Republican Party of Iowa Chair

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 5, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, discusses the 2024 Iowa caucuses, the ongoing legislative session and look ahead to this year’s primary and general elections.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief politics reporter for The Des Moines Register.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.



First-in-the-nation caucuses and Donald Trump back at the top of the ticket in November. We'll talk about it all with Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 5th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest on this edition of Iowa Press is a former member of the Iowa House. He is currently a county supervisor. And since 2014, the middle of that year, he has been Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. Jeff Kaufmann, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Kaufmann: It's always great to be here, Kay.

Henderson: Joining our conversation are Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register and Eri Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Chairman Kaufmann, we haven't seen you on the show since the Caucuses, so we wanted to go back to that real quick. Republican turnout was at about 110,000. For some people, and it's all a matter of perspective, but for some people that was a low number. Are you worried that that is going to be chum in the water for the sharks who might want to come at Iowa's first-in-the-nation status?

Kaufmann: I don't think so, Erin. In 2008, 2012, we were about 120,000. This was negative 30 wind chill. We still drew out 110,000. Had we been at the 70,000, 80,000 I might have been a little worried that we would be open for that criticism. But I have to tell you, the RNC members that we hosted here, including the new Chair that came and braved those temperatures to see how our process worked, they were very, very impressed that we turned out. I think we did what we needed to do in terms of giving me the evidence that I need to proceed and say hey, we deserve this again.

Pfannenstiel: And since the Iowa Caucuses, Donald Trump has now become the presumptive republican nominee for President. He won the Iowa Caucuses with 51%. That means 49% wanted somebody else at the time. What does he need to do to convince maybe some of those holdouts to come home for him in November?

Kaufmann: Sure, I think that process is already starting. Governor DeSantis has endorsed him. Eventually Nikki Haley is going to endorse him. All of our statewide officials here have endorsed the President. I think the healing process and the uniting process is already occurring. And quite frankly, Brianne, I'd like to say it's all rallying around Donald Trump, but there's also an element there too of if you have a choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, even people that are not necessarily thrilled about the personality of Donald Trump, they're going to vote for Donald Trump. I feel more sure about that than I did in 2020.

Henderson: You have often credited Ronna Romney McDaniel as Party Chair, national Party Chair, of helping maintain Iowa's first-in-the-nation status. You rounded up votes for her to win again to be party chair. There is a new chair. Is that going to hurt Iowa's chances of maintaining first-in-the-nation status?

Kaufmann: I don't think so, but I can tell you, Kay, when I knew that there was going to be a change, I obviously was nervous about who that was going to be. Michael Whatley from North Carolina, I've been friends with him for a long time, and believe it or not, he was one of those that came out and spent two days with us out here. So, he saw our entire process, he went to a caucus, he had lunch with us, we went over kind of an educational process overview for him. He just, before he even knew he was going to be asked to be chair, he had called me after the fact and just said, wow, I never knew all the moving parts to this. So, you know what, we've lucked out. We have a very strong friend as the RNC Chair again. So, I'm relieved and I'm excited about that prospect.

Murphy: The convention is coming up later this summer. Will you have work to do on that front still to talk to folks there and be on the new chair?

Kaufmann: There's a lot of turnover in the state parties right now. And, in fact, they're going through the process as we speak in many of those states. I think, Erin, it's not so much of convincing that I have to do, I think it's more of educating. Some of these folks coming in are brand new, they haven't been associated with the party at all, they're coming in almost more like a populous wave and so we've got to make sure and let them know exactly what happens here in Iowa. The fact that they don't pay for it and the fact you just can't do a caucus. So, Idaho can't come in, they found that out, they had some struggles when they initiated their caucus. So yes, that is starting and it's going to continue on long after I'm Chair.

Murphy: All right, and getting back to the presidential campaign and picking up from Brianne's question about former President Trump and searching to firm up that support that he didn't have in the caucuses, when we're looking to his vice-presidential candidate, his running mate, from your perspective should he have that in mind when he's picking a running mate? Should he be looking for someone who would help firm up that support that he didn't have in January?

Kaufmann: Good question. It certainly should be a factor of discussion. You look historically, that should be a factor. Possibly, if there's a swing state, that should certainly be a factor, although several of our past presidents that really hasn't been, but I think it should be taken into consideration their ability to be president. I really think when it's all said and done and I think we saw this with the selection of Mike Pence, we actually saw this with the selection of Joe Biden by Barack Obama, I think presidents now are looking at compatibility almost as much as anything else. Loyalty is always a very, very big thing. And I think Donald Trump will be looking for that. Here's what is good for Iowa -- of all the names that are being listed, and you and I both know Donald Trump may pick somebody that never made anybody's list -- but of all those names, most of them have been in Iowa and most of them have been in the chair across from me when I asked them if they supported first-in-the-nation. And I always look at any potential vice-presidential candidate, right after can they be a great president, what do they think about my state? And I feel good about that as well.

