Iowa’s largest GOP donor convenes presidential wannabes
Big Iowa donor to question GOP candidates on agriculture this weekend.
Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)Jeb Bush makes his first 2016 trip to Iowa this weekend, trying to garner public support for an all-but-certain campaign that he’s been sculpting behind the scenes with help from a vast network of donors and top political operatives.
DES MOINES — Just six weeks after they assembled for their first Iowa cattle call of the 2016 election cycle, the Republican presidential candidates are back again here this weekend, this time to show how much they know — or don’t know — about American agriculture.Presumptive GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush indicated on Friday that he would not continue using his private e-mail address if he’s elected president. “For security purposes, you need to be behind a firewall that recognizes the world for what it is and it’s a dangerous world and security would mean that you couldn’t have a private server,” Bush said in an interview with Radio Iowa of reports Hillary Clinton used a personal e-mail address to conduct official business as secretary of state, and even stored its server at her suburban New York home. “It’s a little baffling, to be honest with you, that didn’t come up in Secretary Clinton’s thought process.” Bush and his campaign-in-waiting pounced almost immediately after reports surfaced on Monday night. The former Florida governor will make his case to Iowans, who traditionally vote first in the presidential nominating process, at an agriculture summit in Des Moines where he’ll be joined by other potential contenders. A dozen GOP presidential hopefuls are headed for the first ever Iowa Agriculture Summit on Saturday at the bodacious Iowa fairgrounds near Des Moines – and intended as a showcase for farmlands, bioscience, agribusiness and livestock markets.
Bush, who hasn’t run for public office since 2002, also plans to make campaign-style stops at fundraisers and other events in the state, giving him a chance to practice retail politicking skills in a place where activists expect to be personally courted by White House hopefuls. But to the organizers of Saturday’s day-long talkfest, it is an opportunity to force a conversation about a topic they believe is both misunderstood nationally and rarely talked about in any depth by presidential candidates when they campaign here. The Web site housing his e-mails doesn’t include any correspondence related to his political activities, or any between him and his family or friends.
In past years an establishment favorite like Bush would approach the first caucus state gingerly, unsure whether to expend time and resources in a process that generally has favored more conservative candidates. Regardless, Bush aides argue that he has already gone beyond what Clinton and his potential GOP rivals for president have done or are willing to do on transparency. “The possibility of running is daunting and running would be even more so,” he said. “I think the lesson learned that I took away from Iowa in my forays in there for my dad and my brother is that you’ve got to be all in.
The group includes city slickers such as Donald Trump and the former agriculture commissioner of Texas, Rick Perry (who also served a record 14 years as governor.) New Jersey Gov. Bush also dismissed suggestions that voters — especially early-state Republican primary voters — are not willing to back another man named Bush for president. “That’s not the Iowa that I know,” he said. “The Iowans I know are pretty thoughtful and want to get to know the candidates.
So in advance of his visit to the state this weekend, Bush told Iowa radio that if he were to run he would be “all in.” Usually, hedging candidates simply promise to return to the state. Graham of South Carolina and the two immediate past winners of the Iowa GOP caucuses, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Saturday’s forum is only one of a string of political events designed to keep the candidates focused on the state with the first caucuses on the presidential calendar. The would-be candidates each get 20 minutes onstage to answer questions and talk shop with Iowa entrepreneur and philanthropist Bruce Rastetter, the official host, and one who has repeatedly rejected notions that he’s a political “kingmaker” in the Hawkeye State. “Every four years, Iowa becomes an epicenter of American politics, often shaping and almost always reflecting national policy movements.
Unfortunately, until now, there has not been a forum solely dedicated to matters that directly affect Iowa farmers who feed and fuel not just the country, but the world,” says Mr. Also venturing to Des Moines: Democratic National Committee vice-chairman RT Rybak and Iowa Democratic Party Chair Andy McGuire will also stage a morning press conference with much on their minds.
Then in August, the Iowa Republican Party will put on its quadrennial straw poll, an event that has drawn considerable criticism for the time and expense it demands of candidates given its apparent minimal returns on caucus day. As each of the potential 2016 GOP candidates attempt to pitch their agriculture credentials to Iowa kingmaker Bruce Rastetter, Rybak and McGuire will highlight how each of their real records would hurt rural communities and middle class families,” the committee advises. The first four states in the Republican calendar—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—represent only about 6 percent of the delegates necessary to win the nomination.
But the caucuses have survived many challenges and Iowa activists defend the state’s status, arguing that this is one of few places where candidates must spend time in conversation with average voters. Saturday’s gathering is the second-large assembly of Republican contenders in Iowa this year, but it’s expected to be markedly different from the last one. A candidate who doesn’t do well in those four contests has a tough time making a plausible case that he’ll suddenly win everything once March rolls around. Instead they will sit in a comfortable chair on a stage in a cavernous room before an audience numbering around 900 people and submit to questions by Bruce Rastetter, a wealthy agribusiness executive and political donor. Rastetter said he came up with the idea while tailgating at an Iowa Hawkeyes football game last fall with a friend, Nick Ryan, a conservative activist and strategist. “He said, ‘What wasn’t talked about the last two presidential cycles in Iowa?’ ” Rastetter said Friday in the arena where the candidates will appear on Saturday.
