Iowa GOP must choose: social conservatives and moderates?


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Iowa Republicans have two choices.

Sure, there are dozens of people qualified to take over for Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn, who announced Tuesday he plans to step down this month. But they all fall into two categories: Vander Plaats Republicans and Branstad Republicans.

Picking one of the first group to lead the party means alienating the party from independent voters and giving fodder to pundits who say Iowa is ill-equipped to host the country's first presidential nominating contest. Picking one from the second group doesn't guarantee clear skies and smooth sailing for the Iowa GOP, but it's better than the alternative.

The split between the state's social conservatives and the states not-so-social-conservatives became much starker during the 2010 gubernatorial primary race. We had Bob Vander Plaats leading the religious right. He said on the first day of his governorship, he'd sign an executive order halting gay marriage (which, by the way, is clearly illegal, but it won him plenty of favor with social conservatives). Then we had former-and-future Gov. Terry Branstad, who focused on economic issues and got heat from social conservatives when he flirted with supporting gay civil unions and adoption rights for gay couples.

The divide resurfaced this caucus season.

Mitt Romney is a blue-state Republican whose stances on social issues have shifted since he entered the national stage. His background is in business, and almost all of his message is economic. While the governor didn't endorse anyone in the caucus race, Romney was clearly the Branstad-style Republican.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum's positions on abortion and LGBT issues put him far to the right of Romney socially. He even went as far as to liken gay marriage and slavery. While Vander Plaats' Christian political group the Family Leader didn't endorse anyone in the caucus race, Santorum was clearly (one of) the Vander Plaats-style Republican.

Here's where Strawn re-enters the story. Romney's and Santorum's caucus tallies were so close that when certified results showed Santorum had received around 30 more votes than Romney, Strawn said the race was basically a tie. That outraged social conservatives, who said Strawn was trying to play down Santorum's win.

Now, the social conservatives are fired up. They'll push hard to install a Vander Plaats Republican as the next chairman or chairwoman of the party. Danny Carroll, a former state legislator who runs around with Vander Plaats' crowd, and Bill Schickel, a Christian radio-station owner, are two of the people being murmured about as possible Iowa GOP heads.

Installing a social conservative as the head of the party is bad politics. While it's still politically palatable to vote no on gay issues, intense moves to mesh Scripture with law are increasingly seen as political baggage.

As evidence, note that Vander Plaats tried to be governor three times. He's been governor zero times. Meanwhile Branstad — who seldom screams about Christianity as the reason for his positions — has tried to be governor five times. He has been governor five times.

But even more important than good politics is good policy. Social conservatives are wrong. Regardless of political viability, the social conservative agenda revolves around the government making personal choices for people. If liberals are wrong to tell us what to do with our property, conservatives are wrong to tell us what to do with our bodies.

But even if your worldview does allow for belittling gays and blocking abortion rights, conservatives ought to at least admit our emphasis right now ought to be on the economy. When more than 10 percent of Americans want to work but can't find jobs, how big a difference does gay marriage really make? Installing a social moderate will help ensure the party's focus stays where it ought to be: the economy.

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