Pfannenstiel: Well, in that list of potential VP candidates, Kim Reynolds has been notably absent this year. She has been on the list in prior years. Did she damage her brand by weighing in and endorsing in this caucus cycle?

Kaufmann: I don't think she has damaged her brand here in Iowa. I think her brand here in Iowa is staunch leadership, being everywhere, every place, listening to people, leading the Republican Party as she does. So, I think in this state she made a personal decision and look, her record and the interactions that I see all over the state with her, and I'm talking about interactions from hard core Trump people, are this is our Governor, we love her, to be real honest with you. In terms of Donald Trump, yeah, I'm sure there's some conversations to be had yet. And when you've got a leader like Kim Reynolds, you know what, she may not be listed officially, but I'll guarantee you she's on everybody's list the same as Joni Ernst as well. I think both those ladies are going to be on lists of any republican administration in the next probably three or four terms.

Henderson: In covering Trump rallies in the weeks ahead of the caucuses, when he would mention Kim Reynolds, she would be booed by the crowds.

Kaufmann: I mean, look, family fights are always intense. The primary like fights, or in this case the caucus fights, or even issue fights within the Republican Party, or Democratic Party as far as that goes, they get intense. It's just like humans, I fight with my brother a lot more intensely than I do my neighbor I really don't care about. I hope he's not listening. But the bottom line is, ultimately when it's all said and done, Joe Biden in the White House or the prospect of a democratic majority in the Iowa Senate, whatever that goal that we don't want is, that's going to transcend any of the family fights that we've had. Those boos will be cheers when they see the full record of what Kim Reynolds has led this legislature to do.

Henderson: So, are they in line to cheer for her if she seeks re-election? Or do you think she might face a primary?

Kaufmann: I think Kim Reynolds, if you look at the war chest that she has right now, if you look at her travel schedule right now, and from my perspective just seeing her interact, I think Kim Reynolds is going to be well-supported in whatever endeavor she does.

Henderson: So, you say in whatever endeavor she does, do you think she's running again in 2026?

Kaufmann: I don't know. I don't know. And if I did know, and I actually told you, I'm guessing she wouldn't return my call. But no, I truly don't know, Kay. But let me say this, Kim Reynolds, in my opinion, is one of the greatest governors that Iowa has ever had and I think that is a majority opinion in my party.

Murphy: If she is, well she will be Governor at least for two more years, and if former President Trump wins election this fall, how do you foresee it, and you touched on this relationship a little bit earlier, how do you foresee a Trump administration and a Kim Reynolds administration working together? And especially if there is something like a disaster like we had with the derecho where that relationship between the federal government and the state level matters? How do you foresee that?

Kaufmann: That's a very fair question, Erin. And I think it's going to run as smoothly as before. Look, Kim Reynolds loves this state, there's no doubt about it, except for the most partisan democrats, we would all have to agree, may not agree with the direction she wants to go if you're a democrat, she loves this state. Donald Trump has said over and over and over again and followed through in his first administration that Iowa is one of his favorite states. That love of this Midwestern state that gave Donald Trump that victory that he so sorely wanted early on and that love for this state by Kim Reynolds, that is going to transcend any personality problems. And look, here's the thing with Donald Trump, he values loyalty, he values leadership, ultimately there is going to be plenty of time to realize that Iowans have his back.

Murphy: But that's exactly the problem though isn't it that he values loyalty so much and she endorsed someone else to beat him in the election? That's why I ask --

Kaufmann: Sure, and obviously there is some back and forth on that, we all saw that. But she has endorsed Donald Trump at this point. Donald Trump, he is going to be seeing her and our Iowa delegation at convention, he's going to be seeing her standing and saying, we need four more years of Donald Trump and what he is going to see as a united Iowan and he's going to see a Governor that may not have always agreed with him, but he's going to see a Governor that has the same conservative principles that he does.

Pfannenstiel: At that Republican National Convention this summer, in Iowa we're always looking forward to the next caucus cycle, should we expect to see any national republican figures stopping by the Iowa tent then?

Kaufmann: I wouldn't be surprised. There's some invitations going out, Brianne. But yes, I think you should. To be honest with you, there's going to be -- I think we're going to have some speakers that are going to be coming into Iowa for our series of events and gatherings right now. Now, they're going to be coming in as surrogates for Donald Trump. But certainly, there are going to be people that have their eye on the ball. In fact, we're going to be in Fort Dodge with Congressman Wesley Hunt in April and look, Congressman Hunt loves Iowa, his wife is from the Maquoketa area. But he's an up-and-coming person. I'm guessing he's coming to Iowa for more than just to talk to Jeff Kaufmann.

