I attended the Conservative Breakfast Club at the Republican Party of Iowa headquarters this morning.  The speaker was Doug Gross, local attorney and former gubernatorial candidate.  He spoke to us some findings of a poll he commissioned for the Iowa First Foundation.

He noted that the Republican party has a “branding” problem.  In the poll he took the majority considered the Democratic Party to be the party of reform, that is open and affirming, and is the party of the future.  He said that we need to work hard to correct that in order to win.  Then he said, “thanks to our good friends the Democrats some of that work is already being done.”

People are concerned about jobs and they are concerned about spending.  So it’s the economy stupid… he said we need to focus on economic issues – taxes, spending, etc.  Do that and then we’ll be able to defend traditional values.

Three things he said Republicans need to focus on in order to win in 2010 in the Gubernatorial and General Assembly races –

  1. Adopt a reform agenda – focus on the fraud and abuse related to Democrats’ spending.
  2. Be open and transparent
  3. Be the party of economic conservatism
  4. Recruit the right kind of candidates – identify community leaders, not just the strongest ideologues.

I understand where he was coming from, and I do think those are things that are highly important to focus on.  He made a couple of remarks that makes me truly question his desire for party unity and his strategy for success.

The first was when he said we shouldn’t wear our religion on our sleeve.  That people don’t want to come to a public meeting and be preached at.  That we need to respect the separation of church and state.

This is obviously a dig at Bob Vander Plaats and social conservatives who are pushing for a vote on a marriage amendment.  Some problems I have with this.  For starters, what does he mean by “wearing our religion on our sleeves”?  In effect it seems like he’s telling evangelicals to shut up, go home, the gay marriage decision isn’t that important, etc, etc.  Also there is an expectation for people to compartmentalize their faith which I’m not getting into as it would be a blog post in and of itself.

Secondly, the strategy to focus on economic issues so that we win and then can defend traditional values on the surface sounds good, but it is all contingent on candidates who are committed to defend traditional values.  Former Governor Terry Branstad would be Gross’ pick, and he thinks that he will likely run.  One question that Governor Branstad needs to answer is what was with your Iowa Supreme Court nominees?  All of his appointees decided in favor of gay marriage and I believe his nominees still hold the majority on the court.  How committed is he to appointing judges that don’t legislate from the bench?

Third while economic issues are very bright on the radar now that doesn’t mean social issues are no longer important to Iowans.  For the first time a majority of Americans identify themselves as pro-life, and 67% of Iowans want the chance to vote on marriage so it isn’t as though social conservative views are out of the mainstream.

Evangelicals and other social conservatives need to be able to make their arguments (in the political realm) in a winsome manner pointing why our positions will benefit society in order to gain an ear of the independent voter.  With gay marriage and the right to vote on an amendment – that isn’t a religious argument, it’s a constitutional one.  We have a constitutional crisis in Iowa with one branch thinking it trumps the others.  The case can be made that way, and if we were to lose an amendment vote then we would have to accept that.  With abortion… again constitutional – what about the fundamental right to life?  Everybody except the unborn?

Separation of church and state doesn’t mean you check your values at the door.  It doesn’t mean you don’t live out your faith even in the political realm.  It does mean that the state won’t establish a church, nor will it establish a theocracy.  Of all the social conservatives I know I don’t know of anyone advocating that.

Another thing that Gross said when talking about the recruitment of the right kind of candidates.  I agree with him when he said we need to identify those who are community leaders, not just the strongest ideologues.  He’s right.  Look for people who have done something in the community.  Who has influence, who has shown results.  Who has a record of getting things done.  He then said that we tend to “recruit the pastor of a breakaway church who homeschools their kids.”

Afterwards I was tempted to introduce myself saying, “Hi, I’m Shane and I’m a former pastor who homeschools his kids,” but I resisted.  He obviously doesn’t know many pastors.  How many pastors have run or actually want to run any way?  Most would consider that a demotion as they already have a higher office.  I don’t know what he means by breakaway churches, but many pastors are community leaders and carry influence.  Not that every pastor is qualified and should run, but it shouldn’t disqualify you either.  Many pastors I know are heavily invested in their communities and would be an asset in elected office.

Regarding homeschooling… Doug Gross should ask Mike Huckabee and President Bush how important homeschooling families were to their campaign in Iowa.  Remarks like this does nothing for party unity.

My point is while we can’t just be a one issue party.  If Branstad ends up running he’ll have to be a unifier.  Here in Iowa we do need to reach out to like-minded independents, but we can’t neglect the base.  Evangelicals and social conservatives don’t want to be used for their votes; they want their issues acted on.  They don’t want a wink and a nod, but commitment.  So the successful candidate in Iowa will have focus on the economic issues since that is the current felt need, but at the same time demonstrate a commitment to traditional values.

To throw social conservatism under the bus or to sweep it under the rug is a losing strategy.  If you lose the evangelicals and social conservatives in Iowa, you will also lose elections.  It’s not one or the other.  It needs to be both.

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