For the most part, the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate has been a quiet affair with all of the candidates going about their own business. As a result, the debates and forums that have been held across the state have been civilized and so non-confrontational that they, at times, get a little boring.
That all changed late on Tuesday night when Joni Ernst’s campaign, unloaded an attack on Mark Jacobs. The Des Moines Register headline says it all, “Senate candidate Jacobs once backed carbon emissions cap.” The article quotes Jacobs, who at the time was an executive at Reliant Energy, saying in a 2007 investor call, “I would say this: We are very much committed to environmental stewardship. It’s one of our core values here at Reliant. We believe the best approach is a national level policy. We believe the market based cap-and-trade system works very well.”
The Register also quotes Jacobs saying, “Look, we certainly acknowledge that is a very hot topic of debate now. It’s a very politically charged debate. We think that if we were going to have a carbon policy that a cap-and-trade system makes the most sense in that we have seen that work, I think, quite well.” Jacobs made that statement at the Lehman Brothers CEO Energy Conference in 2007.
We don’t really know if the dirt on Jacobs came from the Ernst campaign or another source, but what we do know is that when given a chance to ask a question of another candidate in last Sunday night’s debate, Ernst asked about cap and trade. It seemed like an odd topic at the time since the issue hasn’t really been debated much since it almost was signed into law in 2009 when the Democrats were busy nationalizing the student loan program and healthcare industry.
Later in the week, the liberal group America’s Bridge went after Jacobs on the same issue. America’s Bridge is the same group that repeatedly harassed Congressman Steve King when he was running for re-election against Christie Vilsack in 2012. Let me just say this, who ever found the dirt on Jacobs was digging pretty deep and thus spending some money doing it. That points the finger at the liberals, who either shared it with the Ernst campaign or provided it to the Des Moines Register.
The comments made by Jacobs in 2007 are not going to endear him with conservative voters. Even though the debate over cap and trade has mostly vanished from the front page and opinion pages of newspapers, it creates doubt in the minds of some voters.
In an interview on WHO Radio on Wednesday morning, Jacobs was asked about his past statements on the topic. Jacobs told WHO TV’s Dave Price, “I want to be clear: From a personal standpoint I have always been against cap and trade.” Jacobs said. “[A cap and trade program was the] best alternative from among a series of very bad alternatives. Again, I have been very consistent in my view that a cap and trade energy program would be negative for Iowans. It would be negative for Americans, because it would result in higher energy costs and it would result in the loss of thousands of jobs.”
When pressed further about his conflicting statements, Jacobs reiterated, “And, again, as a CEO of a company that operated a lot of coal-fired power plants, I knew that firsthand. But I think, you know, sometimes you’re involved in situations where things aren’t ideal here in terms, and my decision was to get involved in the debate and try to lessen the impact of what that would’ve been as opposed to sitting on the sidelines.”
Jacobs’ explanation won’t probably sit well with conservative voters, but he does have a point when he explains that he was personally opposed to the pending legislation. In all of his responses to the questions about cap and trade in 2007, Jacobs repeatedly used the word, “we,” meaning that he was stating the company’s position. That technicality isn’t going to stop the attacks from being made against him, but one can see the difficult position that he was in. It’s not as if he can tell investors that pending legislation would cripple the company. Again, one has to remember that political rhetoric doesn’t help in the boardroom or public sector.
Jacobs’ critics are using the latest dirt they have on him to paint him as an untrustworthy or shady politician. It’s politics 101, but let’s not forget that all of the major candidates running for the Senate have flip-flopped on major issues. Jacobs’ flip-flop occurred seven years ago. His opponents, however, have had more recent policy changes.
Matt Whitaker has flip-flopped on Obamacare. Just days after Whitaker entered the 2014 U.S. Senate race, he told Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register that Obamacare needed to be “reformed or fixed,” not repealed, stating, “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think it’s a very easy sound bite to say repeal Obamacare, or repeal the Affordable Care Act, but there are actually some good things. Very few, but there are some good things.”
Joni Ernst has flip-flopped on the gas tax. Before running for the U.S. Senate, Ernst was among a handful of Republicans who supported increasing the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. Ernst didn’t just support the concept, she voted for it in committee. Ernst campaigns on the “conservative record” she has built over the past three years in the Iowa Senate, but it is littered with tax increased.
Sam Clovis may be the most ideologically sound candidate in the race, especially for conservative voters, but even he has on done a 180 on an issue. Just days before a renewable fuels candidate forum, Clovis was adamantly opposed to maintaining the current Renewable Fuels Standard, but by the time he attending the event, he was in lock-step with the industry.
Not only are none of these candidates perfect, they each struggle with being consistent. Voters will have to sort out if these flip-flops are deal breakers or not. And while each of the candidates have black marks on their records, it appears that Jacobs is the one with the target on his back. Why? Because its obvious that Democrats are most concerned about him in the general election. Why? Because while the other Republican candidates would never admit it, Jacobs’ advertising campaign and strong fundraising numbers are making life difficult for them on the campaign trail.
Thus far, the Republican U.S. Senate primary has been more like a game of two-hand touch football than the full-contact sport we all anticipated. No candidate ever likes being critiqued by their opponents or some political commentator, but one of the important roles of a primary is to thoroughly vet our candidates. While we observers tend to concentrate on a bad answer on an issue or a flip-flop, how these candidates handle the attack is equally important.
The stakes are huge, and not just for the candidates either. Whoever wins this contest in November may determine whether or not Republicans or Democrats control the U.S. Senate. Which side wins this race will also shape the future of Iowa politics as well. Iowa voters would be wise to do their homework on all the candidates before making their decision as to whom they should support.
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