The Iowa caucuses are more than two and half years away, but today serves as a pretty good mark for the start of the long unofficial pre-campaign, with two potential 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls and the chairman of the Republican National Committee visiting the state to attend a "Pastors' Policy Briefing" event.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is openly considering a White house bid while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is making all the moves of someone eyeing a run, even while denying it -- and he could be a real contender. Cruz keynoted a South Carolina GOP event in May, is making two stops in Iowa this week and has plans to visit New Hampshire and Florida in coming months. The two are allies in the Senate, striking the same anti-establishment posture, but there may not be enough room for both of them in the party if Cruz is serious about running.
And in a year dominated by questions about whether the GOP can remake itself after a big defeat in 2012, the Iowa jaunt suggests it will be nigh impossible. Party leaders, including Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus himself, urged Republicans to soften their rhetoric on homosexuality and give up the crusade against gay marriage, but Cruz and Paul -- two leaders not even generally associated with the Christian-right wing of the GOP -- are choosing to spend their first jaunt to the politically important state with far-right social conservatives who regularly express toxic views on homosexuality.
This wing is generally considered dominant in Iowa Republican politics and crucial for a win at the caucuses. That fact alone will likely push the party to the right on marriage equality and abortion, as GOP presidential wannabes like Cruz and Paul court their votes.
The two senators are speaking tonight at an event organized by the Iowa Renewal Project. The effort is organized by David Lane, a man whom the liberal People for the American Way described as "an anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-Mormon, Christian-nation absolutist who has declared war, not only on secularism and separation of church and state, but also on establishment Republicans who don’t embrace his vision of an America in which the Bible serves as 'the principle textbook' for public education and a 'Christian culture' has been 're-established.'"
Sharing the stage with Paul and Cruz at the event is David Barton, a controversial Christian historian (or perhaps more accurately, pseudo-historian) whose star has fallen lately. After mainstream publications and especially an evangelical magazine pointed out egregious factual errors in his latest book about how the Founders intended to create a Christian nation, his publisher, the world’s largest Christian imprint, recalled the volume, saying they had “lost confidence in the book’s details.”
Beyond his factual challenges, Barton has expressed noxious views on homosexuality, suggesting that the government regulate homosexuality like a disease; arguing that Christians "can't drink Starbucks and be biblically right" because the coffee company supports marriage equality; and even dismissing the toll of AIDS as God's punishment for "shameful sexual acts." "There is going to be a consequence for this type of sexual behavior, so even if we find a cure for AIDS, something like bacterial meningitis is going to pop up; if we cure that, something else is going to pop," he said on his radio show in May of this year.
And this is typical fare for the event that will serve as Cruz and Paul's first outing in Iowa. Another speaker, Pastor Ken Graves, has said gay families are inherently "depressed" (though he also acknowledged that he doesn't actually know any); Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver, who will also speak, has called homosexuality "unnatural, immoral and unhealthy"; and Dr. Don Wildmon, another featured speaker, says that "the root of homosexuality is a sinful heart."
GOP presidential hopefuls have attended the event in the past, but this year was supposed to be different. Contrast the lineup with the RNC's "Growth and Opportunity" report, which urged that the GOP needs to be "welcoming and inclusive" of gay people. Or the more recent College Republican report, which said that the party needs to stop the "crusade against same-sex marriage."
"This is kind of the opening salvo of 2016," a Democratic strategist who spent years working in Iowa before moving to national politics said. "The GOP has pledged to rebrand and now that 2016 has started up, what are they doing? Going back to the far right. They really haven’t learned from their mistakes."
This isn't to say Paul and Cruz believe this stuff. Paul's views on gay marriage have been a bit complicated, but he mostly seems to be in the "agree to disagree" school. Cruz has been more negative -- he criticized the mayor of Dallas for marching in a gay pride parade -- but has mostly avoided the issue. Instead, the two seem to be doing what they think they need to do to build support in Iowa.
But it's not their only option. The state allows people to register at the door to the caucus, meaning the candidates could instead be reaching outside the dwindling base of hardcore Republicans to attract independents and even disaffected Democrats. This strategy was crucial to Obama's upset in the state in 2008.
The fact that they aren't underscores how difficult it will be for the party to shift on gay rights when far-right social conservatives control one of the most important states in the presidential nominating process. If every candidate has to appeal to this group, the gravitation center of the party will remain anti-gay.