As the nation watches to see who Iowa Republicans advance Jan. 3 in the first-in-the-nation skirmish for presidential strength, another in a series of battles is being waged for the GOP’s ideological soul.
It comes down to this: Who controls the party?
Is it “the crazies” — the word some Republican moderates and Democrat opponents use to describe the right-wing religious conservatives who certainly draw the most attention come caucus time?
Or will the winner be a moderate who appeals to the nation's all-important middle, where general elections are won and lost?
Do you think the religious right has too much influence in Iowa? Tell us in the comments section below.
As they did in 2008 with Mike Huckabee, Iowa’s religious conservatives may propel one of their own to caucus victory, someone who may not play well in the rest of the country, said Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor.
If that happens — again — it could dilute the importance of the Iowa caucuses, Schmidt said.
“Those are all considerations that the party leaders know about,” he said, “but the party leaders are not in control anymore.”
Rather, he said, control of the party — at least during the caucuses — has been taken over by religious conservatives and those who agree with the fire-and-brimstone, less-government preachings of the Tea Party.
Iowa Republican Mary Kramer, a former state senator before President George W. Bush appointed her U.S. ambassador to Barbados, is optimistic the caucus pendulum will swing back to the center as a sour economy drives more voters to their neighborhood caucuses.
If Iowa is to be regarded as a bellwether state, it'll be because "Bob Ray Republicans" show up on caucus day, Kramer said. These are voters who are fiscially conservative but socially moderate, with values in line with those of popular longtime Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray, who ran the state from 1969-1983.
Both Kramer and Ray back former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is battling former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the lead in several states.
“With religious conservatives, it’s anybody but Romney,” Kramer said. “Everybody else is going up and down around him on the merry-go-round, but he’s not.
“I respect the passion and strong beliefs of [the Religious Right],” she said, “but where I get crosswise is in their attempt to dictate those beliefs, to say ‘if you don’t believe as I do, you’re not qualified to be president.’”
Kramer’s not ready to say evangelical voters don’t matter.
Clearly, in Iowa, they do.
Caucus Strategies Same as Judicial Vote Over Gay Marriage
Iowa’s far-right faction isn’t as easily dismissed as the state's fanatical aunt or uncle. They have bona fide political clout.
Fueled by out-of-state money, The Family Leader political action committee — host of a Thanksgiving Family Forum attended by six of the GOP presidential candidates — was behind a successful campaign last year to toss three Iowa Supreme Court justices from the bench after the court’s unanimous 2009 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
Religious conservatives were “quite influential, quite organized and had a big impact” in the judicial retention vote, and there are signals that some of the same strategies are being employed to influence the caucuses, said Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of the statewide Iowa Interfaith Alliance.
“A lot of money came from out-of-state religious right sources, and that was a factor in the retention vote,” Ryan Terrell said. “There was a lot of influence from that sector of the faith community.”
Huckabee’s 2008 supporters are now looking at Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — all on the hunt for votes that were presumed Herman Cain’s before he dove in the polls and suspended his campaign.
, steered in Iowa by Eric Woolson, the same political strategist who buoyed Huckabee’s campaign, is telling Iowans not to count her out.
Peter Waldron, Bachmann’s director of outreach to religious voters, told United Press International last month that the Minnesota congresswoman expects to do better in Iowa than her current polling numbers suggest and said “there’s no question” that values voters “will carry her to victory.”
But Woolson acknowledged “different challenges this time around.”
“You’ve got the evangelical base and the home-school base, and they are both more fragmented, and are seeing more choices,” he said. “Many of them are still in the process of choosing the candidate they are going to support.”
More than 100 Iowa pastors and other religious leaders have endorsed Bachmann. One of them, Pastor Matthew Floyd of the nondenominational Calvary Bible Church in the rural southern Iowa town of Osceola, invited Bachmann to speak earlier this fall.
“We teach the Bible and what our values should be. It should go hand-in-hand with candidates, that they should reflect our values,” Floyd said. “ … I also think as Christians, it’s our duty to get out there and vote, as well, and vote those values.”
Floyd said evangelical Christians felt emboldened by the 2010 judicial retention vote and look at the caucuses as another opportunity to reflect the gospel through their votes.
He thinks many will support Bachmann. Fiscal policies don’t matter as much with this group of voters, Floyd said.
“The important thing is, [economic recovery] will follow if we are doing what God wants," Floyd said. "I wouldn’t look at someone’s fiscal issues and throw their other values out the window. I would start with their Biblical values and go from there.”
That kind of talk rankles the Bob Ray Republicans, Kramer said.
“I consider myself a Christian and a conservative," Kramer said, "and I guess I’m a little resentful of people putting all of us in the same boat of trying to pass judgment on everybody.”