Staff Columnist

GOP challengers to Trump welcome in Iowa (sort of)

State Republican Party promises to roll out 'welcome mat' to Trump primary opponents

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a Republican challenging President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination, eats a turkey leg Aug. 11 while stumping at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a Republican challenging President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination, eats a turkey leg Aug. 11 while stumping at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

President Donald Trump’s approval rating among Republicans, according to his own calculation, is 94 percent. That’s a record, he boasted in a Twitter post.

With such enormous popularity, you would think Trump and his loyalists would be eager for the opportunity to dominate next year’s caucuses and primaries. Not so, however.

Instead, GOP leaders in some states besides Iowa are canceling their 2020 nominating contests. State parties in South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Kansas plan to forego presidential primaries and caucuses, and give all their convention delegates to the incumbent president, Politico reported.

That’s frustrating to the three nationally recognized candidates who have launched campaigns to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020. Their already grim chances at success are reduced to nearly zero when parties skirt the democratic process.

I should clarify, Trump’s approval rating in his own party is not 94 percent. Even if it were that high, it wouldn’t be a record; George W. Bush reached 99 percent.

Quibbling aside, Trump indeed is hugely popular among Republicans. About 88 percent of Republicans approve of his job performance, according to a Gallup poll from last month. Support probably is especially strong among the die-hard activists who would show up to a lightly contested caucus or primary.

The point is, it’s overwhelmingly likely that Trump will win renomination by a decisive margin. Even the candidates running against him acknowledge that reality.

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So if Trump supporters aren’t worried about losing the nomination, why are they blocking dissent?

A robust primary debate would lay bare the many ways in which Trump has demeaned conservative principles such as balanced budgets, free trade and common decency.

Dissenting campaigns would get media attention, especially in early states such as South Carolina and Nevada, potentially damaging Trump’s favorability ahead of the general election.

To their credit, Republican Party of Iowa leaders plan to host a preference poll on caucus night and report out detailed results. That’s a unique and encouraging development in Iowa politics — Republicans in 1992 and Democrats in 1996 both refused to host fair and open presidential caucuses, deferring to incumbents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Iowan Republicans will be able to choose on caucus night, but party organizers still are tipping the scales in Trump’s favor.

In a message on the state party’s website, Chairman Jeff Kaufmann notes that maintaining Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses is one of the organization’s top priorities: “As part of this effort, we guarantee that the Republican Party of Iowa will roll out the welcome mat to every Republican national leader and elected official who wants to visit Iowa to make their case to our grassroots activists.”

Here is the “welcome mat” a Republican opponent would see if he visited the Republican Party of Iowa’s website: A photo of a child at a rally holding a Trump-Pence sign, and a promotion for a recent series of “MAGA Meetups.”

Some welcome!

An Iowa GOP representative told me the challengers have not reached out to party staff, nor has the staff reached out to the opposing campaigns. He emphasized the party infrastructure is responsible for supporting the caucus process, but not any particular candidates.

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“Regardless of who’s at the top of the ticket, it’s the state party’s job to facilitate the caucuses. ... How caucusgoers choose to vote is entirely up to the campaigns,” spokesman Aaron Britt said in an email.

In between MAGA rallies, party officials will insist they aren’t unduly influencing the nomination race, and that voters are free to choose the candidate they most support. Nevertheless, it’s clear to everyone that this is Trump’s party, with little room for thoughtful dissent.

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

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