The only thing more like a reality show than modern politics is old-fashioned politics.
At the convention to select a Republican nominee for Iowa’s third congressional district this weekend after an inconclusive primary election, candidates were eliminated from the contest ballot after ballot through open appeals to a room full of delegates and sly background maneuvers.
It was reminiscent of the old days of backroom politics and half-drunk reporters swaying against their typewriters. It wasn’t decided by television ads or heavily dissected gaffes, instead it was decided by 512 delegates sweltering in a high school gymnasium, fanning themselves with candidate signs while the campaigns handed out coffee, donuts and bacon on a stick.
Like any good reality show, it ended with an unexpected twist.
In a race with five serious candidates (as well as a fringe player named Joe Grandanette, whose stump speeches always included a promise to voters that he would “touch your soul”), the eventual nominee was the one who had finished fifth on primary night.
David Young, the former chief of staff for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), quit his job in 2013 to mount a bid for Iowa’s other Senate seat, which was being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin. His bid quickly floundered; memorable only for his promise to try to evangelize Chuck Schumer if elected to the Senate. When Republican Congressman Tom Latham announced his retirement in February, Young dropped out of the Senate race and decided to try his luck in this swing House seat centered around Des Moines. Young didn’t do much better running for Congress. Iowa Republicans regarded him as a Willy Loman figure. He was “liked but not well-liked.” No one had a bad word to say about this rather gray figure who was best known for running campaign ads where he performed magic tricks.
Young’s competition was much better known: State Sen. Brad Zaun had been the party’s nominee in a similar House seat in 2010 and just barely lost in an ugly knockdown race against longtime incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell. Secretary of State Matt Schultz had become a conservative icon for his support for voter ID in office. Backed by Rick Santorum and the Senate Conservatives Fund, he bragged in campaign mail about “keeping the UN out of Iowa.” Robert Cramer was a first-time candidate who had gotten the support of Iowa’s well-oiled social conservative political machine, and Monte Shaw, a longtime Iowa politico with roots in the most rural part of the district, who had quietly banked the support of key establishment figures.
Iowa law requires that a candidate get at least 35% of the vote to avoid a convention but, during the June 3 primary, no one reached that margin. Zaun finished first but with less than 25% of the vote. He was followed in relatively short order by Cramer at 21% and Schultz at 20%, Shaw was just under 17% and Young finished with 15.6%. Zaun had won his home base of Polk County, where Des Moines is located, but by an underwhelming margin while Shaw had cleaned up in the sparsely populated rural counties. These were places like Adams County, which boasts that it was the birthplace of Johnny Carson but where the average voter was old enough to have watched Jack Paar host the Tonight Show.
The result set off a mad scramble for delegates over the next two and a half weeks. Those who had signed up to participate, either as delegates or alternates received direct mail by the bushel, their phones rang off the hook and, of course, candidates appeared at their doors.
It was a hot Friday morning and Brad Zaun was juggling a baby in a slightly unkempt living room of suburban Des Moines.
The Iowa state senator, behind the wheel of his wife’s Chrysler, was going door-to-door, visiting delegates who would be at the next day’s nominating convention.
Zaun wasn’t calling ahead as he zipped through subdivision after subdivision. He had a list of delegates and would plug in their addresses in his GPS and go house to house to house. When no one was home, the affable Republican would go back to his car and craft a handwritten note to leave on the door along with some literature.
He didn’t need a note at Sarah Bowman’s duplex in the sprawling suburb of Waukee. Bowman, a longtime Republican activist who was friends with Zaun’s wife, was ready to commit to supporting to him. After all, he had helped her when she got a ticket from a speed camera. But first, she insisted that he had to hold her young son Harry. He’s a good luck charm, she said. After all, almost every political candidate who held him won. Zaun wasn’t the first candidate to come by to visit. In an attempt to win her vote days before, Schultz, perhaps emulating Ted Cruz, read Green Eggs and Ham to her children.
Afterwards, Zaun a three-term state senator with a ruddy, sunburned face, talked at length about his last congressional bid in 2010. In that Republican year, he narrowly lost to longtime incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell, who was initially considered one of the most vulnerable members of Congress. However, the incumbent pulled out victory with a scorched-earth campaign. Perhaps the key to Boswell’s win was a negative ad that cited a police report filed by Zaun’s ex-girlfriend ten years before when the then-Mayor of Urbandale showed up at her house late at night, pounding on the windows and doors.
