There are five people running for the U.S. Senate in the Republican Primary in Iowa. Four of the five are real contenders and those four met at the Family Leader's Senate Forum on Friday night. I had the pleasure of moderating the forum. I hate debates and I made that clear to the candidates. The modern American political debate consists of reporters with a liberal worldview asking gotcha questions to conservatives that, by intention or otherwise, try to put them in a bad light. When the conversation shifts to policy, the candidates try to micro-nuance their agreements to make it sound like they disagree.
I wanted to do something different and the crowd consensus was that I accomplished my goal. I wanted to ask the candidates about their world view, how they form opinions, and on what basis can we trust they won't grow away from Iowa toward Washington.
Three of the four candidates were very direct that they want to see a change in Republican leadership in Congress.
Three of the four candidates named Ted Cruz and Mike Lee as candidates they identify with.
All four said they think Washington needs to do more with less in order to regain America's trust. And they all recognized that the Republicans in Washington have done a fine job of hurting the party's brand.
The front runner in the race is Joni Ernst. She swept into first place with one of the more creative ads this cycle. A farmer by background, a Lieutenant Colonel by training, and a State Senator in politics, Ernst is a very earnest person. She is quickly and easily likable. She wears her faith on her sleeve and is not ashamed of it.
Ernst did not have the depth of some of the candidates on stage, or at least did not seem to. But she had the personality and background to make up for it. In fact, where Ernst might not have given a precise answer on a question as some of the others did, she explained how she'd arrive at her conclusion. That included being grounded in Iowa's farm culture, her family, and her family. She conveyed a sense of genuineness and honesty that you sometimes don't get from people in her position. Ernst, in the debate, referenced Cruz, Lee, and Deb Fischer of Nebraska as three Senators she'd identify with and said current leadership needs to be changed in the Senate.
While Ernst is the frontrunner, Mark Jacobs is coming up strong. They are neck and neck right now and Jacobs can self-fund. Jacobs is the former CEO of Reliant Energy. He is sharp as a tack, very polished, and looks like a senator from central casting. He repeated throughout the forum that he wants to bring people together in Washington and make it work. He said he was confident he could cut the deals and make the compromises that Washington needed without sacrificing his principles. I pushed him on this because CEO's tend to be the guys who go the Washington and "grow" in office looking for big deals that inevitably go the Democrats' way. He insisted he would hold firm and not compromise on revenue. Jacobs was the one candidate who would not directly say leadership needed to be changed in Washington. When asked who he identified with, he said he was his own man and wanted to bring back the era of the "statesman in the Senate."
Sam Clovis and Matt Whitaker are the two struggling to get traction in the last six weeks of the Iowa primary. Clovis says he has a grassroots strategy and Whitaker says he's saving his money till the end. Both are typically what struggling candidates say.
Clovis is probably one of the most amazing people to run for office. He's done pretty much everything. He's got an economics background, worked in the Pentagon, etc. He's the grassroots conservative in the race and he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. If Clovis said the sky was blue, the crowd was willing to cheer. And he is in single digits in the polls. Clovis strikes me as a serious man who the voters do not take seriously. Jacobs looks like a central casting candidate. Clovis does not. But he has passion. Clovis said Cruz and Lee were the guys he identified with and he pledged not to support current leadership. He made clear he wanted Washington to restrain itself and not work for us, but let us work for ourselves.
Whitaker was a tough one to read. I cannot figure out why he is in the race. He is a former college football player and U.S. Attorney. He quotes St. Augustine and wears his faith on his sleeve like Ernst, but even more passionately. Cruz and Lee are his men in the Senate and he wants new leadership. But even a few days removed from the race I have this sense that Whitaker isn't running so much for the Senate as he is to build up his name for something else later. He'd be a good Senator. His values are intrinsically Iowan. He knew the issues. But while Clovis seemed to give off the vibe that this was his last hurrah, Whitaker gave me the vibe that this is the first of something big. I think we'll be seeing him in Iowa politics a while, even though I suspect he won't have what it takes to get the nomination.
I suspect the trajectory of the race will not change -- Ernst and Jacobs will maintain their lead into the primary. I suspect the establishment will support Jacobs. Conservatives will support Ernst. If no one gets 35% in the Iowa primary, there will be a convention, at which point I think Ernst has an advantage, given her relationship with Iowa's Governor and others.
Thanks to the Family Leader for the opportunity to moderate their forum. It was a great experience and a good time in Des Moines.