Huck v. Santo: The Cage Match for Iowa Evangelicals
Huckabee and Santorum are both returning to Iowa as former caucus champions but are now completing for the same pool of evangelical supporters.
If Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee run for president, their Iowa supporters could have a choice between the head or the heart.
Or vote for someone else.
Santorum and Huckabee won remarkable victories in the Iowa caucuses, galvanizing social conservatives to pull off unlikely upsets against amazing odds.
But while the two had very different paths to victory in Iowa, they achieved it with similar coalitions of social conservatives and evangelical leaders.
In 2008, Huckabee leveraged a second place finish in the Ames Straw Poll to clear the field of other social conservative contenders and eventually won decisively over Mitt Romney on caucus night.
In contrast, Santorum was mired in the single digits for a year until he surged ahead in the weeks before the 2012 caucuses.
Supporters coalesced around him as the only viable social conservative in a field weakened by a circular firing squad of negative attacks and he just barely managed to edge out Romney once every vote was tallied.
Jamie Johnson, a member of the Republican Party of Iowa’s state central committee told The Daily Beast “they loved Huckabee… there was definitely a heart connection …as opposed to Santorum where they thought their way towards” supporting him.
Bob VanderPlaats, one of the state’s preeminent social conservative activists, is one of many Iowans who backed Santorum in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008. He said many Iowans are viewing 2016 “the way I’m viewing it. 2016 isn’t 2008 and 2016 isn’t 2012, Iowans are going to be very open and discerning of the entire field even though they might have relationships with Huckabee or Santorum or someone else who ran before.”
The 2016 Iowa Caucus will not only be the first time that two former winners could face off, but it will be only be the second time that any non-incumbent candidate who had previously won the caucuses tried to do so again.
Brad Zaun, a state senator from suburban Des Moines who supported Michele Bachmann in 2011 said, “This is a whole new ballgame. Those candidates… have to earn back their support. I’m thinking the newness of both has kind of worn off a little bit.” The result is that many of those who backed those candidates in the past aren’t automatically signing up.
Vander Plaats said both of the two candidates he had backed in prior caucuses were fine with this.
“Both of those gentlemen to their credit have had the posture that they need to earn their 2016 support” and not rely on past accomplishments. This is not to say that those candidates each won’t be able to rely on “loyal reservoir of supporters,” as Steve Scheffler, another top social conservative in the Hawkeye State, described it. But, Scheffler echoed VanderPlaats in noting that every four years “most caucus-goers turn a new chapter.” In fact, some Iowans may downgrade a candidate who has run before. “Familiarity is a doubled edged sword” noted prominent Des Moines show host Jan Mickelson.
However, former supporters aren’t just attracted by new candidates, but frustrated by the person they backed in the past.
Cary Gordon, a prominent evangelical pastor from Sioux City, described a growing disenchantment with Mike Huckabee. He told The Daily Beast Huckabee has done some very unnerving things in his time as a star on Fox that are not conservative.
In particular, Gordon cited Huckabee’s support for “common Core, statist control of what people can eat and drink and just a lot of things that are counter to the idea of decentralized government and freedom.”
Huckabee has been in contact with his former supporters and has gone to some lengths to woo them over the past year.
Like last fall, when he took 18 “Iowa evangelical leaders on an all-expenses paid, 10-day overseas trip” according to the Des Moines Register. Still not everyone was impressed.
Rev. Michael Demastus of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, who went on the junket, told The Washington Post.
“It was fun,” Demastus said. “But taking me to Europe doesn’t get you my vote. I still have questions for Mike about Common Core.”
While the former Arkansas Governor has constantly repented for his past support of Common Core, it has become a sore spot among those conservatives who find the educational standards to be anathema.
In contrast, Santorum hasn’t picked up any new baggage since his last campaign—and has been a near constant presence in the Hawkeye State over past few years, with particular emphasis on fervently conservative Northwestern Iowa.
Perhaps he should have stayed away because Republican caucus-goers may just be bored of him.
As Gordon pointed out, “everybody’s interested in all fresh faces. He just doesn’t carry the same interest.”
But not all caucus-goers are ready to shop around.
Bernie Hayes, a pastor in Cedar Rapids, is sticking by Huckabee whom he supported in 2008. He thinks that, “to some degree,” fellow social conservatives are sticking by the former Arkansas governor.
But he noted there were a number of “good conservative people running”, citing Scott Walker and Ben Carson by name and said the challenge was to ensure Iowa Republicans coalesced around one or two candidates, should a moderate somehow slip through and win again.
One disheartening nugget of trivia for both Huckabee and Santorum, the only candidate to have won the Iowa caucuses in the past and then run again finished a lackluster third. Then again, that 3rd place finisher was future President George H.W. Bush.