The next few months in Iowa should be exciting.
A host of factors that will keep the Hawkeye State hopping, from a hotly contested race for an open Senate seat to the constant flow of potential 2016 presidential contenders.
But in case things start to sag, look no further than the liberty movement for an injection of interest, and particularly in the state’s Third Congressional District, where surprising convention results pushed an unlikely Establishment contender to the Republican nomination and left many grassroots activists irked.
The seat for the district, which takes up the southwest corner of the state, is being vacated by Republican Rep. Tom Latham’s impending retirement.
Former state Sen. Staci Appel, the Democratic nominee, is a top Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruit and has the backing of the deep-pocketed EMILY's List. The Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up, and President Obama won the district in 2008 and 2012.
It's a rare Democratic pick-up opportunity in a year that generally looks bleak for that party's prospects in the House, so it's going to be tight. Followers of Ron and Rand Paul might make it even tighter.
The liberty movement — meaning grassroots conservative and libertarian-leaning activists who typically back the ideals of the Paul family — has an outsize presence in Iowa. Ron Paul allies won control of the state Republican party’s central committee in 2012. They also took control of the 2012 delegation to the Republican Party’s national convention.
But allies of Gov. Terry Branstad pushed back and wrested back control of the central committee in June. And they had a second big win later that month when David Young, a former aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley, won the nomination for the contest for the Third Congressional District.
Young’s win raised sighs of relief among establishment Republicans. Brad Zaun, one of the candidates he faced in the convention, had substantial grassroots support but struggled with fundraising and once said he would “spill my blood to save the unborn” — in other words, he would have been the kind of nominee to give establishment Republicans heartburn.
So while Young’s win was a boon for Branstad allies, it’s left many activists in the liberty movement feeling disillusioned and frustrated. And given how close the contest in November could be, that could be a problem.
Supporters of the Pauls might not all stay home, says Liberty Iowa co-founder Joel Kurtinitis. But they’re unlikely to do much helpful organizing.
“When you’re talking about liberty people, you’re talking about people who were really born out of protest,” he said. “So we have no problem making a protest vote just to say, hey, you’ve got this many thousand Republican voters who did not believe in our Congressional candidate.”
Young came in fifth in the primary, and Zaun took first. But because Zaun didn’t get 35 percent of the vote, it went to a convention, where Young snagged a surprising win. That dynamic is unusual — typically grassroots activists prefer conventions, which favor voters willing to invest an entire day or weekend in choosing their party’s nominee. Primaries tend to have larger voter turnout (and tend to bring voters who are less ideologically motivated), so they can favor candidates closer to the center. But that’s not how things went in Iowa-03, and Zaun’s supporters are still chafing over his loss.
Drew Ivers, former finance chair for the Iowa Republican Party who also chaired Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid in Iowa, said many activists in his orbit will be less than energized.
“The small-government wing of the party will — intuitively, naturally, by normal human behavior — be less enthusiastic, less willing to work, less willing to give, less willing to tell their friends and their family about the Republican candidate,” he said.
And the small-government wing of the party doesn’t usually determine election results. But in this particular contest, every constituency matters.
“David Young needs all the support he can possibly get, because it's going to be a very tough and probably a very nasty campaign,” said Kevin Hall, a columnist for the Iowa Republican. “So any chipping away at his numbers is not going to bode well for him.”
Young said in a statement that he aims to court Iowa conservatives of all stripes.
"When I served as Senator Grassley's chief of staff, I maintained positive relationships with all parts of the Republican Party,” he said. “I've continued to keep those relationships strong as a candidate for Congress too. I learned from Senator Grassley how to listen to all constituents regardless of political affiliation and as an Iowa congressman, my only boss will be the people of Iowa's Third District."
When it comes to liberty movement activists, that sentiment might not be mutual.
Kim Pearson, a former state representative and influential member of the state’s liberty movement, said there could be a significant energy deficit in November.
“Our interests will be elsewhere,” she said.