Staff Columnist

Iowa GOP must play defense late in the game

U.S. Rep. Steve King speaks to the Greater Des Moines Partnership during their candidate series event in Des Moines on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. Photo by Erin Murphy.
U.S. Rep. Steve King speaks to the Greater Des Moines Partnership during their candidate series event in Des Moines on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. Photo by Erin Murphy.

It’s a good bet Iowa Republicans weren’t planning to spend the last few weeks of the 2018 campaign insisting they’re not coming after public employee pensions, and the last several days tap-dancing around U.S. Rep. Steve King’s latest adventures in white nationalism.

Unplanned, but also sort of predictable. They have themselves to blame.

King has been playing footsie with goose-steppers, foreign and domestic, for years. His most recent outrage — a meeting in Austria that included far-right partisans at the end of a trip paid for by a Holocaust memorial nonprofit — seems to have been the straw that broke the panzer’s back.

Add in the horrific mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a renewed focus on the dangers of political hostility, and the virtuoso of vitriol in Iowa’s 4th District finds himself under intense criticism. And it’s not only coming from the libs he so relishes owning, but from some fellow congressional Republicans and donors who are pulling support from his campaign. Also, by the way, King’s Democratic challenger, J.D. Scholten, is campaigning hard to dethrone him.

But damage also is being done to Iowa Republicans who refuse to denounce or disown King, chief among them Gov. Kim Reynolds, who counts the congressman among her top tier of campaign co-chairs. Her Democratic opponent, Fred Hubbell, has called on her to jettison King. As of this writing, that hasn’t happened.

As for state pensions, Democrats have been sounding the alarm on the possibility a Republican Legislature will tinker with IPERS, the Iowa Public Employee Retirement System. Republicans, from the governor on down to rank-and-file lawmakers, insist it’s a false alarm. In op-eds and letters to the editor GOP candidates have pledged to sustain IPERS to infinity, and beyond.

Republicans say lying Democrats are using “scare tactics.”

But when you run the Legislature like a rocket-powered bulldozer hunting for china shops, as Republicans have for these past two years, can you really blame folks who got run over for a case of the jitters?

Republicans took down Iowa’s 40-year-old collective bargaining system for public employees in just nine days in 2017. And they convened that rapid-fire master class in Wisconsin-style rights-gutting after insisting throughout 2016 they had no interest in making Iowa into Wisconsin. Plans changed, without any of those directly affected in on the switch. And that’s no lie.

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You might have noticed that amid all the Republicans’ “how dare you!” rhetoric over IPERS there hasn’t been a single pledge to run the Legislature any differently. Nobody is promising to avoid blindsiding Iowans with backroom bills catapulted to passage before the ink is dry.

And wide swathes of Iowans know, from experience, once this Legislature hits the throttle, their voices are not going to be heard above the roar. This fall we’ve seen Republican Statehouse incumbents skipping forums and editorial board sessions where they might be asked where they stand and what they’ll do. That hardly inspires greater confidence among the skittish.

As for King, Reynolds’ reluctance to dump him is consistent with the governor’s stubborn unwillingness to chart her own path, even when her party or its leaders steers Iowa recklessly toward the ditch, or down a very low road.

At multiple points during the past legislative session, when Reynolds could have pulled back on lawmakers’ overreaches — passing a budget-busting $2 billion tax cut package, gutting energy efficiency funding, placing clearly unconstitutional limits on abortion, etc. — she simply went along for the ride. She issued a grand total of five line-item vetoes and vetoed just a single bill.

It’s good politics and lousy governing. But hey, we’re killing it in magazine rankings.

Bucking King is bad politics, because Reynolds might anger Republicans who agree with the congressman from Kiron. But it’s the right thing to do.

And instead of pushing back against King’s immigration fearmongering, the Iowa GOP is doubling down on its own, with ads attacking legislative Democrats who voted against the sham “sanctuary cities” bill.

Iowa has no “sanctuaries,” and local law enforcement officials from all over Iowa opposed the bill. But the temptation to create scary fodder for TV ads, ominous donor appeals and campaign mailings was irresistible. We’ve got to keep stoking immigration fears, even in a state where agriculture and other sectors depend on newcomers. Demonize for show, welcome for dough.

It’s a cynical brand of politics. But that’s the plan, as expected.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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