By Craig Robinson
A.J. Spiker, the current Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, is in the midst of a public spat with Governor Terry Branstad. Confrontation between a party chair and a high ranking elected official in a state happens all of the time, but it is the fact that the spat between Branstad and Spiker is between two Republicans that makes this scenario more unique.
Spiker and Branstad are at odds over remarks that Branstad made to the Wall Street Journal last week where he said that the Ames Straw Poll had “outlived its usefulness.” The Straw Poll is the Iowa GOP’s largest fundraisers, so it comes as no surprise that Spiker would not agree with the Governor’s assessment of the storied event, but Spiker seems to be escalating his disagreement with the governor.
Last week, Spiker told media outlets that he disagreed with Branstad’s position on the Straw Poll. He also said, “I believe the Iowa Straw Poll is possibly the best way for a presidential campaign to organize for Iowa’s First in the Nation Caucus.” Branstad has not engaged Spiker in any way, nor should he. The Governor simply answered a reporters question with an honest answer. Spiker on the other hand has since repeatedly attacked Branstad.
On Sunday, Spiker wrote the following on his Facebook page:
“The Des Moines Register (Red Star) gives Gov. Branstad a Rose for saying the Iowa Straw Poll needs to go. The list of reasons to keep the Iowa Straw Poll continues to grow.”
Spiker’s post prompted a number of responses, some of which called for Branstad to be primaried in the upcoming 2014 election, and others referred to the Governor as, “Gov. Braindead.” It’s one thing to disagree with the Governor on an issue, but Spiker is running the risk of letting Branstad’s remarks regarding the future of the Straw Poll further splinter an already fractured Republican Party in Iowa.
There are some aspects of the Iowa Straw Poll that are worth preserving. Nobody, Branstad included, is suggesting that the Republican Party of Iowa shouldn’t organize a large, multi-candidate summertime event. Instead, people like Branstad are saying that we need to do things differently in Iowa in future presidential cycles.
While Spiker and his allies have been quick to call that kind of thinking blasphemy, the event’s recent history suggests that Branstad’s position is based in reality. In 2007, two major candidates opted to forego the event. In 2011, two more candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, also chose to skip the event. For the event to remain relevant, Republican officials must find a way to make sure all candidates participate.
Despite multiple candidates skipping the event in the last two cycles, the event has remained viable. While it is the largest fundraising event for the Republican party of Iowa, it’s not the cash cow that many in the media think that it is. The event costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct. Multiple day facility rentals, stage build out in Hilton Coliseum, voting machines and data collection easily exceed $200,000.
Those are all costs that the Republican Party of Iowa must front before the candidates themselves commit to attending the event. So, while the event has put a lot of money in the Iowa GOP’s coffers, it comes with considerable risk. The weakened financial state of the Republican Party of Iowa, in addition to the increased possibility of major candidates skipping the event, only makes pulling it off more and more difficult.
Another factor that must be addressed is that a major portion of the money raised at the event is corporate dollars. That is money that can’t be used to pay salaries or used to help candidates in the fall. Instead, those corporate dollars are used to improve the Republican Party of Iowa Headquarters.
For instance, the 2007 Straw Poll helped pay down the mortgage on the building and paid for the installation of a new floor in the conference room. The 2011 event paid for a new roof, interior renovations, and new landscaping. Those things are all nice, but please don’t tell me our Republican Chairman is about to cause a civil war within the Iowa GOP over a limestone retaining wall and some shrubs.
It’s too bad that Spiker isn’t as willing to address the unresolved problems from the 2012 caucuses with the same vigor that he has criticized Branstad. It’s been 155 days since the Republican Party of Iowa Caucus Review Committee concluded it’s business, and the Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee, which Spiker chairs, has taken no action.
Being the home of the First-in-the-Nation Caucuses is privilege, not a birthright. No matter what your perspective may be, every Iowan understands that there were problems that need to be addressed following the 2012 caucuses. Yet, Spiker and his committee have done nothing to address them.
Ending the Straw Poll is not something that is being suggested to help or hurt conservative presidential candidates. It’s a move that is designed to make the Iowa Caucuses more open and less exclusive. The presence of the Straw Poll does more than just keep the more liberal Republican candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Jon Huntsman out of Iowa, but it has also forced conservatives like Fred Thompson and Rick Perry to alter their timeline in joining the race.
I lived and breathed the Iowa Straw Poll for eight months when I was in charge of the event in 2007. I highly doubt there is an Iowa Republican that loves and appreciates the event more than I do. Yet, I believe that it is in the best interest of the caucuses for the event, as we know today, to cease. It’s always difficult to say goodbye to a good friend, mainly because of the void it creates.
However, with every end there is a beginning. Instead of having a public spat with the Governor in the media, Chairman Spiker might channel his energy into figuring out what should replace the straw poll, or better yet, how to get Republicans back into the win column in 2014.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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