For the first time, no Republican candidates for state or federal office, neither challengers nor incumbents, accepted our invitation to meet with The Gazette’s editorial board as part of our endorsement process.
It’s disappointing, and a sad commentary on the state of our politics. But it’s hardly surprising.
Last November Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann took to Twitter to call our editorial board “unprofessional, juvenile and anti-Iowan.” He linked to his Facebook page, where he posted photos of four Gazette headlines, all from staff columns written by Lyz Lenz and myself. One was “Make America suck again,” from a column I wrote about Trump straws. Get it?
“I will be encouraging all GOP candidates to boycott meeting with the sanctimonious editorial board at the Cedar Rapids Gazette,” Kaufmann tweeted.
Of course, Lyz and I are two members of a five-member editorial board that includes perspectives different from ours. We interview candidates, deliberate and sometimes disagree. Viewpoints may vary. But we can’t be persuaded by candidates who don’t show.
The trend lines were clear even before Kaufmann’s rant.
In 2014, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Joni Ernst set the tone by refusing to meet with most Iowa editorial boards, including ours. Since then, the number of GOP candidates unwilling to meet with us has grown.
In 2016, we met with several Republicans. We endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, the first Democrat to gain our presidential nod since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but we also endorsed U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, 2nd District Republican congressional nominee Christopher Peters and GOP state lawmakers Ken Rizer and Dan Zumbach.
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But in 2018, most Republican incumbents declined our invitation, including Gov. Kim Reynolds. We did meet with GOP challengers in several local legislative races. Democratic. U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack also declined our invite because another member of our board, columnist Adam Sullivan, once worked for his opponent during a different election cycle.
So now we’ve arrived at the doorstep of the 2020 election, and no state or federal Republican hopefuls were willing to meet with our board via a Zoom video conference. They shunned our virtual video boxes.
In declining, the campaign of 2nd District Republican congressional nominee Mariannette Miller-Meeks cited sharp online criticism from Lenz tied to Miller-Meeks’ appearance at a December event featuring a speaker who professes white supremacist views. First District Republican U.S. House candidate Ashley Hinson’s campaign also pointed to Lenz’s writing and social media interactions. But Hinson also refused to meet with us in 2018 when she was running for a second term in the Iowa House, long before Lenz joined our team.
Bashing the media has long been a core campaign tactic for Republicans, with the volume turned up in our time of Trump, including boycotting editorial boards and attacking journalists. You just don’t sit down with “enemies of the people,” as the president called us.
It’s also worth noting that most local GOP candidates declined to participate in forums this fall sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Kim Jong Un gets a meeting. Editorial boards, LWV, not so much.
It’s tempting to try to appease these public officials, pull punches in our editorials and columns and hope to return to their good graces. But that would be dishonest, and wouldn’t make any difference. There would always be a reason to decline our invitation. A column, a tweet, a headline, etc. We’re better off doing our work and taking our stands while letting the chips fall where they may.
Far more important than our endorsements themselves is the dialogue the endorsement process once fostered. It gave us a chance to meet candidates, get to know them a little better and ask questions about the issues of the day and their own agendas. Even on issues where we disagreed, it gave candidates a chance to make their case.
We’ve also heard many times that The Gazette used to be a staunchly conservative paper, but now its editorial pages have been hijacked by wild-eyed liberals.
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My trips through the archives cast considerable doubt on that narrative. To confirm, I sat down with former opinion editor Jerry Elsea, who worked on the editorial page for more than 30 years.
Elsea said it’s true the paper once endorsed mostly Republicans, with some exceptions, and was conservative on matters of budgeting and tax cutting.
But it’s also true The Gazette’s institutional opinions have been historically left of center on a number of important issues. We’ve long favored advancing civil rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and maintaining a bright line of separation between church and state.
We’ve been pro-immigration, pro-environmental protection and pro-science. Over the years we’ve favored handgun control measures and the teaching of evolution. We opposed bringing back the death penalty and making English the official language of Iowa.
So we were hardly the National Review of Grant Wood country.
Many of the Republicans The Gazette endorsed over the decades wouldn’t recognize what the GOP has become in 2020. The Republican Party of Bob Ray has disappeared under a stampede of extremist politicians and policies.
We still value an exchange of ideas, even with people who don’t share our views. But most Republicans are more interested in finding fault with our work than finding common ground. It’s the divide we’re seeing across the nation as partisans wall themselves off from one another.
It’s one among the many realities shaking our faith in the country’s future. But we’ll continue to do our jobs and extend the invitation. We still believe local journalism is important, and we hope those who agree will continue to support our work.
Todd Dorman is Insights editor. (319) 398-8262; email@example.com