegation to the national convention.

Branstad, cruising to an unprecedented sixth term as governor, has spent the better part of the past two years sparring with A.J. Spiker, a co-chair of Ron Paul’s Iowa campaign who defeated the governor’s preferred pick to lead the state party in 2012. As chairman of the party, Spiker was publicly critical of Branstad’s legislative agenda. Establishment-minded donors refused to contribute to the state party as long as Paul people were in charge.

This is an example of real, power politics played to the hilt by one of the best politicians in America. The fact is, Branstad is one of the few Republicans in the country that doesn't need the Tea Party that badly to win in November. He has carefully cultivated constituencies in Iowa that cut across party lines, allowing him to run a classic centrist campaign.

At local conventions starting in January and continuing through April, the governor’s machine successfully mobilized supporters to elect a slate of 16 people to the GOP central committee, including a few loyal holdovers. This group, essentially the party’s board of directors, took over Saturday night. There is no longer a single Paul-aligned, libertarian on the central committee.

What it means for Paul

Part of the fear has been that the caucuses will be permanently damaged, and possibly even leap-frogged or ignored in 2020, if the Kentucky senator wins and then, like Huckabee and Santorum, goes on to lose the nomination or the general election.

But the more pressing concern has been that Paul supporters organizing the straw poll or setting the rules for the caucuses would tilt them in the senator’s favor and create an excuse for other Republican candidates to skip Iowa and focus on New Hampshire’s primary.

“They’re going to work hard to make sure that all candidates feel welcome,” Branstad said of the new central committee in an interview.

The pro-Paul forces say they did not put up a concerted fight to stay in power because they want to focus on building an organization explicitly for Paul. Only three libertarians sought reelection at April district conventions, and all lost.

Twenty months out from the 2016 caucuses, the Kentucky senator is arguably the frontrunner in Iowa. His main opponents concede privately that the Hawkeye State is Paul’s to lose. And there is an argument — even some of his supporters are making it — that it’s actually a good thing for Paul that his team no longer controls the state party.

If they had, the argument goes, it would be much easier for opponents to claim the caucuses are rigged in Paul’s favor. The Branstad takeover, ironically, could legitimize a Paul win.

When delegates to the Iowa convention were asked who they thought would do best against Democrats in 2016, their first two choices were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. That's the kind of party establishment that now runs the GOP in Iowa and Paul will have to take them on without alienating Branstad, whose organization can help deliver the state to the GOP candidate in 2016.

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