US Senate

October 24th, 2013

First Iowa GOP U.S. Senate Debate: Winners and Losers (and Video)

Six candidates took the stage Wednesday night at Sheslow Auditorium on the Drake University campus. Each was hoping to create some separation from the rest of the crowded field. Did they succeed?

Here are the winners and losers of the debate, as I saw it, and a breakdown on how each candidate fared.

WINNERS:  Sam Clovis, Joni Ernst and Matt Whitaker

I spoke with numerous attendees after the debate and the verdict was nearly unanimous and in line with what I was thinking: Clovis, Ernst and Whitaker emerged from this debate as the legitimate contenders in the GOP primary. Each candidate made some strong points and delivered an overall solid performance.

Sam Clovis

Most attendees expected the former radio host to excel in this format, and he did. Clovis provides answers that are clear, concise and conservative. He knows exactly where he stands on the issues and why. He provided legitimate ideas and detailed answers.

Clovis was the first to bring up presumptive democrat nominee Bruce Braley and he shredded the liberal congressman a couple of times. Clovis also showed he will stand up to members of his own party. He criticized Mitch McConnell more than once and did not hesitate to say he disagreed with popular Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley regarding trading spending cuts for entitlement reform.

The one negative I saw from Clovis was that he was a little too serious throughout the debate. He often opens his speeches with a self-deprecating joke. I did not see any of that kind of humor Wednesday night. Sam Clovis is very likeable and personable in one-on-one conversations. He needs to show that more in future debates.

Joni Ernst

Ernst scored in response to the first question, which was about Obamacare. She pointed out that she was the only one on the stage who has actually stood up against Obamacare, because she voted against Medicaid expansion in Iowa.

Ernst’s status as the only elected official in the race can be both an asset and a detriment. During the first debate, it was an asset. The state senator from Red Oak highlighted some of her more conservative votes and pointed to Iowa’s ability to get things accomplished, like passing the largest tax cut in state history.

Joni Ernst also landed what might have been the best line of the night with this gem: “We have to cut our spending and as a farmer’s daughter who grew up in southwest Iowa castrating hogs with her dad, I can go to Washington and cut pork.”

That was the first time the live audience reacted vocally. The line was both humorous and insightful.

Ernst clearly came into the debate well prepared and her answers were very much in line with what GOP primary voters want to hear. However, her delivery still needs some work, as Ernst comes across as somewhat robotic at times.

Matt Whitaker

The former U.S. attorney might be the biggest winner in the first debate because I think he helped himself the most. Whitaker’s answers were sharp throughout. He provided the best closing statement with a veritable smackdown of Bruce Braley and the laundry list of liberal policies Braley supports.

Whitaker also scored one of the biggest laugh lines of the night when he mocked Paul Lunde’s repeated references to the books he has written: “This week, I had an article published in the Des Moines Register, and not to steal Paul’s line, but you should read my article.”

That showed Whitaker was in touch with what the audience was feeling. Many people I spoke with afterwards agreed this was the strongest Whitaker has performed on the campaign trail (And yes, politicians are performers.)

IN THE MIDDLE: Scott Schaben

The car salesman from Ames has no chance at winning the GOP nomination, but he has grown as a candidate and landed some amusing lines in the debate. Schaben’s Obamacare analogy was excellent. He said if someone came to our forefathers suggesting Congress should force Americans to buy a specific product, they would “have been drug out of D.C. behind a horse.”

Schaben also scored at the end by jokingly thanking people for taking a break from trying to log on to the error-ridden website to watch the debate online.

LOSERS: David Young, Paul Lunde, debate sponsors and debate watchers

David Young

Senator Grassley’s former chief of staff seems like a very nice man and he made some good points during the debate. However, Young’s problem is that he is not able to sell it. In debates, it isn’t just about what you say. It’s also about how you say it. Young comes across as a mild-mannered guy who is trying to convince people he’ll be a fighter in Washington. So far, Iowa Republicans are not convinced.

He did bring forward some good points. Young was the only candidate to talk about the Keystone XL pipeline. He also offered good suggestions for trimming the budget, including slashing the UN budget and making sure the EPA is not flying drones over farms.

However, Young’s main selling point seems to be that he was Grassley’s chief of staff. As much as Iowa Republicans love Chuck Grassley, that does not mean they will vote for someone just because they worked under Grassley. He had the opportunity to say he disagrees with Grassley regarding trading spending cuts for entitlement reform, but Young punted, while Sam Clovis and Joni Ernst openly said they disagreed with Grassley.

No one I spoke with afterwards thought placed Young among those having the best night.

Paul Lunde

He has not even filed the necessary paperwork to become an official candidate, but was allowed on the debate stage for the some reason. Every answer Lunde gave included a mention of some book he had written.

Lunde’s entire “campaign” seems to be based on selling books and talking about constitutional amendments that he has proposed. After the fourth mention of his books, the audience groaned. Loudly, and deservedly.

Also, anyone can write what they think should be a constitutional amendment. Actually getting it passed is another issue. Lunde doesn’t even seem to understand how that arduous process works. His presence on the stage was ridiculous.

Debate Sponsors

AFP-Iowa and National Review did a good job organizing and putting on this debate. The venue was the right size and the staging was very professionally done.

However, the decision to allow Paul Lunde to participate was a monumental blunder. He made a mockery of the debate and swallowed valuable minutes of time from the legitimate candidates. Lunde was also the last “candidate” to speak during the debate. That was a travesty and a horrible way to end it.

The Audience

Having to suffer through Lunde’s ramblings for an hour and a half was tortuous. Attendees were totally justified in groaning as they listened to Lunde repeatedly hawk his books and talk about constitutional amendments as if they are simple things to pass.

They came to the debate get more informed about who would be the Iowa GOP’s best candidate to take on Bruce Braley. Instead, much of their time was wasted by someone who will never be the GOP nominee and should not have been allowed near a microphone.

Below are several videos from the debate as the candidates responded to questions. TIR did what the debate sponsors should have done. We omitted Paul Lunde:

About the Author

Kevin Hall

Kevin Hall brings almost two decades of journalistic experience to TheIowaRepublican. Starting in college as a radio broadcaster, Hall eventually became a television anchor/reporter for stations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. During the 2007 caucus cycle, Hall changed careers and joined the political realm. He was the northwest Iowa field director for Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign. Hall helped Terry Branstad return to the governor’s office by organizing southwest Iowa for Branstad’s 2010 campaign. Hall serves as a reporter/columnist for

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