DES MOINES — Iowa’s most powerful state and federal government leaders have an ally in the White House thanks to political unity forged in the 2016 elections.
There is a Republican president and a GOP-led Congress to team with Iowa Republicans in both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and the governor’s office, as well as its own GOP-led Iowa Legislature.
That Republican symmetry has helped produce significant conservative reforms on the federal and state levels.
But while President Donald Trump’s administration completed Republicans’ power trifecta in the nation’s capital, it also has, on occasion, put Iowa leaders on the defensive against their own party.
Trump administration moves, for example, to weaken the federal mandate for ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply and on international trade have caused concerns in Iowa. That has prompted the state’s Republican leaders — in particular Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst — to oppose the president, who also happens to be their party’s leader.
And they’re always having to face questions about said party leader’s occasional verbal or social media outbursts that spark consternation across the country.
For Iowa’s Republican leaders, it has made for an eventful year-plus under this administration.
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“It has been quite a year,” Ernst said. “I’ve actually been pleased with a number of the policies that we’ve seen.”
‘A lot of wins’
When asked about working with Trump and his administration, Ernst and Grassley were quick to point to what they consider significant achievements, including the placement of a conservative justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, federal tax cuts, reduced regulations on businesses and farmers, and boosted defense spending.
“There have been a lot of wins,” Ernst said.
But there also have been battles that Iowa Republicans may not have thought they would have to fight given their party’s control of the federal government.
Iowa Republicans have spent the majority of the Trump administration’s tenure working to preserve the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal requirement for a certain level of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply. The corn-based fuel is important to the state’s economy, so when the Trump administration considered reducing the required levels, Iowa Republicans were put in a position of having to push back against their party’s leader.
They did: Grassley, Ernst and Reynolds all made public statements and private pleas to Trump to preserve the ethanol mandate. Eventually, the Trump administration relented and the mandate remained intact.
However, Iowa Republicans now find themselves fighting a second round in the same bout. The administration has granted waivers to some oil refineries that allow them to skirt the ethanol mandate. That has Iowa leaders once more raising their concerns about the potential impact to Iowa’s agriculture economy.
The state’s ag economy also is in jeopardy because of another Trump administration move: to announce new taxes on trade deals with China. Trump said the proposed tariffs are needed to balance some international trade deals and hold China accountable for years of alleged intellectual property theft. China in retaliation has proposed tariffs on soybeans, one of Iowa’s top crops.
Once again, Grassley, Ernst and Reynolds have pleaded with Trump to reconsider an action that, in the case of this budding trade war, could be devastating to Iowa farmers.
In both cases, the trio showed a willingness to speak out against the president’s policies to defend Iowa’s interests. Whether that has been sufficient is a matter of debate.
“This is all about policy. You agree sometimes, sometimes you disagree,” Grassley said.
Ernst said she is willing to note her occasional disagreements with Trump’s policies, and said she has found the president to be a willing listener.
“Even on the issues where I may disagree with the president, I am blessed to have such a relationship with him that I can disagree and do it in a respectful manner. And you know what? He will actually listen to some of those issues and visit with me about them, and I’ve had quite an open ear from the president,” Ernst said. “I am glad that he takes my thoughts and he takes my feedback, he works through those and hopefully we come out with a good product at the end.”
Keeping it low-key
These Iowa Republicans are not navigating uncharted waters. It is not necessarily unusual for a political leader to have to take a stance against a president of his or her own party, said Timothy Hagle, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa.
“The question is how you handle that,” he said.
Hagle noted that while some Republicans have been highly critical of Trump, Grassley, Ernst and Reynolds have taken stances against those Trump policies they felt would hurt Iowa but did so in a more low-key and respectful manner. Hagle said that may have been more productive because when other politicians have lashed out at Trump, the president often has responded in kind.
Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, said he thinks Iowa’s GOP leaders have found the ideal recipe for working with Trump.
“I think they have struck a perfect balance. Even when it means they have to disagree with the president, sometimes vigorously and publicly. I actually think he respects that,” Kaufmann said. “I believe (Trump) knows that it’s not personal. I think the balance and the nature of the relationship is perfect.
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“One thing is for sure: All three of those leaders have proven Iowa comes before party. They have definitely not hesitated to publicly call out the president, even when it’s the president of their own party.”
Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said he thinks those Iowa Republican leaders have given mere lip service to standing up for the state. Price said Grassley, Ernst and Reynolds’ actions have amounted to little more than “empty rhetoric” in news releases.
Price said despite the Iowa GOP’s efforts, the ethanol mandate remains under attack and the threats of trade tariffs already are causing fluctuations in the agricultural markets.
Price also questioned what he said was a lack of concrete plans to counter any potential harmful effects on Iowa farmers.
“Words are words. Where is the action? What is being done to help shore up rural Iowa right now?” Price said. “They cozied up to the Trump administration, they’ve heaped praise upon the president, yet what do they have to show for it?”
Democrats and Republicans will disagree on whether the Trump administration has been good for Iowa, and whether Iowa Republicans are putting their state above politics.
As for working with the Trump administration, Grassley said he is comfortable disagreeing with the president on some policies, but overall thinks Trump is following through on his campaign promises.
“I think this president is doing more than any other president, to have a list of things he promised in the campaign,” Grassley said. “A lot of presidents get elected and don’t stand on their promise, and he’s standing on his promise.”
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Said Ernst, “It’s been an interesting dynamic, but I do see a very open administration. So I’ll take those wins, and we’ll keep working hard for the Iowa public to make sure that we see additional wins for us in the future.”
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