- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Iowa Republican Party, desperate to keep its quadrennial cash cow alive, is warning 2016 presidential nomination candidates that they skip the party’s Aug. 8 straw poll at their own peril, The Washington Times has learned.

The pushback comes after a string of top GOP contenders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, revealed they would not attend the traditional late-summer event ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses set for early February. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul remains undecided.

Iowa GOP Co-chairman Cody Hoefert texted a senior adviser to a declared candidate this message: “Four Northwest Iowa GOP county chairmen told me Friday that they won’t support, help or promote anyone who doesn’t attend the straw poll.”

“Judging by the intensity in the voices of these county leaders, campaigns who make the decision not to attend the straw poll at all do so at their own peril with these influential local leaders,” Mr. Hoefert wrote in an email to The Washington Times, confirming he had sent the warning to candidates’ representatives.

A stinging rebuke to the Iowa co-chairman came from Bruce Ash, the chairman of the Republican National Committee’s all-important Rules Committee.

“Unfortunately not all Republican leaders have figured out our goal is to nominate and elect the best candidate to WIN in 2016,” Mr. Ash wrote in a text message to The Times. “It appears that not everyone read the memo that we must win in ‘16.”

Mr. Ash, an RNC member from Arizona, said candidates had to spend up to $4 million to compete effectively in the straw poll, the outcome of which often bore little correlation with the eventual GOP nominee.

“I hope all of our folks in Iowa will focus on party success and not just on filling their party coffers by trying to bully our candidates,” Mr. Ash said. “And I doubt if our likely contenders will be much swayed by threats from Iowa ‘leaders.’”

Kayne Robinson, a former Iowa GOP chairman credited with raising a record amount of dollars for the party when he presided over the straw poll, said the threat from the state central committee was an empty one.

“No caucusgoer would vote against his favorite candidate because he failed to show up at an event,” Mr. Robinson said in an email.

The straw poll, held every August in the year before the presidential nomination primaries and caucuses begin, has become a proud tradition for the state party and the state’s citizens. Some 16,000 to 20,000 Iowans turn out for the carnival-like event. The candidates and hordes of press covering the poll spend millions of dollars on the event.

A Washington Times story about top Republicans such as Mr. Walker skipping the straw poll triggered a move by Craig Williams, a member of the state party’s central committee, to rally to save the poll.

“The Washington Times just wrote an article entitled, ‘Scott Walker no-show could kill the Iowa Straw Poll.’ I’m afraid they might be right,” Mr. Williams said in a plea to Iowa Republicans to sign an Internet petition to save the poll.

Mr. Hoefert, the Iowa GOP co-chairman, wrote to the 2016 candidates that, among those ready to shun candidates who skip the poll, is Sioux County GOP Chairman Mark Lundberg, rated as one of the state’s most influential political figures.

He and other county chairmen “are going to call other county chairs and ask them to do the same.”

“It is important,” Mr. Hoefert wrote, “that the campaigns are aware that our grassroots county leaders are watching and taking the straw poll process very seriously as they begin to make decisions who to support.”

“We as a party have listened to the grassroots of our great party here in Iowa as well as to the campaigns,” he said. “We have made the event more affordable to our candidates while preserving the state fair-like atmosphere of the event for our activists. I know that the overwhelming majority of our activists want a vibrant straw poll. This is why our board listened to our activists and voted unanimously 18-0 to preserve this great Iowa tradition.”

He argued that “94 percent of our counties have had members of their leadership teams sign on to a letter supporting the straw poll.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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