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Tea party’s next big test could be Iowa’s 3rd District
As primary election day in Iowa grows closer, many are pointing to the 3rd Congressional District as the next big testing ground of the electoral strength of the tea party movement.
Some believe the tea party has become a political force. Others say its just a new name for the same conservative ideologues. But either way, self-described tea partiers have had success of late, most recently helping topple three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah at that state’s GOP convention over the weekend. They are also helping propel Republican Rand Paul to frontrunner status in the Senate primary in Kentucky.
Now, some observers believe Iowa could be the next opportunity for the movement to flex its political muscle. Sunday, the Des Moines Tea Party has organized a debate for the men running in the GOP 3rd District primary, another sign that it is taking the race very seriously.
The Republican primary for the right to take on incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell has drawn seven candidates, all with varying backgrounds and political beliefs. Most, however, feel the race will likely come down to three men:
- Jim Gibbons, a former wrestling coach at Iowa State University who has managed to build a huge financial advantage over his opponents. He is also considered to have put together a top-notch political staff.
- Brad Zaun, a state senator and former mayor of Urbandale who has high name recognition around the district due to his years in elected office.
“This race is really a great microcosm of what is going to happen long term,” said Jeff Angelo, a former Republican state senator from Creston. “I really think this is going to be a test case for the tea party. If Funk wins, that sends a signal that the movement has some real power.”
With seven men in the race, the electorate will be somewhat splintered, Angelo said. And with primary elections drawing a smaller than usual pool of voters, “if the tea party can get organized behind one candidate, with a small sample of voters showing up overall, they can have a huge influence,” he said.
Air vs. Ground
Doug Gross, an attorney and former GOP gubernatorial hopeful, said during a recent taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” that the 3rd District is going to be an interesting race to watch to gauge “the impact that air war versus ground war in the Republican primary.”
“Gibbons has all the money, has the air power. Zaun has the ground game. And Funk has the ideologues,” Gross said. “It will be interesting to see how it turns out.”
Christian radio host Steve Deace said it is way too early to make candidates like Dave Funk a litmus test for the tea party movement, “because the tea party movement hasn’t even defined itself yet.”
“We’re not sure if it really wants to play in primary races, just support Republicans, form another political party, stay away from the political process and demonstrate its frustration through other means, etc.,” Deace said. “I’m not sure they’re even sure, which is proof that contrary to what the Democrats claim, it’s not astroturf. It’s the spontaneous combustion of grassroots people tired of having the fruits of their labors unnecessarily confiscated. If it were astroturf it would be far better organized and defined.”
Angelo agrees that the tea party hasn’t aligned itself formally with one party or another. But they have already shown they will rally behind or against a specific candidate.
“I can’t see them, as passionate as they are, sitting out the primary election, especially with one of their own in contention,” he said. “I truly think the primary will be a test of that movement. There has been a lot of sound and fury, this will see if anything will come of it.”
Graham Gillette, who runs a public affairs/communications firm and occasionally blogs for The Des Moines Register, doesn’t see the 3rd District primary as a test of the tea party’s strength. That’s because the tea party activists are just the same conservative voters that have always dominated the GOP, he said.
“Self-proclaimed tea party activists have not taken over the [Republican] Party,” he said. “Conservatives have come up with a new name for themselves. Conservatives have long held sway in the GOP and would have power even if the tea party had never come in vogue.”
The real test of the strength of the message of the tea party and others on the conservative right, Gillette said, is not who wins the primary, but “how their message withstands the 2010 general and the elections in subsequent cycles.”
It’s also important to note that in other races where the tea party has had a major impact, the campaign narrative has been the insurgent, grassroots candidate against an “establishment” Republican. Deace said even though Gibbons has the support of many “establishment” Republicans, it’s not quite fair to say that he is the establishment candidate in the race.
“When I think establishment I think of sellouts, RINOs, and wolves in sheep’s clothing,” he said. “For example, the difference in moral conviction demonstrated by Gibbons on my radio show recently far exceeds the 16 years Terry Branstad spent as governor. I can attest to the fact that Gibbons is a Catholic with deep Christian moral convictions, and he’s pretty thorough at defining and defending them. That’s not typically what you see out of what we’ve come to know as the establishment.”
Iowa electoral law mandates that for a candidate to emerge victorious from the primary, they must garner at least 35 percent of the primary vote. With seven men in the running, the likelihood the race will be decided at convention is high.
“I don’t see how you avoid it,” Angelo said.
If the race goes to convention, “the more conservative candidate has an advantage,” Gillette said. “By and large, the Republican Party apparatus is controlled by conservatives. This is nothing new.”
While conservatives do make up a larger segment of the convention delegates, Angelo said it would be foolish to think any convention vote is a foregone conclusion. He points to the 5th District convention of 2002, where U.S. Rep. Steve King was nominated after a three-way primary ended with no clear winner.
“Everyone went to the convention that day saying King would win overwhelmingly because he was the most conservative,” Angelo said. “It was actually really, really close.”
King defeated Iowa House Speaker Brent Siegrist that year 272 to 253 on the third ballot of a special convention called to pick a congressional nominee. Angelo said Siegrist showed up and wooed the delegates by working hard and giving a “great speech.”
“Delegates pride themselves on making the decision that day,” he said. “So I think who wins at convention will be more about who goes and works the hardest.”
“I don’t know any Republican in Iowa better at the convention process who knows more about the rules than Steve,” Deace said. “I’ve seen him give talks to potential delegates on how to work a convention, and the guy really knows this stuff. Remember, he just took out a long standing Republican National Committeeman at the last state convention. In my opinion, if Steve decides to back one of these candidates at the convention that’s who will win.”
Scheffler has not endorsed any candidate in the primary.
Ultimately, the winner of the 3rd District nomination will help answer the question of whether “top-down politics” is still the way things are done, Angelo said.
“I’m not sure if it’s time to get excited about the tea party movement or whether the traditional style of politics will prevail in the primary,” he said. “That’s the big question.”
The primary election will be held June 8.