Saturday, October 12, 2013

Johnson County GOP hosts Five Senate Candidates

Political people are a lot alike, on both sides of the aisle. Local Iowa activists, Democrats and Republicans, look at an October calendar, see a Hawkeye bye week and think: "That's a great weekend for an event!"

So both parties in Johnson County scheduled their fall barbecues for the same weekend, and unless my friends back at the press table get re-assigned to cover the Democrats tomorrow, I'll be the only person to attend both.

The Republicans came up with a draw even I couldn't resist: a forum featuring five announced US Senate candidates. (The publicity said "all" five but that ignores Some Dude Paul Lunde, who had some lonely and homely looking flyers at the back table. There's also an "exploring" candidate, Mark Jacobs, who had more professional looking materials on hand.)

The hour-long program at Clear Creek Amana High in Tiffin gave each candidate an introduction, three randomized issue questions, and a "fun" question. (Sam Clovis has a weakness for chocolate, Joni Ernst loves Christmas music, etc.) Then the candidates gave closing statements, in reverse order.

The questions were an interesting insight into Republican concerns and included a couple surprises. Indicating the growing libertarian mood in the party, questions included the idea of withdrawing troops from Korea and "should Russia have returned Edward Snowden." The rotating format made for an interesting and non-repetitive show, but made it a little harder to make issue by issue comparisons. But this was a party fundraiser rather than a formal debate, and those will start soon enough.

Candidates were also asked if they would support the eventual nominee. All said yes without hesitation. GOP blogger Mike Thayer of the Coralville Courier called the question a "litmus test" from the party establishment.

At this stage, it's as much about mood and feel and biography and style. I managed to get around the room and chat informally with four of the five. (My interactions probably weren't typical since my reputation as a scout from the opposition preceded me. I get the just the right amount of a hard time at these Republican events. Someone left a Branstad sticker for me at my car, the only one in the lot with Braley and Obama and Loebsack stickers, but didn't push it over the line and stick it on.)

Sam Clovis and David Young made similar points in person and at the podium, Matt Whitaker resumed some previous friendly ribbing we'd done on Twitter when he announced. Former county auditor Joni Ernst, who quickly corrected me to "Joni" when I called her "Senator," and I talked shop. All said they could get the 35% needed to win the nomination outright, so even without Scott Schaben 140% of the primary vote is accounted for.

Sam Clovis spoke first and he's definitely got a radio voice. Asked to name his favorite non-Grassley senator, he said "I would stand on the floor with Ted Cruz & Mike Lee anytime. They stand for principles." On health care, he said "Obamacare must be pulled out by the roots and destroyed. This administration has done more damage than all previous administrations combined." He would replace it with tax credits, tort reform, antitrust action against hospitals and "Not a penny for abortion."

Clovis also spoke last and was the only one who appeared to adjust to what other candidates said. In closing remarks he re-emphasized his military service, seemingly in response to Joni Ernst's remarks.

David Young stressed his standing as a sixth generation Iowan but also tried to spin his long service in DC for Chuck Grassley into a strength. "I've seen what works in Washington and doesn't work, and most of it doesn't work." Young's speaking style lacked some of the radio pizzaz of Clovis but he looked and sounded confident and professional.

Young also name-dropped Ted Cruz, and made more towel references than the other candidates combined. (Local Republicans, capitalizing on Bruce Braley's stumble about towels at the House gym, had towels at every table.) "We need something" out of the government shutdown, said Young, "we need long term and short term deficit reduction." He called for a balanced budget amendment and zero based budget, saying economic issues will win over independents.

Young described Braley as "to the left of Tom Harkin, if you can imagine that," though in his Senate staff service he's surely met Bernie Sanders at least once. Young has almost completed the Full Grassley of visiting 99 counties; the last left is Pocahontas which he plans to hit soon.

Scott Schaben was frankly the weakest speaker, though one event organizer said he had done better than had been expected. "I am a normal guy,"  Schaben said; "To stay grounded you have to remember your roots."

Schaben said he is the candidate who can appeal to both employers and employees. "Unless we want to see results similar to 2012, we have to increase the base."

Drawing the abortion question, Schaben said he is "pro life from conception to death." But he gets bonus points from me for quoting, without attribution, Michael Corleone in the context of foreign policy.

Joni Ernst was folksy and confident at the same time, emphasizing the bullet points of "A mother a soldier and a conservative." Bullet points literally, working guns into the introductory remarks and touching all the conservative bases in just under two minutes.

Ernst got the luckiest draw of the night: the Iraq question went to the Iraq veteran. "I will always believe in my heart it was the right thing to do," she said, but she also said it was right to leave because of "restrictive rules of engagement." More important than the specific answer was the opportunity to further stress her military record. She was the first candidate to draw spontaneous applause when she stressed a "Strong. National. Defense." and also while bashing Braley on taxes.

In closing remarks, Ernst stressed personality above issues. "I take the time to know who people are, and those relationships are what make politics work."

Matt Whitaker stressed his legal and business background, but in Johnson County he wasn't afraid to play the football card. The ex-Hawkeye repeated his "Go Hawks" exhortation when the response wasn't loud enough the first time, and his goodies included toy footballs.

Whitaker got the loudest spontaneous applause of the forum when he drew the marriage question and gave the One Man One Woman response. "I'm pro-life and pro traditional marriage." (But interestingly, the question included references to appealing to young people and independents who felt otherwise.)

"If you're looking for a bring home the bacon senator, I am not your person," said Whitaker. He wants to restore "fiscal and constitutional sanity." As for foreign policy, "the lens I use is: is it in our national interest." (Syria, the specific topic of the question, failed the test.) Whitaker also pledged to do the Full Grassley annually.

Other candidates for other things were present and introduced, but by design only the Senate candidates spoke. I was a little surprised that congressional candidate Mark Lofgren didn't get a moment to speak. (Also noted: Iowa Public Health director Mariannette Miller-Meeks, often rumored to be considering another run in the 2nd CD, arrived just as the Senate forum ended.)

Elected officials present: Rep. Bobby Kaufmann and Supervisor John Etheredge (giving the invocation, which as usual at GOP events I've attended the past six years specified "In Jesus' Name.") Three candidates in open Senate 39 were on hand: Mike Moore, Royce Phillips, and Bob Anderson. (Phillips is also seeking re-election to the Tiffin City Council.)

Four or five Coralville candidates were on hand. Mayor candidate David Fesler was there and to be honest I was talking to someone and can't remember if Matt Adam was introduced or not. (Update: Yes he was.) Council candidates on hand were Mark Winckler, Laurie Goodrich and David Petsel.  Setting up his yard sign at his display table, Petsel quipped, "I wish I could fix Coralville's problems with just duct tape." Note that their mutual presence at the event doesn't mean they're on the same team, and in this case they're not. Adam, Winckler and Petsel are identified with the Citizens For Responsible Growth and Taxation group, while Goodrich is a former city staffer with backing from some of Coralville's long-time insiders.

And one last item. long rumored but now public: County GOP chair Deb Thornton is stepping down next month. Thornton will be joining her husband who is working overseas.

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