Zaun seemed chastened by the experience and talked about the lessons he’d learned. Although he pledged to run a positive campaign then and said he still planned on doing so, he talked about how he needed to be more proactive. The ex-girlfriend had rallied to his side and written a letter to the editor of The Des Moines Register in his defense. But no one noticed the letter and everyone noticed the television ads.
Convention morning was hot and humid at the Des Moines Christian School in Urbandale, Iowa, and it seemed many of the expected delegates chose to take advantage of the perfect weekend weather rather than show up to the school hall. The convention process in Iowa was stage managed by the party establishment to insure that longtime Republican Governor Terry Branstad could retake control of the state party and ensure that his Lieutenant Governor, Kim Reynolds, was re-nominated. But it seemed that many of these establishment types were among those absent and, while the establishment had ensured they had elected many delegates, the alternates were more representative of the party’s conservative grassroots.
For those who did show up, the event resembled a political carnival. Outside, Matt Schultz supporters in Boy Scout uniforms made pancakes and handed out cups of Tang. Yard signs for all the candidates seemed to occupy every inch of grass in front of the school. Volunteers for the various candidates bedecked in t-shirts and stickers jumped on every person entering to ask for a vote. Once inside the school cafeteria, which served as an antechamber, each candidate had his own booth. All except Young handed out coffee and doughnuts; he settled for candy, which seemed an odd meal on a Saturday morning. Zaun went the extra mile. Although his underfunded campaign didn’t have t-shirts for volunteers and scarcely sent out any mail during the run up to convention, he did have rashers of bacon on skewers to hand out to delegates.
The convention would be held in the Christian school’s brightly lit windowless gym. In two-thirds of the room, delegates sat in folding chairs across the basketball court, which was covered by mats. In the back, separated by yellow police tape, alternates and guests sat on the bleachers to watch the spectacle unfold.
As speakers droned on from the podium doing the preliminary parliamentary business of the convention, a game show process began. Numbers were read off, each one corresponding to an alternate who would be seated. The lucky ones jogged out of the bleachers to receive their new credentials and be seated. Surprisingly, most of those whose numbers weren’t called remained glued to the bleachers to watch the proceedings and root for their favorite candidate.
Other spectators included conservative powerbroker Bob Vander Plaats who was glad handing delegates on behalf of Cramer as well as Rep. Steve King, the last person in Iowa to be nominated to Congress via a convention. King told The Daily Beast that he was enjoying visiting with the delegates, many of whom were his former constituents. The congressman handed out his personal email address to one delegate, a computer technician who was sure he knew how to track down the missing IRS emails from Lois Lerner. King reminisced about his convention and was astounded at how little bad-blood lingered. In fact, in preparation for the day’s event, King said: “I went back through some of those documents and articles that named some of those people who supported my opposition and I guess I should have held a grudge. We all work together now.”
After each candidate was nominated by a designee, they would give a speech before the first ballot. This vote would be the initial test of strength for all the candidates and it was the only ballot where the last place finisher would not be eliminated. For most of the candidates, the first speech was all about their schtick. But the most surprising speech was Young’s.
Despite coming across as a mild-mannered party apparatchik, the former Senate chief of staff threw red meat like he was operating the grill at a burger joint. He attacked the EPA and raged against Fast and Furious and the IRS. The former Senate staffer brought the room to a hush when he described his meeting with an octogenarian woman in rural Iowa who was raising her meth baby great grandchildren all by herself without government assistance. It was an impressive performance but at the time, it didn’t seem like much. After all, on the first ballot at the convention, the fifth-place finisher in the primary only worked his way up to fourth—finishing just a little ahead of Cramer.
After a second ballot where the fringe candidate Grandanette was eliminated, it was time for lunch and the real politicking to begin. The delegates lined up to receive a bag lunch featuring a hamburger wrapped in aluminum foil and a plastic container of potato salad. The single file line snaked slowly and the candidates handled the break differently. Shaw put himself right alongside the line and took a minute to shake hands and greet each delegate. The others disappeared into the school, frantically hustling to try to make deals.
