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Iowans’ recruitment trip to New Jersey signals GOP fear, analyst says

Although Iowa’s top Republican donors may point to their recent 2012 recruitment trip and express desire for a presidential candidate more in line with their fiscal conservative values, some of Iowa’s political analysts see the excursion as a response to fear. One such analyst notes that the Hawkeye State’s establishment GOP base is shrinking, and an unsuccessful attempt to bring an additional campaign to the 2012 mix may have caused more harm than good.

This week, a group of Iowa’s top GOP donors — among them ethanol mogul Bruce Rastetter and prominent businessman Gary Kirke — traveled to New Jersey in an unsuccessful attempt to convince Gov. Chris Christie to enter the 2012 presidential race.

Christie, who stumped for then-gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad last fall, has oft been compared to establishment Republican Branstad, as they share similar values of reigning in state spending. Since Christie declined the invitation to launch a presidential effort, establishment Republicans — considered “old-school” Republicans in comparison to the newly-emerging movement of social and religious conservatives — are hard-pressed to find a 2012 candidate not catering to the social and religious right.

“This trip to Jersey indicates the fear among pragmatic Republicans that Iowa may give the green light to someone too conservative to attract the independent voters necessary to win the general election, and that is a reality confirmed by every national poll I’ve seen,” Dr. Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, said Thursday. “But that’s a structural problem because Iowa is a very conservative state and, unfortunately for the GOP, that’s where the process begins.”

Rick Gorka, press secretary for the New Jersey Republican Party, characterized the meeting between Christie and the Iowa Republicans as a “social dinner,” but confirmed the group asked Christie to run, with the Governor declining.

Gorka said it was no surprise Iowans wanted to woo Jersey’s first-term governor, who “closed an $11 billion budget deficit without raising taxes” and implemented reforms of the state’s health benefit system and a property tax cap.

“Gov. Christie’s accomplishments have earned him supporters from across the country,” Gorka said told The Iowa Independent Wednesday. “(Tuesday) night’s meeting is a testament to Governor Christie’s strong leadership style.”

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and former senior political reporter for The Des Moines Register, said it’s no shock such Republican voters are actively doing their own candidate vetting.

“Some Republicans are worried their party is drifting too far to the right to win elections so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that influential Republicans are looking at a Republican who won a state like New Jersey,” he said.

But was Christie the right choice for such outreach efforts?

Dr. Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said the decision to vet Christie for 2012 was “a little odd,” considering Christie has reiterated since last summer that he will not run, but the group “obviously recognized his star power and thought it was worth a try.”

“If the folks from the trip are still concerned about getting more big names into the race, then they might consider reaching out to some of the folks who have expressed interest in the last few days, such as (former New York Governor George) Pataki, (former New York City Mayor Rudy) Giuliani, or (Michigan Congressman Thad) McCotter,” Hagle said.

Schmidt said portions of Christie’s political record — most recently, criticism for using a taxpayer-funded helicopter to travel to his son’s high school baseball game — would not have played well among Iowan voters. Christie has also been criticized in the past for borrowing money to cover New Jersey’s day-to-day bills; Branstad defended Christie, albeit while denouncing bonding for Iowa.

The donor visit to the Garden State may have done more harm to their vetting for a candidate than good, Schmidt speculated. With a shrinking establishment Republican base in Iowa, he said, the tactic failed to represent a group of voters, and it was merely “a sign that Bruce Rastetter, Gary Kirke and the others represent themselves and the wishful thinking of the GOP.”

“This ill-conceived move has skunked the campaigns of the other GOP hopefuls who are now marked with the stain of ‘un-electable’ and ‘not exciting,’” he said. “I’m sure they don’t appreciate this move, which should have been done as a quiet visit, with no press releases and no publicity, (especially) since it has failed to (convince) Christie into running.”

Hagle speculates the group who visited Christie may be thinking down the road to 2016.

“If Christie does well in N.J. and gets reelected (and the current business with the helicopter rides blows over), then Christie will be well positioned to be a strong candidate in 2016 if Obama gets re-elected,” he said.

Yepsen added the trip should send a message to like-minded Republicans who want to see President Barack Obama out of the White House in 2012.

“Yes, the Iowans had a message for Christie, but they also have a message to fellow Republicans: Go too far to the right with your choices in this and the party will lose,” Yepsen said. “Obama’s beatable, but only if the GOP offers a credible alternative.”

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