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For better or for worse, the Republican race for the White House has long seen its starting pistol fire from Iowa. Since 1972, only three winners of competitive Iowa caucuses have gone forward as the general election candidate. And yet, every four years, the Midwestern state shapes the race in ways that reverberate across our political system. We are likely to see a particularly striking example of the Iowa effect this week.
While the Iowa caucuses are seldom predictive, the outsized influence that evangelicals have on the GOP there ends up pushing most candidates to the right on abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. It’s why Donald Trump raced around the state with Jerry Falwell Jr., then the head of the nation’s largest Christian university, during the final days of the 2016 caucuses that he would place second. It’s how former Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 powered to hard-fought (but not durable) wins. And it’s how then-Sen. Bob Dole enjoyed twice as much support as incumbent Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988, would claim the nomination eight years later, and would go on to be nicknamed Iowa’s Third Senator for his unrelenting advocacy for the state.
All of which is to say, these loud and proud conservative activists often prod hopefuls to stake out positions that might later be shown to be out-of-touch with the broader electorate, and sometimes even the Republican Party’s truest advocates. And that confrontation and complication will be on full display on Friday, when most of the candidates make the pilgrimage to Des Moines for a Family Leadership Summit at exactly the moment when a question many of them don’t want to answer is at the fore.
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That’s thanks to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who on Friday is slated to sign into law a ban on abortions after six weeks, a moment when many of those who are expecting aren’t yet aware. The restrictions are similar to a previous law that the state Supreme Court effectively nixed when the justices deadlocked in a case over it. Reynolds last week called a special session of the state legislature, and lawmakers quickly delivered an intensely conservative limit on the procedure that has grown more and more difficult to access since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
It will be all but impossible for the candidates to avoid this issue as they take their turn on stage Friday across the Des Moines River, where former Fox host Tucker Carlson will serve as moderator.
Most candidates have tried to walk the tightrope carefully. That will be harder to do when they inevitably get asked: Do you support Gov. Reynolds’ six-week abortion ban? And when is the cut-off in your mind?
Former Vice President Mike Pence won’t be sweating, as he has called for a 15-week abortion ban at a minimum and a six-week one in the ideal. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has already signed into law his state’s six-week ban. But other candidates have been skeptical of the wisdom of a national ban, and have been fuzzy about their intentions on the subject if they are they next one to occupy the Oval.
There is almost no upside to the dynamic, one created by Reynolds and her conservative pals who dominate the legislature. A Des Moines poll from March found that 61% of Iowa adults believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 35% said it should be illegal in most or all cases. Among women, that support reaches 70%.
Yet the Family Leadership Summit is going to all but demand those facts be treated as annoyances and instead invite the speakers to pledge to do everything they can to roll back abortion rights.
Friday is but one of the buffets of cattle-call summits that attract the 2024 contenders hoping to make inroads with these conservative voters who show up but aren’t yet settled on any one contender. By now, the blueprint for these set pieces is well understood, even to candidates who don’t exactly sing from the same evangelical hymnal. The organizers know it, but they also know there is power in convening most of the field to, at minimum, pander with platitudes and to kiss the ring.
Right now, all but one of the marquee contenders is due to take the stage at a Des Moines convention center. The missing leading man? Trump himself, who is in a spat with Reynolds for staying neutral in the state and privately thinks the end of Roe was a political misfire, despite his not-small role in bringing it about.
(Organizers of the nominally apolitical Family Leadership Summit also note they invited President Joe Biden and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to attend. Both declined.)
Iowa’s prominence as the lead-off caucuses has long vexed national GOP strategists who think it a distraction from the broader, desperately needed work of rebranding the party. Sen. John McCain struggled to figure out his approach there during his 2008 primary, and Mitt Romney flirted with a similar strategy of polite indifference. But party leaders—goaded by Trump—have decided to stick with Iowa as Democrats—at Biden’s prod—moved to promote South Carolina as the state where the Democrats’ nominal nomination fight begins. The hard-right pivot of Iowa has done little to assuage the worries among many in the GOP that a state with just one statewide elected Democrat might be missing a crossover appeal test for the contenders. After all, the very-white Iowa GOP has scheduled next year’s lead-off caucuses on the same day that the rest of the country will be honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Iowa was once seen as a purple state in the Midwest. It voted for Barack Obama twice, but has slid further and further red in the years since. The last time Republicans had competitive caucuses, a full two-thirds of Iowan Republicans told exit pollsters they were self-described white evangelical or born-again Christians, and by a two-to-one margin told pollsters that picking a candidate who shared their values mattered more than electability or ability to bring change. (Before you scoff at Iowa as an outlier on this, national exit polls found 83% of Republicans in last year’s midterms said the same about identifying as a white evangelical or born-again Christian. Among all voters, though, that tally stood at 24%.)
All of which is to say this is, yet again, a problem of the Republicans’ own making as they push a partisan purity test. Even the slogan for this year’s Family Leadership Summit nods at the objective: “Principle Over Politics.” As The D.C. Brief noted just this week, the GOP’s fealty to the far-right voices is fun to watch for some, but it’s making it more difficult for a party to expand an appeal in a country that, for seven of the last eight national popular votes, has sided with the Democratic nominees. The last Republican to win the popular vote was George W. Bush in 2004; before that, you have to go back to his father’s 1988 campaign, which began with a disappointing showing in Iowa. And, once again, as those conservatives in the Heartland make use of their oversized hand in picking the nominee, history suggests their wagers tend to be more problematic than prophetic.
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