In Iowa it doesn’t mean you have to win—the state has rarely done a good job predicting the ultimate winner—but you do need to outperform the expectations, which then helps you build support in other states. According to the same poll, he came in with 10% support in a hypothetical GOP contest, well behind Walker at 25% and closer to Paul (13%), Huckabee (11%) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (11%). There, of course, will be questions about the future of the Renewal Fuel Standard, which requires that gasoline must include minimum level of renewable fuel.
But Rastetter intends to cover other topics, including the issue of immigration and what policies are needed to assure the farm community has a steady and reliable work force. That’s in part because of policy differences Bush has with other Republicans but also because of public wariness about political dynasties. “I don’t think that they necessarily know who he is yet,” said Ryan of Bush. He wants the candidates to talk about international trade, about food labeling and food safety in the context of genetically modified foods, about wind energy and about conservation programs and the Environmental Protection Agency. “Let’s make sure we have a substantive discussion on issues like this, rather than just retail politics where they don’t get on the record on these things,” Rastetter said. While the January summit saw a bevy of speeches attacking President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, the audience at this event is more diverse, with many open to immigration reform given the agriculture industry’s dependence on migrant workers. He has been one of the nation’s leading pork producers, one of the nation’s leading ethanol producers and runs an operation now that encompasses those products and more.
Meanwhile Walker admitted recently that his “view has changed” on immigration, saying he no longer supports provisions that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States. Walker was widely considered the breakout star at the last forum in Iowa, a wave of approval he’s still riding more than a month afterward thanks in part to his strategy of attacking the media after he made controversial comments.
Branstad for one is thrilled at the prospect of the GOP candidates devoting their weekend to a discussion of agriculture. “Foreign policy and agriculture are going to be the most important issues that candidates need to address in the 2016 election,” he said in a telephone interview. The Wisconsin governor, who first came onto the national political scene during his 2012 battle with public unions, received sky-high favorability ratings in the poll, with 57% saying they viewed him in a favorable light compared to 7% who didn’t. He was sharply critical of the Obama administration, saying it has “failed miserably” and complained that the president hasn’t mentioned ethanol in more than three years. “His EPA is recommending a reduction in renewable fuel standards,” Branstad said. “When we strongly protested it — there was strong bipartisan protest in the heartland of America — they didn’t do anything.” Iowa more than most states has been able to sustain and grow its economy in recent years thanks to a strong agricultural sector that kept the unemployment rate lower than most as the economic downturn began in 2008 and through the recession of recent years. Poll numbers this early rarely represent strong indicators of the final outcome of the nomination process, but they can provide a small window into the political climate at the time. Also up for discussion at the summit could be trade, in particular the president’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba and open up more trade opportunities — something farmers here are largely supportive of.
That increases the focus on him now (so that when he stumbles, people can say he’s not ready for prime time) and it inflates the idea of what doing well for him means. In another potential clash with Iowa Republicans, Bush has been a vocal advocate for Common Core, a set of testing standards reviled among conservatives who view it as government overreach. Bush in the Granite State, but the nearly 40 percent he was able to win turned the race upside-down for a time, making the Reagan-backed Bush look vulnerable.
One local Bush source downplayed the extent of the Bush operation (keep expectations low!), but others backing Bush promise that he will be making frequent visits and doing the time-consuming campaigning expected by voters. Frequent visits will also allow him to show that he doesn’t have a problem with conservatives—particularly since he has disparaged the conservative-dominated nominating process that picks GOP nominees. “I’m going to run to the middle in the general election and you conservatives will just have to hold your nose” is how Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the Family Leader, characterizes the Bush message. Christie visited the state multiple times last year (more than a dozen in the last five years) and has also hired local talent that suggests he will seriously participate. In the latest CBS News poll, of all the candidates, Christie has the greatest number of Republicans who say they will never vote for him (43 percent) and is nearly tied for the smallest percentage of people who say they don’t know enough about him (29 percent).
Every conservative who wants to destroy Bush or Christie would like Iowa to launch the first broadside in the hull of their sinking ship, so it’s in those conservatives’ interest to bait both into a big commitment on a tougher playing field. Operatives who reshaped the state party have signed up for the Christie and Bush campaigns and are united in trying to make the state more mainstream. Finally, Iowa is an important general election state, which means every candidate has an incentive to compete to build an organization for the future. The state was a lock for Obama in 2012 given that his rise started here in 2008, so there wasn’t a strong general election rationale for a GOP candidate to play here in 2012.
But given the nature of the contest this time around, that’s a gamble that could be viewed as an admission of weakness that only leads to greater campaign woes.
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