By Craig Robinson
Iowa’s First-In-The-Nation Caucuses do more than just launch the presidential nominating process for Democrats and Republican. The caucuses also allow Iowans to play significant roles in presidential campaigns, and sometimes these individuals can parlay their positions in a campaign into high-level government jobs.
Think of it this way. A minor-league baseball player in Des Moines waits to get the call from the Chicago Cubs that he’s getting called up to the major league. A political activist or consultant in Iowa doesn’t wait to get called up to the major league in politics, the major league comes to them every four to eight years.
Iowa’s First-In-The-Nation is not only a privilege, but also a great opportunity for Iowans who may just want to dabble in politics or make it their career. However, while there is a tremendous upside to presidential campaigns coming to town, there is also a downside. This is especially true for those individuals who forget that playing in the big leagues means more scrutiny, even though they continue to sleep in their own beds at night.
Perhaps no Iowan has felt the sting of presidential politics like State Senator Kent Sorenson, but before you feel sorry for the conservative firebrand, realize that he is responsible for the fiasco in which he finds himself today.
Sorenson’s involvement with Michele Bachmann and her presidential campaign began innocently enough. Bachmann’s first visit to Des Moines in February of 2011 included a photo-op with Sorenson outside of the Iowa Senate chamber. It was apparent that Bachmann was courting Sorenson’s support, and by April, it was clear that Sorenson was directing Bachmann’s efforts in Iowa.
Sorenson was a natural fit for Bachmann given that both appeal to social conservatives and tea party activists alike. The soon-to-be candidate and her Iowa chairman hit it off. Sorenson joined Bachmann at the June 13th debate in Goffstown, New Hampshire, where Bachmann used a stunning performance on CNN to basically launch her candidacy.
The Bachmann campaign was off and running, but there was one hang-up, ethics rules in the Iowa Senate precluded Sorenson from getting paid by a presidential campaign. To say that Sorenson was only involved in Bachmann’s campaign for the money would be inaccurate, but it’s also safe to say that Sorenson wasn’t going to go through the grind of a presidential campaign without being compensated. Sorenson put in significant hours on the campaign trail and in the campaign office, especially during the lead up to the Ames Straw Poll.
There had been talk of the Bachmann campaign finding a creative way to compensate Sorenson from the early days of her campaign. While it was a clear violation of the Iowa Senate ethics rules, unearthing the payment scheme would be nearly impossible since it involved private individuals who are not required to disclose their sources of income.
Bachmann’s popularity with the Republican base in Iowa combined with her ability to run what looked and felt like a credible and big time presidential campaign helped her win the Republican Party of Iowa Straw Poll in Ames in August. As she and her campaign basked in the glow of victory in Ames, the wheels were about to come off as the campaign transitioned from sprinting to the Ames Straw Poll, to preparing for the marathon that is the presidential nomination process.
As Bachmann’s campaign came back down to earth, major staff shakeups occurred. The once frontrunner nationally and in Iowa was overtaken by Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich, and finally Rick Santorum. The campaign reached its lowest point just days before the Iowa Caucuses. Knowing that the campaign was going nowhere, Sorenson defected and joined the Ron Paul campaign.
Sorenson’s defection was the final blow to the Bachmann campaign, and a major boost to a Paul campaign that had run an exceptional campaign in Iowa and believed it had an opportunity to win the caucuses. Yet, Sorenson’s decision to abandon ship and join the Paul campaign sowed the seeds for the fiasco he finds himself embroiled in today.
Sorenson’s decision to jump ship created national news. Almost immediately there were accusations that Sorenson accepted money to bolt to the Paul campaign. While Sorenson has denied doing anything illegal, a source with connections to Ron Paul’s national campaign has told TheIowaRepublican.com that Sorenson accepted a $30,000 payment from someone in the Paul network in conjunction with him joining Ron Paul’s campaign.
On caucus day, Ron Paul finished in third place behind Santorum and Mitt Romney, but Bachmann finished in sixth place. Disappointed and out of money, Bachmann’s campaign soon ended. Lacking the funds to satisfy the debt her campaign had racked up, a number of Bachmann staffers never received their final paychecks. The lack of payment has caused some of them to make their dissatisfaction public, and in one case, retaliate by filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). That complaint discloses how the Bachmann campaign and Sorenson violated federal and Iowa Senate rules in order for him to be compensated.
If investigated thoroughly, not only could Bachmann and Sorenson face stiff fines and punishments, but so too could the Ron Paul campaign. If Sorenson was indirectly compensated by the Bachmann and Paul campaigns by over-compensating other consultants who then paid Sorenson, both campaigns could face serious FEC penalties. The FEC just fined President Obama’s 2008 campaign $375,000 for not disclosing nearly $1.8 million in contributions. One would think knowingly funneling expenditures though other consultants to hide the payment staff and consultants is worse than not reporting 1,300 contributions.
The subverting of FEC and Iowa Senate ethics rules by Sorenson, Bachmann, and likely Paul gives them all a black eye, but it also unfortunately blemishes the institution of the caucuses that has already taken a beating following this last cycle.
As is the case with everything in life, there are lessons that can be learned through all of this. First, when participating in a campaign, always follow campaign finance laws and any other state or professional laws that may apply to you. Second, while the quality of the candidates themselves is paramount to the success of the campaign, the quality of staff also matters greatly. Third, when the presidential campaigns come to town, Iowans need to put their best foot forward and conduct themselves in an appropriate way because the eyes of the nation are upon us.
While the 2012 caucus season seemed to take a while to crank up, unfortunately, it doesn’t seems interested in dying down anytime soon. TheIowaRepublican.com will keep you apprised of any future developments involving Bachmann, Paul, and Sorenson.
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