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While Some Iowa Republicans Want Trump Gone, He And His Supporters Still Hold Sway

110120-Trump-Dubuque2
Evan Vucci
/
AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Dubuque Regional Airport last November.

The deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump extremists earlier this month followed an unprecedented campaign by Donald Trump to overturn the election results. Iowa’s Republican leaders have largely stood by him and at times reinforced his baseless allegations of widespread election fraud. Some rank and file Republicans want the party to be rid of Trump, but he and his supporters still hold sway in Iowa.

‘Trump deserves the blame’

Former Scott County Republican Party Chair Dave Millage was appalled by what he saw on Jan. 6.

The world watched as pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol, intent on preventing Congress from certifying the votes of millions of Americans.

Speaking for himself and not the party, Millage says Trump is responsible.

“Never thought I would see something like that in our country, our country divided against itself. This was not a foreign operation. This was a homegrown operation,” Millage said. “And Trump deserves the blame for what happened.”

"Never thought I would see something like that in our country, our country divided against itself. This was not a foreign operation. This was a homegrown operation. And Trump deserves the blame for what happened."
-Dave Millage, former Chair of the Scott County Republican Party

There were Iowans among the rioters who sent the nation’s leaders into hiding for hours, some lawmakers arming themselves with makeshift weapons and texting their loved ones goodbye.

Photos and videos of Doug Jensen of Des Moines are among the most notorious images of the siege, showing him wearing a t-shirt with a large Q representing the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory and apparently leading a crowd of rioters in chasing a police officer through the capitol.

Even more Iowans were among the crowds the president rallied earlier that day. There were party activists, veterans, and QAnon adherents, some of whom were convinced Trump would soon declare martial law.

Gary Leffler, a Republican activist well known for bringing his tractor painted with the stars and stripes to state party events, rallied and marched to the Capitol that day. He was photographed holding a Trump flag as he stood on the risers set up on an outer balcony of the Capitol for then-President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Leffler described marching down Constitution Avenue towards Capitol Hill with scores of Trump supporters as “probably the most patriotic day of my life." He said he did not go inside the Capitol that day and that those who entered the building “with an agenda” should be prosecuted.

Many in the crowd apparently believed Trump’s false statements that he won “by a landslide,” unconvinced by the scores of election officials and dozens of court rulings that refuted his unfounded allegations of widespread fraud.

Leffler said it’s simply hard to fathom how Biden could have won 81 million votes.

“How does he outpoll Barack Obama in the…in the basement of his house?” Leffler said. “Something here doesn't add up.”

Trump warned he may not accept the will of the voters

For some politicos, Trump’s campaign to overturn the election was horrifying if not entirely surprising.

He had been warning for years he may not accept the will of the voters, like he did at his rally in Dubuque on Nov. 1, just days before the election.

A number of the state’s top Republican leaders were there that day, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and then-congressional candidates Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ashley Hinson. It was an opportunity for them to drum up support and thank Trump for backing them.

“President Trump, we love you!” Ernst said. “Thank you so much. God bless you. There is not a finer president.”

That day, Trump repeated warnings he’d been making since his first bid against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

“Remember she said to me, ‘will you respect the decision of the people?’ And I sort of said, ‘you know, maybe’,” Trump said as the crowd laughed. “I wasn’t perfect. I said ‘maybe. If there’s no cheating’. We have to be careful with cheating, right?”

"Remember she said to me, ‘will you respect the decision of the people?’ And I sort of said, ‘you know, maybe’. I wasn’t perfect. I said ‘maybe. If there’s no cheating’. We have to be careful with cheating, right?"
-Former President Donald Trump

In the weeks following the election, Republican leaders defended Trump’s right to take his claims to court, even as judges tossed out case after case, some labeling them as outrageous attempts to disenfranchise voters.

Watching Trump file baseless lawsuits and pressure local officials, Millage described him as “out of control."

“It's been debunked in 60 lawsuits and by the attorney general. Obviously, there's nothing there to prompt challenging the results because it's been investigated,” Millage said. “And he has been going around attacking the process, attacking the attorney generals of states who don't agree with him.”

Former Iowa Republican Congressman Jim Leach compared Trump’s claims to the “Big Lies” spun by authoritarian regimes throughout history.

“In virtually every authoritarian government in the world, you have an example of repetition of lies,” Leach said. “The bigger the lie, the more of a kind of legitimacy seems to apply. And it's almost as if he's…the President of the United States is suggesting that he has authoritarian power. And this is simply not the American way.”

“In virtually every authoritarian government in the world, you have an example of repetition of lies. The bigger the lie, the more of a kind of legitimacy seems to apply. And it's almost as if he's…the President of the United States is suggesting that he has authoritarian power. And this is simply not the American way"
-Former Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Leach

Meanwhile, Reynolds endorsed a lawsuit brought by Trump allies seeking to throw out election results in four key states.

Sens. Grassley and Ernst didn’t acknowledge Biden’s victory for weeks, until the Electoral College vote.

