Staff Columnist

In Iowa's 2nd District, a race to see who's Trumpiest

Republicans like me - socially moderate and skeptical of Trump - are ignored by 2020 primary candidates.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP
President Donald Trump arrives to speak in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Republican politicians in Iowa’s 2nd District are in an unwinnable contest to see who can suck up the most to President Donald Trump.

In Tuesday’s primary, GOP voters will select a nominee to run in the general election for U.S. House. Republicans see it as a prime opportunity, with U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack’s announced retirement making it an open race.

The two leading candidates — state Sen. Mariannette Miller Meeks and former Illinois U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling — are vying to position themselves as the true conservative. The campaigns have exchanged hostile attacks, accusing the other of being insufficiently loyal to the president and the party line.

Miller-Meeks and Schilling both were basically moderate Republicans until recasting themselves in Trump’s likeness for this election cycle.

The candidates have undergone a political metamorphosis not unlike Trump, who flip-flopped on several important policy issues leading up to his election in 2016. Miller-Meeks and Schilling both were basically moderate Republicans until recasting themselves in Trump’s likeness for this election cycle.

Abortion has been a top issue in the primary. It’s a peculiar thing for candidates to say they are “100 percent pro-Trump” and also “100 percent pro-life,” since Trump spent most of his life proudly supporting abortion rights. It’s not my position, but you would think a true anti-abortion champion would be committing to hold Trump accountable, not swearing blind allegiance.

I don’t fault them for being moderates, either formerly or secretly. I certainly wouldn’t hold it against them if they hold nuanced views about Trump and abortion rights. But I wonder if they’re being honest with voters. And I wonder what their race to the bottom says about the state of our Republican Party.

I explained the gist of this column to the Miller-Meeks and Schilling campaigns. Neither chose to offer a comment for this column, although both have been responsive to my previous inquiries.

Miller-Meeks: Trump and Clinton both ‘liars & corrupt’

This is Miller-Meeks’ fourth attempt at the 2nd District seat. From my life as a journalist and Republican voter in the district, I have spoken with her and seen her speak to groups several times. Until recently, I knew her to be a pretty pragmatic policymaker, and I praised her leadership on drug reform in a column just several months ago.

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Now Miller-Meeks is “the only reliable pro-Trump conservative” with a “100% pro-life voting record,” she says. Schilling disputes that, backed by video clips and social media posts.

The Schilling campaign released a screenshot from Miller-Meeks’ Twitter where she calls both Trump and Clinton “liars & corrupt.” She was right, of course, but has since backtracked.

Schilling also is promoting a video published by the Press-Citizen, in which Miller-Meeks in 2018 called herself “pro-choice.”

“I don’t want the government in my health care decisions,” Miller-Meeks said in the video, recorded at an Ottumwa League of Women Voters forum. Again, she took the correct position in my view, but later said she misspoke.

Schilling: Proud center-right legislator’

Schilling served one term in the U.S. House in a neighboring Illinois district and moved to Iowa after losing reelection. Like Miller-Meeks, he commonly boasts about being radically anti-abortion and pro-Trump.

Contrary to his recent posturing, Schilling has a failing 56 percent lifetime score from Heritage Action for America, a key metric of conservatism in Congress. The non-partisan GovTrack puts Schilling to the left of most GOP lawmakers in its “ideology score” and near the bottom in its “leadership score.”

The Miller-Meeks campaign published a compilation of video clips where Schilling says he’s proud to be a “center-right legislator” and to often vote on the same side as Loebsack the Democrat. He is seen calling for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian election meddling and — gasp — calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “regular person,” both of which were the correct take, but Schilling has distanced himself from those remarks.

‘Democratic socialist and Islamic plan’

The other three candidates in the 2nd District contest — none of whom have raised enough money or earned enough media to be competitive — don’t give me much to get excited about.

Only one candidate, Tim Borchardt of Iowa City, does not prominently mention Trump on his website or campaign materials.

Steven Everly of Knoxville greets visitors to his website with a photo of himself with a Trump cardboard cutout. He compares abortion to slavery and boasts his membership in socially conservative groups such as the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, Family Leader and the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles.

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In the race to be the Trumpiest, nobody can compete with Rick Phillips of Pella, who writes, “My plan is designed to stop a democratic socialist and Islamic plan from progressing.”

Phillips says mosques are “military outposts” and Islam should have its religious status “revoked.” He warns “Globalists are funding hordes of illegals from all over the world to invade our country.”

The failing Republican Party

Maybe the pro-Trump political calculus makes sense. Trump won the district by about 4 points in 2016, losing only two counties to Clinton. National polls show the president is popular among Republicans, with a partisan approval rating above 90 percent. Conventional wisdom instructs candidates to run toward the base in the primary and pivot to the center in the general election.

Even if it’s a good strategy for one election season, we should worry about the long-term effects. We have a major political party wholly consumed by fealty for an authoritarian president. Even former critics, such as Schilling and Miller-Meeks, are under Trump’s trance.

Republicans like me — socially moderate and skeptical of Trump — apparently do not make up a big enough voting bloc for GOP candidates to care about. Maybe they will miss us in November.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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