Murphy: I'm guessing we'll hear that his wife is from Maquoketa. I'm guessing he'll tell us --

Kaufmann: He'll be in Fort Dodge. But yes, they'll hear it over on the Mississippi.

Henderson: At the Republican National Convention, the Rules and Bylaws Committee will be convening. Will they approve a calendar for the next presidential selection process?

Kaufmann: No. How that works, Kay, is the status quo holds. But then there will be, I would assume Michael will do what Ronna had done and actually what all of the chairs have done, and that is set up a nomination process committee to take a look at it. That was a committee that I chaired before. I'm certainly available, by the way, again to do that. But ultimately, they will give a recommendation and then there will be a vote as to whether to change the status quo. So, it actually has to be a proactive change in order to move us out of the carve out process. We are, by the way, going to have a carve out event in Milwaukee. So, you are both wondering, are we starting on this? You betcha we are. I'm going to be writing out a check for a food bill and I hope they stuff themselves and just as soon as they get to that sleepy stage where they're open to suggestion, that's when I'm going to tell them how great Iowa is.

Henderson: Let's shift to the general election and one of the major issues that will be presented. And your party's nominee, Donald Trump, has said some states have gone too far in the post-Dobbs era. Is that going to be something that depresses turnout and votes for republicans in Iowa in November?

Kaufmann: You know, I think it remains to be seen when you've got this overwhelming interest and these overwhelming numbers in terms of people's disappointment on the border and with the economy. What is the bandwidth in terms -- can you have three major issues? Can you have four? Is immigration going to overwhelm the issues debate? We're ready for that debate. Certainly, that is one of those issues where you have a wide, wide variety of republicans across the nation and even in Iowa with opinions that way. Here's the thing, here's the thing -- republicans are straightforward about where we're at on that issue. Kim Reynolds was very straightforward before her last re-elect and she was re-elected overwhelmingly in regards to that issue. If all you're going to do if you're a democrat is just attack, attack, attack, I have to tell you, that seems a little bit more like masking your extreme position to always attack on what they term as our extreme position. My guess is if you've got an independent voter that is somewhere in the middle of this particular issue and they're going to have to move one way or the other and if abortion is that main issue, my guess they're going to see abortion all the way to the point of birth, which you can't get a major democrat even in Iowa to say that they are against, versus a heartbeat bill, I will put my money on the fact that they're going to go with a heartbeat bill and they're going to go with the republican position any time over abortion on demand up to the point of birth.

Murphy: Just on that, it's kind of an are you sure about that question, and let me ask you why, because it is now, and you talk about previous dances and previous election results, it's now much more tangible because of the Supreme Court. This isn't a theoretical debate like it was for 40, 50 years. This is now a case where laws are changing and it's changing on that side, on the side of abortion policies being moved more restrictive. What you're describing on the democratic debate is much more theoretical and ideological. What is happening on the ground is much more tangible. Given that, are you still confident in what you just said?

Kaufmann: Well, in Virginia, abortion on demand up to the point of birth is very tangible. There is a specific instance of where they have done that. The inability to answer a question if you're a democratic candidate is very tangible. You can hear the crickets roaring in your ear --

Henderson: But you have a nominee who says a six-week abortion ban was too far to go.

Kaufmann: Well, in Iowa it was not too far to go. In terms of Iowa's electoral votes, I feel very comfortable when you take our position of heartbeat versus an abortion on demand to the point of birth. I'm going to put my money and my conviction on the republican position.

Murphy: Just real quick because I don't want to spend too much time on this, but again on that, abortion on demand up until birth, and we can get into the weeds about how realistic that is, there is no legislative proposal about that. There are laws being made and legislative proposals happening, being debated on the books that are banning abortion at six weeks if not sooner.

Kaufmann: I agree but that is because the democrats don't have control of the legislature.

Murphy: Right, okay, well anyways, moving on. So, speaking of those congressional races and circling back on this whole notion of how the Caucuses went and former President Trump being just at around 51%, from a turnout perspective here in Iowa, a motivation perspective, do you have any worries about that? And Iowa is not going to be a competitive race in the presidential race, it will most likely be very comfortably won by Donald Trump? There's no top of the ticket race, no Senate, no statewide race. Do you have any worries about turnout this fall?

Kaufmann: Always have worries about turnout, always fighting complacency. I'm not trying to be facetious or smart-allecky when I say this, but that is what is so important, to be honest with you, from purely a republican campaign point of view, that Joe Biden is their nominee, because it's such a sharp contrast. And I think that in and of itself will draw turnout. We do, we're going to have a competitive race in the First District, we're going to have a competitive congressional race in the Third District --

Murphy: You think those will be competitive?