Iowa Speaker of the House Pat Grassley told IPR in an interview on Dec. 21 that while the vote by the Electoral College gave some finality to the matter, it wouldn’t be settled until Trump’s cases played out.

“With the legal challenges that are still out there, I just…I think we should all wait to see how those play out,” Grassley said.

On Jan. 5, Hinson co-signed a letter with House colleagues acknowledging that federal lawmakers did not have the power to subvert the Electoral College results, as Trump was calling for, but continued to allege that crucial questions about the legitimacy of the election persisted.

“The people cannot trust a system that refuses to guarantee that only legal votes are cast to select its leaders. The elections held in at least six battleground states raise profound questions, and it is a legal, constitutional, and moral imperative that they be answered,” the letter reads in part.

Republican Party of Iowa at an ‘absolute peak’ under Trump

In the wake of the attack on the Capitol by pro-Trump extremists, Iowa Republicans’ long and loyal relationships with Trump are facing scrutiny again.

His national approval ratings have fallen sharply since the attack, including among Republicans. But in Iowa, Trump and his supporters are credited with holding and flipping key seats at the state and federal level.

On a recent call with reporters, Republican Party of Iowa Chair Jeff Kaufmann said his party has reached an “absolute peak” during Trump’s tenure.

“I realize his impact on the down ballot races was different in each state. In this state undoubtedly it was very helpful to have him at the top of the ticket,” Kaufmann said.

“Having supported Pres. Trump does not mean you support what happened at our nation's capitol,” Kaufmann said in a statement to IPR.

Following the attack, Republican leaders at the state and federal level have repeatedly condemned the violence and the rioters, but they haven’t extended that same condemnation to Trump.

As Radio Iowa reported, during a recent RPI event with state and federal officials just days after the attack, few speakers mentioned the siege on the Capitol and none uttered Trump’s name.

Grassley, Ernst and Hinson each have said that Trump bore some responsibility for the attack, Grassley going so far as to say Trump had “very little opportunity” to lead the party in the future. But these lawmakers and others have also continued to lend credibility to Trump’s underlying allegations of “illegal votes” and “irregularities.”

In a statement shared with IPR, Grassley said that while some amount of fraud may persist, “no recount or court has found anything close to affecting the outcome."

But tensions persist. In the wake of the attack, Henry County Republican Party Chair Trent Hobbs posted a warning to Facebook saying that “patriots” should stay “locked and loaded” for an impending war between “Red vs Blue." He has since resigned.

On a call with reporters, Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked if she still supported Trump or regretted not acknowledging President Joe Biden’s victory sooner.

“You know what we need to do is stop pointing fingers,” Reynolds said. “We need to move forward and we need to stop the rhetoric and we need to sit at the table and we need to have constructive conversations.”

She continued to reinforce Trump’s claims of voter fraud, saying there are “a lot of questions.”

“When you have half of the electorate that feels that maybe something – that it’s not valid – then that’s a concern for our republic. And we want to do everything we can to address that,” she said.

“When you have half of the electorate that feels that maybe something – that it’s not valid – then that’s a concern for our republic. And we want to do everything we can to address that."
-Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds

Grinnell College political scientist Peter Hanson says these beliefs are a concern for the republic because they’re not based on facts or credible evidence.

“American democracy is really at a turning point here,” Hanson said. “And the question is whether we are going to see both political parties stand by a free and fair elections and defend the democratic process.”

IPR posed questions to Reynolds, Grassley, Ernst, Miller-Meeks, Hinson and Rep. Randy Feenstra about Iowans’ connections to the attack and the spread of the voter fraud beliefs within the GOP. None said they regretted supporting Trump. Reynolds’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Trump is a cancer within our party’

Public polling indicates these baseless beliefs have taken hold in the GOP, even though top federal officials and industry experts have called the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”

As of December, an NPR/ PBS NewsHour / Marist poll showed that just 24 percent of Republicans believed the election results were accurate.

“American democracy is really at a turning point here. And the question is whether we are going to see both political parties stand by a free and fair elections and defend the democratic process.”
-Grinnell College political scientist Peter Hanson

Hanson says Trump’s allegations, reinforced by party leaders, are “deeply corrosive” to the democracy.

“One of the things that those officials need to remember is this is not a distant problem that affects someone else,” Hanson said. “When you call into question our system of elections, ultimately it calls into question the legitimacy of every elected official, including some of these people who are making these criticisms.”

Kaufmann of the RPI says it’ll be up to voters to decide what role Trump will play in the party going forward. Millage, who voted for Trump twice, has made up his mind: he wants him gone.

“Trump is a cancer within our party,” Millage said. “And unless you excise a cancer, it's going to continue to grow and harm you.”

But that opinion hasn’t proved very popular within the Scott County GOP. Millage resigned from his post as chair soon after he announced his support for Trump’s impeachment.

IPR's Katarina Sostaric contributed reporting to this story.