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May 23, 2013 5:35 PM Trouble In River City

By Ed Kilgore

One of the best measurements for assessing any political junkie’s addiction is how intently he or she is focused on Early Nominating States like Iowa and New Hampshire, especially the former (thanks to its kickoff status and its byzantine procedures and traditions), and particularly early in presidential cycles when it’s objectively crazy to be making any real judgments.

So if you’re truly a political mainliner, you should follow me in reading the vast early backgrounder on Iowa ‘16 posted today by RCP’s Scott Conroy. But first I must warn you: the headline (“Under Fire Again, Will Iowa Caucuses Remain First?”) is a complete tease. As you probably know, and as Conroy eventually admits after about twenty graphs of misdirection, there’s really no threat to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status in 2016. Indeed, we eventually learn that one likely GOP Caucus candidate, Marco Rubio, did Iowa the signal service of convincing his allies in Florida to remove its perennial threat to the “privileged” four front-end states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) and hold its 2016 primary in March.

To the extent that Conroy identifies Trouble in River City, it’s all on the GOP side, and it involves not the existence or the timing of the Caucuses, but the potential binding of Convention delegates to the Caucus results, the role of one highly controversial preliminary event, and the bad publicity being generated by a quickening, multi-pronged investigation of Michele Bachmann’s 2012 Iowa campaign.

To cut to the chase (you can get there by the scenic route in Conroy’s piece), what all the angst is really about is the post-Caucus 2012 takeover of the Iowa Republican Party apparatus by the Ron Paul Revolution. The Paulites, led by state GOP chair A.J. Spiker, has deeply annoyed both the “establishment” Republican circles around Gov. Terry Branstad and a lot of the conservative activists who make the Caucuses go.

A particular football has been the Ames Straw Poll, the bizarre event held the summer before the Caucuses where well-organized and well-financed campaigns can bus in supporters with a ticket and a boxed lunch to get the first “victory” headlines of the cycle. It was won in 2011 by Michele Bachmann, with Ron Paul finishing a very close second. And the event croaked the campaign of early “smart money” candidate and Bachmann’s Minnesota Twin, Tim Pawlenty.

The Straw Poll is also the principal pre-Caucus fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. So with that organization now firmly in the hands of the much-despised Paulites, and any excuse for continuing to put up with the unpredictable chaos of the Ames Straw Poll all but gone in non-Paulite circles, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of pious talk about the “bad image” being inflicted on Iowa Republicans by a House Ethics Committee (and now FBI) investigation of possibly illegal payments in 2011 by the Bachmann campaign to the pre-Ames chairman of her campaign—who later defected to Ron Paul—a state senator named Kent Sorenson.

I’m sure Iowa Republicans don’t like hearing about scandals, but it’s a good bet the intrastate sound and fury is less about ethics than about getting rid of an Ames spectacle next cycle where Rand Paul would have a huge advantage from the get-go. And the broader story is that all the anger that has been generated by Spiker and company may well have made Paul a weaker candidate in Iowa than he would be if his father’s Revolution hadn’t succeeded so well in 2012.

In any event, nothing going on in Iowa right now portends any significant change in the state’s outsized role in telling the rest of us what options we have for a president every four years (truth is, your average gathering of Iowa home-schoolers probably has more impact on the identity of the GOP nominee than most of the Great Big Party Strategists in Washington put together). So get used to the occasional deep dive into the distinctive political culture of the state as we gradually approach 2016.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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