Primary debates for the U.S. Senate are often dismal affairs. Thursday’s debate among Republican contenders in Iowa was no exception. With five candidates—ranging from the not ready for prime time to the Dear God get this person away from the camera—the debate was not exactly Lincoln versus Douglas. But it did tell us something about Republican politics in the state that will hold the first primary contest in 2016.
The tableau of five candidates on stage at first seemed more like a set of high school stereotypes than a political debate. The two frontrunners, businessman Mark Jacobs and state senator Joni Ernst, resembled his and hers candidates for student government president, offering vacuous but polished platitudes. Social conservative Sam Clovis came across as the nerd—he had a goofy mustache, an ill-fitting suit and a mastery of policy details that seemed not to interest the other contenders. Former U.S. Attorney and Iowa football player Matt Whitaker came across as a meathead, lacking any policy depth. And long shot candidate Scott Schaben? Well, he came across like Screech from Saved By the Bell, only without the necessary follicles to sustain a Jewfro.
Being Republicans in 2014, all of the candidates did share some common views. They all hate Obamacare. They don’t want to raise the retirement age for seniors and they don’t support a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens. But the debate also exposed some rifts as well.
This was particularly true for the debate’s two most polished candidates—Jacobs and Ernst. Jacobs, for example, “was glad Edward Snowden raised the concerns he did.” Ernst, on the other hand, thought the NSA whistleblower was “a traitor.” Jacobs dodged the question of whether he’d vote for Paul Ryan’s budget, saying he had concerns about cuts to Medicare and Pell Grants. Ernst said she’d vote against because it didn’t cut the deficit fast enough. While Jacobs pushed for regulatory reform, Ernst came out full-throated for abolishing the Department of Education and the EPA.
The two also differed on style. Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, seemed Palinesque at times. After being asked a question about the current crisis in Crimea and Eastern Europe, she said she was inspired to join the military after being an agricultural exchange student in Ukraine between her freshman and sophomore year of college. In contrast, Jacobs was almost too smooth and seemed to be constantly weighing the general election consequences of his answers against any potential benefit in a GOP primary. Whenever Jacobs felt like he had to support a position that might be unpopular with Republican primary voters, he took pains to emphasize that it was what Chuck Grassley supported.
Among the second-tier candidates, Whitaker was prone to going for applause lines over substance. His suggestions to balance the budget included the innumerate plan of “cutting foreign aid to countries that don’t like us” and axing the “four billion to the U.N.” In contrast, Clovis was prone to being overly substantive. His answer on immigration reform referenced the Bracero guest worker program from 1946-1964 and derided Ted Kennedy’s efforts on the immigration bill of 1965. Clovis didn’t just want to pass the Fair Tax, he wanted to repeal the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows for a progressive income tax in the first place.
None of the candidates expressed much support for the controversial rancher Cliven Bundy, whose fight against the authority of the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, recently won him some support from conservatives, only to see it squandered away after he made racist remarks. Both Clovis and Whitaker, the only two candidates asked about the situation, insisted that Bundy had a contract with the federal government, which the rancher needed to uphold. While both suggested that the state of Nevada should regulate public lands in question rather than the federal government, neither seemed inclined to be particularly sympathetic to Bundy.
The Republican Iowa Senate primary vote is scheduled for June 3. Whoever wins that primary will still be an underdog against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley. While Braley has hurt his chances by mocking the intellectual capability of longtime Iowa senator and non-lawyer Chuck Grassley to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, he’ll still be favored in the fall.