Iowa Conservatives Still Searching for a Candidate

Six of the Republican presidential wannabes traveled to Iowa this past Saturday to try to win over a crowd of over 1,000 evangelicals at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's banquet dinner in Des Moines. All of the major contenders (except Mitt Romney) spoke, playing up their social conservative bona fides for a crowd that could play a deciding role in the "first in the nation" state.

Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition—headed by president Steve Scheffler—is one of the state's most powerful conservative organizations thanks to the voter guides they hand out during elections and the lobbying they do in the state legislature, most often pushing anti-LGBT rights legislation.

Scheffler was instrumental in building the coalition of Christian activists that tilted the state's GOP further to the right over the past decade. He spearheaded the Iowa branch of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the 1990s, but bolted to form his own group called the Iowa Christian Alliance in the mid-2000s before connecting it with Ralph Reed's national group in 2009. He infiltrated the official party apparatus three years ago when he joined state's delegation to the Republican National Committee, knocking off a 20-year incumbent in a sign that the Iowa GOP had switched hands from pro-business concerns to dominance by social conservatives.

Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition is a nonprofit group, so it cannot officially endorse any of the candidates. But if, as a private citizen, Scheffler decided to throw his weight behind one of the Republicans, a large segment of the active evangelical base would likely follow. Yet instead he has remained silent, as have the state's other conservative leaders. "Just 10 weeks before the GOP caucuses here, no single candidate has won the devotion of the evangelicals, who boosted evangelical Christian Mike Huckabee to a win in the caucuses four years ago," the Des Moines Register wrote in their recap of the banquet.

According to the polls from the past several months, Iowa Republicans are still searching for a favorite candidate. Michele Bachmann was leading over the summer, Perry supplanted her for a time after he entered the race in August, and now Herman Cain's national surge has been matched by a rise to the to the top of the Iowa field (and Mitt Romney continually lingers as a solid second or third).

The state's social conservative elite apparently shares that dissatisfaction. Like Scheffler, Bob Vander Plaats is a shining star among Iowa's social conservatives. He served as state chair for Mike Huckabee's '08 caucus campaign that galvanized evangelicals around a favorite candidate. As I detailed in the October issue, Vander Plaats catipulated himself into Iowa's Tea Party kingmaker when he spearheaded a campaign last fall that whipped up fervor against same-sex marriage to remove three Supreme Court justices from the bench. He took advantage of that success, and formed a group at the start of the year that has shepherded the candidates around the state for a full day "presidential lecture series." Vander Plaats continues to hint that he will support one of the candidates, but has put any announcement on hold until after a November 19 Thanksgiving Family Forum he is hosting with all of the major candidates (again excluding Romney). But with the caucuses now set for January 3, Vander Plaats will have less than two months to influence the 2010 race.

U.S. Rep. Steve King, a favorite of the Fox News crowd, made that mistake last time when he endorsed Fred Thompson's ill-fated campaign just two weeks prior to the 2008 caucuses. King told Politico late last year that he wanted to play a more active role this time around, turning out his political machine earlier for one of the candidates. It was initially assumed that King would support Bachmann, his close ally and friend in the House. He's held off though, continuing to vet the various candidates, which included a hunting expedition with Rick Perry and Rick Santorum this past weekend.

The path to the nomination becomes easy for Romney each day the leaders of Iowa's evangelical community wait to engage in presidential politics. The former Massachusetts governor leads every poll out of New Hampshire. If the Iowa caucuses don't coalesce around one candidate from the social conservative wing, Romney will become the clear front runner when he dominates the field in New Hampshire with no ready challenger.

Photo credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore