Republicans' mad Iowa dash begins: A presidential pander-fest for the ages

Paul, Cruz, Rubio and other potential candidates descend on Iowa this week, 17 months ahead of the useless caucuses

Published August 4, 2014 4:59PM (EDT)

  (AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Adrees Latif/AP/Tony Gutierrez)
(AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Adrees Latif/AP/Tony Gutierrez)

Now that Congress has passed every agenda item imaginable and is enjoying a healthy five-week vacation, popular senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul will be at home devoting themselves full-time to their families and constituent services. Little Junior is heading back to school and will need to be dropped off and picked up; there are a few growing potholes on the interstate that need the good legislators' personal attention. After a few high-profile legislative battles, it's time for these state representatives to ground themselves and attend to the business back home.

Just kidding, they're all going to Iowa to run for president.

"Six Republicans mulling a campaign for the presidency will traverse the Hawkeye State over the next two weeks," U.S. News reports, "with most of them devoting multiple days to the pilgrimage." Paul alone has double-digit stops planned this week -- 10 by U.S. News' count, "at least a dozen" according to the Des Moines Register -- including visits to "five local Republican Party offices and ... two fundraisers for congressional candidates." Cruz was in Iowa on Saturday "for an exclusive party at GOP donor and agribusiness leader Bruce Rastetter’s home, where he also attended a fundraiser for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst." Rubio was also in the Rastetter dude's backyard, where he was the big speaker and "stayed for the summer party." Delightful!

The senators will be joined by other hopefuls traversing the state. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is doing "events at nine venues in four days." Rick Santorum will visit three cities in two days. Mike Huckabee will fly out to Iowa on Thursday night for a Friday morning "session with Christian conservative activists at an Iowa Renewal Project event in Cedar Rapids," then fly back to liberal New York City to tape his weekend Fox News show, then return Saturday.

The main reason so many of these jokers -- Perry, Cruz, Santorum, Huckabee and Bobby Jindal -- will be in Iowa next Saturday is for the big Family Leadership Summit in Ames, where they will all give speeches. The event, which the DMR dubs "the first big cattle-call event of the cycle," is an opportunity to kiss the ring of Bob Vander Plaats, the generally awful head of the Family Leader organization and self-christened gatekeeper to Iowa's social conservative votes. Expect some choice (depressing) quotes as these potential presidential candidates try to outdo each other for the SoCons' hearts next weekend.

The Iowa caucuses make it great to be an Iowa Republican politician for the next 17 months. If you're in the state's GOP House delegation, you'll get whatever you want from Congress; if you're Senate candidate Joni Ernst, the national party's best fundraisers will flock to whatever small-town barbecue or diner you're at to keep your campaign coffers full. (Rubio's PAC alone has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Ernst.) And then there's Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who's served five terms and is running this year for his sixth. The amount of ass-kissing that Branstad receives from Republican presidential hopefuls is otherworldly. As New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich wrote in a story about Chris Christie's recent visit to Iowa, "[i]f there’s one thing every Republican presidential candidate can agree upon, it is that Branstad represents the peak of American leadership, if not the pinnacle of all human achievement."

We haven't yet gotten to the midterms, but this August in Iowa is the first real sign that the 2016 presidential election is in full swing -- at least on the GOP side -- as all the candidates visit to curry favors with Iowa politicians, Iowa activists like Vander Plaats, and other key precinct captains and whatnot who apparently have no qualms over accepting totally outsize phony flattery. And so we've got to ask: Why is this still going on? It's somewhat surprising that Iowa gets just as much, if not more, attention as ever from prospective candidates after what went down in the 2012 Republican presidential primary season.

First recall that the Iowa Republican Party completely blew the 2012 Republican caucuses. Mitt Romney was declared the winner, by a hair, giving him a a boost out of the gate. A few weeks later, the Iowa GOP came out and said, oh wait, Rick Santorum actually won. These Iowa officials get pandered to for several years and then can't even do their One Job -- effectively administering caucus night -- correctly? You'd think that maybe after that mess, another state, whose Republican Party hadn't gotten spoiled, would get the opportunity to lead off the presidential nominating process. But that of course will never happen because ... just because. Iowans are God's people! -- and so forth.

More important, the post-Citizens United campaign finance landscape has eliminated whatever viability there was of the "early knockout blow" strategy. The idea has been that if a candidate can win Iowa and then the first primary in New Hampshire, the nomination is locked up, as other candidates fall further behind, watch their campaign funds dry up and have no means of replenishing them. But  2012 showed that candidates who are burnt crisp after Iowa and New Hampshire can still go on forever -- now that there are super PACs, wherein one eccentric billionaire gambling addict can pick up a candidate's entire TV advertising tab. This extends the primary season and gives a Newt Gingrich or a Rick Santorum a chance to stage a comeback weeks or months into the process, long after Iowa has been forgotten.

Besides, the winner of the GOP's Iowa caucuses is always a social conservative (Huckabee, Santorum) who's good at chatting up the old ladies at Bible study but is rarely the most well-rounded candidate with the best chance of winning a party's presidential nomination.

But, hey, if all these candidates want to spend two years and extraordinary resources in Iowa making out with the Butter Cow, go right on ahead. It's just the way things are done. Tradition!

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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