October 2, 2014

The Family Leader poised to step in if 2015 Iowa Straw Poll not held

A periodic political event in Iowa that has been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past is at risk of being discontinued, but a conservative organization based in Iowa looks positioned to fill the void.

This coming Saturday in Ames “The Family Leader” will host a summit that’s drawing potential 2016 presidential candidates like Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, as well as media personality Donald Trump. The event is being staged on the same weekend and in the same city as past Iowa Republican Party Straw Polls which have tested the strengths and weaknesses of potential presidential candidates some five or six months before the Iowa Caucuses.

Governor Terry Branstad and others have suggested the Ames Straw Poll should not be held in 2015.

“It used to be an organizational test and then it became a really big money thing and now I think it’s become less relevant in light of the last couple of elections,” Branstad said in late November.

Mitt Romney did not participate in the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll and Michele Bachmann, the victor of the 2011 event in Ames, finished last in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses five months later. In 2007, eventual party nominee John McCain skipped the Straw Poll as did Rudy Giuliani, plus Fred Thompson waited ’til after the Straw Poll to enter the race. In 2011 Rick Perry went to South Carolina on the same day as the Straw Poll to announce his candidacy. 

Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, said his organization will hold a summit in Ames in August of 2015, whether or not the Iowa GOP holds a Straw Poll.

“I know in championing (Mike) Huckabee and being around Santorum and a lot of other candidates, what they’re looking at right prior to that Straw Poll is getting in front of as many conservatives as they can prior to the Straw Poll,” Vander Plaats said during an interview with Radio Iowa, “so I could see it either as a stand-alone event or working in relationship with the Iowa Straw Poll.”

Chuck Laudner has worked for candidates like Congressman Steve King and 2012 Iowa Caucus victor Rick Santorum. According to Laudner, “The Family Leader” could stage something like the influential Conservative Political Action Convention in Washington, D.C. and conduct its own straw poll at their event in 2015.

“That’s certainly part of the plan and even though that’s a long ways off, it’s worth thinking about,” Laudner said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “The Straw Poll got trashed so much this last winter that there’s a lot of folks that think that there isn’t going to be one.”

Laudner was executive director of the Iowa GOP back in 2007 and he ran that year’s Ames Straw Poll. He wants to see the Iowa GOP continue to hold a Straw Poll in August.

“Be careful what you wish for, you might get it and what replaces the Straw Poll might be ten times worse,” Laudner told Radio Iowa. “Not only are you going to have an event like Bob’s (Family Leadership Summit) that you have to attend, but Polk County has a straw poll and Black Hawk County has a straw poll and then everybody tries to fill that void.”

Steve Grubbs of Davenport has been chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, plus he helped craft Ames Straw Poll plans for Steve Forbes in 1999 and Bob Dole in 1995.

“It gives candidates who might not be that well-known a national platform and it’s a nice fundraiser for the state party,” Grubbs said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “People can complain about it, but there’s an awful lot of wins there for a lot people, so I think it would be unwise to let it go.”

According to Grubbs, having a party-sponsored Straw Poll is better than having The Family Leader, the Farm Bureau or any single group conduct a straw poll in Iowa to measure support for the presidential candidates. Grubbs said the party can ensure all candidates “feel welcome” to participate and that kind of an event attracts a national audience.

Iowa Democrats do not hold a Straw Poll before their Caucuses. Instead, the Iowa Democratic Party hosts a Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinner in the fall which has given all the Democratic presidential candidates a platform to give speeches and get national media attention.