Cruz’s Rise Fuels Iowa GOP Family Feud

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad may have come at Ted Cruz for his stance against ethanol, but the hostility between the two branches of the Iowa GOP the two men represent run much longer and deeper than this dispute.

01.21.16 2:40 PM ET

Ted Cruz has made a lot of enemies in Iowa. Chief among them is the ethanol industry. Now several of Cruz’s important Iowa allies may be exacerbating his problems and opposition by unwittingly dragging him into a long-running internal Iowa Republican civil war.

The conflict is a fight over the future of the Iowa Republican Party, but it may prove decisive in the future of the national party. It may even make Donald Trump the nominee.

Cruz’s newest critic in Iowa is none other than Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who told reporters after a renewable fuels summit in Altoona on Tuesday that he hopes Cruz is defeated in the Iowa Caucus. It’s not often a governor explicitly tells his party to oppose the leading candidate in a primary.

While Cruz’s desire to end the Renewable Fuel Standard ethanol mandate prompted the comments, there’s a lot more to this dynamic between Branstad and Cruz.

“It seems like there’s something beyond ethanol that’s animating the issue for him to so directly go after Cruz,” suggested Jeff Patch, an Iowa Republican operative. “It’s not a big secret that there’s no love lost between Branstad and [Cruz endorser] Vander Plaats, and it seems like it’s a broader proxy war for the direction of the Republican Party in Iowa.”

Many Republican insiders view Cruz’s role here as yet another chapter in the seven-year-long saga that includes Iowa’s 2009 gay marriage ruling, Congressman Steve King, religious warrior Bob Vander Plaats, a takeover of the state party by Ron Paul supporters, and even Sarah Palin.

The conflict dates back to April of 2009, when the landmark Varnum decision by the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, making Iowa the first in the Midwest to do so. That rallied evangelical voters to action, who have always held a strong influence in the state.

Meanwhile, Branstad kicked off his return to politics as he ran for a fifth gubernatorial term. His main competition in the primary was Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Family Leader, a social conservative advocacy group.

“Vander Plaats ran entirely on an executive order to basically tell the Iowa Supreme Court thanks for you opinion, but you don’t get to make laws,” recalled Craig Robinson, the editor of, who has documented the GOP conflict the most. “It would have created a constitutional crisis.”

Vander Plaats lost to Branstad 50% to 40% in the primary, but he remained Branstad’s biggest antagonist.

“The Branstad governing style is to emphasize the economic side, while still being socially conservative,” explained Jeff Angelo, a former Republican state senator. “Bob Vander Plaats is definitely a social conservative issue-first sort of guy. The guy who talks about revival and righteousness and repentance and getting back to God.”

Those differences caused multiple flare-ups over the years. Several Republican lawmakers backed by Vander Plaats pushed a “Personhood” abortion amendment in the Iowa Statehouse, to the chagrin of party leaders. The two sides clashed in primaries, with Vander Plaats candidates winning several state legislative victories, while Branstad’s team helped Joni Ernst emerge in the 2014 Senate primary. They fought bitterly over defunding Planned Parenthood last year as well.

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There was also a weird Ron Paul interlude for about two years, when backers of Paul essentially took over the Republican Party of Iowa’s state central committee and the party headquarters itself. The takeover became a disaster as they ran the state party’s finances into the ground and burned bridges with many activists and party leaders.

During that time the Vander Plaats crowd, though not ideologically the same, was happy to assist the people giving Branstad fits. Branstad’s allies made a major push in 2014 to fight back and successfully recaptured the state party.

Now Vander Plaats has joined Congressman Steve King and conservative radio talk show host Steve Deace in endorsing Cruz in the Iowa Caucus.

“Cruz has stepped into that role as chief Branstad antagonist,” Patch noted.

Of the 10 Republican operatives, insiders, and activist interviewed for this article, all believed that the primary cause of Branstad’s hit on Cruz was over Branstad’s sincere support for ethanol. And some pointed out that Branstad was responding to a reporter’s question, as opposed to placing the Cruz criticism in a speech.

“There’s no harder worker for Iowa farmers than Dad is,” added Eric Branstad, the governor’s son who is helping run America’s Renewable Future, the pro-RFS group targeting Cruz. “He is seeing the numbers, he is seeing the land value, and he is seeing the price of corn. A hit to the RFS would be a hit to all of those factors. So he sees this as looking out for Iowa. That is his sole focus, nothing to do with politics.”

But most still felt that long-standing frustrations with Vander Plaats helped fuel the division.

“I was very surprised by the personal nature of the attack,” Robinson observed. “Those two sides never really trust each other.”

In addition to ideological differences, Branstad loyalists have long viewed Vander Plaats with a skeptical eye for his personal style. They see his Family Leader organization as bigger on pontificating and raising money than achieving results. They believe Vander Plaats makes outrageous statements to attract media attention so that he can rally donors. And Vander Plaats himself even tried to get nominated as Branstad’s lieutenant governor from the state convention floor after losing in the primary, a tactic Branstad’s team saw as self-promotional.

Those concerns have emerged this caucus cycle as well. Steve King’s son is employed by a Cruz super PAC. Many allege Vander Plaats runs a pay-to-play system with his earlier candidate forums, saying he only allows questions from donors.

So Branstad has plenty of reasons to pressure Cruz. Branstad himself won’t endorse in the caucus, though many see him helping Chris Christie behind the scenes. Many of Branstad’s former top staffers run Christie’s Iowa operation. Bruce Rastetter, a top Branstad ally and wealthy agribusiness leader, endorsed Christie. But speaking out solely against Cruz’s campaign is quite the move.

Robinson suggests it may be payback for when Vander Plaat’s Family Leader specifically came out against Branstad in 2010.

“I could see how someone could say this is Terry Branstad’s revenge,” Robinson said. “He is now anti-endorsing a candidate, much like that organization did to him.”

Will it have an impact? Cruz has shrugged off overwhelming criticism in Iowa before. But eventually it’s going to add up. And the main beneficiary very well could be Donald Trump.

“What Branstad is doing, at least in Iowa, could potentially benefit Trump, which a lot of Republicans in the Branstad coalition would not want to help,” said Patch. “I don’t think Branstad is doing that on purpose.”

“In Iowa, if you want to vote for an anti-establishment candidate, you could listen to Governor Branstad and vote for the anti-establishment candidate who’s also for the RFS,” Angelo concurred. “Donald Trump was all over that yesterday.”

Actually, Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump on the same day Branstad bashed Cruz might have given Vander Plaats flashbacks to 2010. In 2010 Vander Plaats had the backing of James Dobson and Chuck Norris, and was close to nationalizing his race in a way that could have galvanized Tea Party supporters to give him the upset over Branstad. But then Palin came and endorsed Branstad about a week out from the primary, blunting Vander Plaats’s momentum. Now he has to watch as his chosen candidate’s main rival gets the Palin nod just before the caucus.

The strategy here could be to damage Cruz’s momentum and let Trump win. Then some candidates will drop out after New Hampshire and voters could coalesce around one of the more center-right or establishment alternatives to Trump, like Marco Rubio or Christie. That’s a big risk, however, and might just end up letting Trump cruise to a quick victory.

Iowa has held a huge role in the presidential process for decades now. The choices by the 100,000 to 200,000 Iowans who show up on a cold caucus night has determined the eventual nominee for the parties several times. In 2016 it could be a single long-standing grudge between the leaders of the two major factions of Iowa Republicans that swings the entire race.