Candidates and their staff went back and forth in the linoleum-covered hallways, past stacks of science textbooks approved for use in a Christian curriculum. At one point, Schultz and Young huddled, each with one staff member accompanying them inside Mrs. Augustine’s vocal music room. In the meantime, the various delegates sat at cafeteria tables poking at their potato salad, oblivious to the negotiations happening just down the hall.
After lunch, Cramer, the most socially conservative candidate who was lagging in fifth place dropped out and almost everyone tried to appeal to his voters. Young claimed Obama had America “slouching for tyranny” and talked passionately about Benghazi while Schultz mentioned Jesus and said he was the conservative “fighter.” Zaun, who was starting to look like the favorite, took the stage to cheers and vowed “I will spill my blood to save the unborn.” The only exception to all of this was Shaw. He made the banal observation that the candidates were all identical on the issues and said he was the one who could best appeal to swing voters. When the third ballot ended, Schultz was out. Young surged past him to make into third place. Zaun picked up a large number of delegates as well while Shaw held steady. Then, everything swung.
For the round of speeches before the fourth ballot, Young yielded much of his time to Schultz, who promptly endorsed him. This changed everything.
The conventional wisdom in the hall had been starting to gell that Zaun would win. After all, many of the voters had come with an “anybody but Shaw” mentality. Supporters of every other candidate could be seen wearing stickers that read “No more lobbyi$ts in Congress” that were being handed out by the Paul-affiliated group Liberty PAC. This was seen as a direct shot at Shaw who had long headed the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and had taken flack for making donations to Democrats as part of his efforts to represent the Hawkeye State’s ethanol industry.
Young rode Schultz’s endorsement to ride into second place and knocked Shaw out of the race. In the last round of speeches, Young recapped his conservative greatest hits and Zaun, floundering, simply tried to remind delegates that he had finished first on election night and on every ballot so far.
The results were clear even while the votes were counted. Zaun sat on the bleachers with distraught looking supporters, his face set expressionless but colored crimson red. Young was on the side of the hall, hugging bystanders, including Bob Vander Plaats, with a near beatific smile on his face. The final total though was still staggering. Young, who had finished in 5th place in the primary, won the nomination handily by a margin of 55%-45%.
The newly minted GOP nominee seemed somewhat surprised to be giving an acceptance speech from the podium at several times stopping to proclaim his wonder. He seemed to reference his own awkward nature when noting he would appeal to both “introverts and extroverts.” Young, an amateur magician, only had one good applause line when he noted that for his last magic trick, he would make [Democratic nominee] Staci Appel disappear in November.”
Afterwards, Young stood in front of the podium while delegates streamed up the aisle to speak to him. It was almost as if he was at the head of a receiving line. The sweat dripped across his forehead as he exchanged brief words with voters, most of whom were wearing shirts and stickers with the names of rival candidates. They came to pay allegiance, making statements like one man in a Shaw shirt who said: “I only voted for you once but it was the last time.” Young shook his hand. “Perfect timing,” he said.
He seemed humbled by the experience. One of his original supporters came up to him and said “I have to admit wasn’t sure you could do it,” Young quickly responded “I have to admit I wasn’t sure I could do it!” It was clear he spent time toiling in the political vineyards for this moment. It seemed he could recall visiting the house of almost every person who came up to press the flesh. He told one man “I remember standing in front of your apartment door in Council Bluffs” before than proclaiming for emphasis: “It was hot!”
The man who spent his career in the back rooms of politics was now the star. He struggled as television crews tried to mike him up for sound and seemed taken aback when delegates asked him for an autograph.
Young had pulled out an upset win despite all odds. Even those insiders who suggested he might have a chance as a compromise candidate never seemed convinced about it. They suggested his name with all the conviction of a gambler throwing a few bucks on a long-shot at the track. But the long-time congressional staffer had made the right speeches, got the right endorsement and ended up getting the momentum.
And now, as it was all done and the mild-mannered bespectacled gray-haired congressional nominee was dealing with what was likely the first press scrum of his life. The first words out of his mouth were simply “I just need a cold shower.”