Kaufmann: Well, I think in the end, no. But I think in terms of money and trying to draw in money and the best thing the democrats could have done is put both of those current congresspeople on their attack list because all that does is, that's my talking points, I just take the democratic talking points and I tell donors that, even though in my heart of hearts I think the wave in Iowa is going to overwhelm any democratic candidate. But here's the thing, 110,000 Iowans went out in negative 30 degrees when you knew for the most part Donald Trump was going to win. I'm breathing a lot easier about Iowans not being complacent, Iowa republicans not being complacent.

Pfannenstiel: And you've said on this show pretty repeatedly that you think Iowa is a purple state. But it is trending more and more red. And, as you say, these races may not end up being particularly competitive. So, is that difficult as Party Chair when you need to do things like fundraising and get attention for these races?

Kaufmann: It is, Brianne, and in my conversations for resources at the national level you bet it is. It's almost like you're penalized for doing a great job. But you know what, the great job has led us to this situation where only up half the night instead of the entire night during election season. But, yes, it does make it more -- but here's what I would still say, we are red, I would agree with you, but historically we have had those populous tendencies which can move left or right, right now they're heading to the right primarily because of Donald Trump and his blue-collar approach, but in our historical trends we could a couple of election cycles be very, very purple again. So, any chair that heads this party better run as if it is even as if we don't have an 80,000-registration lead because that thing can slip away just like that.

Henderson: I covered you when you were a member of the Iowa House of Representatives and you led the charge in overriding Tom Vilsack's veto on an eminent domain issue. You have a lot of people in the state who are concerned about the construction of carbon capture pipelines and how eminent domain, the seizure of landowners' property who don't want the pipeline on their land, is happening. What is your advice to the Iowa Senate and to Governor Reynolds? The Iowa Senate has never taken up any of the bills that have passed the Iowa House with the support of your son, who is now a member of the Iowa House of Representatives. What is your advice to them on this contentious issue?

Kaufmann: Well, and the override vote was the only vote -- only override vote we've had in my lifetime and it was major and it was over whether eminent domain could be used for a for-profit project. And a couple of things, first of all, remember we still have the Kelo decision that I was railing against back in --

Henderson: A U.S. Supreme Court decision about the acquisition of private property for an economic development project.

Kaufmann: Correct. And that Kelo decision still stands. So, the one thing that is not being discussed is at some point in time I believe that Kelo decision is going to be overturned. I think it's a matter of going through the Supreme Court, which at that particular point is going to change the politics of this whole issue in the state. As far as the issue right now, all politics is local and legislators see this. They are being hit from both sides. They're being hit by the ethanol lobby saying that this absolutely must happen, this carbon sequestration has to be removed. And then they're being hit by a lot of their base voters that believe that eminent domain and property rights are important and that eminent domain should not be used for a carbon pipeline. I think they have to remember their way back home and see what their constituents are saying. There are some constituents in some urban areas my guess would be that probably agree about the pipeline. I also think that down in my area at least it is immensely unpopular. So, I think you go back to any issue where you have people on both sides of it within a party, that's when a local citizen legislature becomes important, and know that every single one of those are going to get that, every single legislator is going to get that question. As far as the Governor, as far as I know she has not made a public statement on that nor will she have to make a public statement on that unless there's a bill on her desk.

Henderson: What about the Iowa Senate led by 34 republicans who have never taken up that issue?

Kaufmann: Well, they're going to get questions about that at home and I'm guessing they already have and they're going to have to work through that process. Each one of those 34, well actually each one of those 50, are going to have to react to their decision.

Henderson: Just one last question. Bruce Rastetter, who is the owner of Summit Carbon Solutions, is a major donor to republicans. What's his relationship with the party at this moment?

Kaufmann: Bruce and I have never been overly close from the time when I was in. It doesn't have anything to do with the carbon pipeline, it's just I can't be friends to everybody in Iowa. But I know he has been good to a variety of republicans throughout the state. My record as a legislator stands. My duty as the Chairman of the Party is to make sure and referee these issues that can go both ways.

Murphy: Through that same prism of being a former state legislator and you've talked about the pendulum swinging back and forth, one of the things that some people have criticized about some of the big bills that have passed up at the legislature under republican control is that they have placed more authority in the Governor's office, given an inordinate amount of authority with the Governor's office. If that pendulum is going to swing, at some point that is going to be a democratic governor eventually. Do you have any concerns, again, not as state party chairman, but as a former legislator? Are current republicans not legislating beyond the end of their noses?

Kaufmann: Well, it is such a tightrope when you're talking about the power of the executive branch whether it's at the federal level or at the state level. It's hard to move past when you have a governor, from the republican perspective, that you trust. You have a governor that you know is going to restrain herself and only utilize those powers when she needs. I mean, I think you have to walk that line. There are times when an executive has to move quickly. At the same time, our own President of the United States is still limited by the War Powers Act. So, I think it's a line that they have to walk very, very carefully.

Murphy: In your view, are they walking that line? Or have they crossed it?

Kaufmann: I'm not going to -- until I primary my son and become Cedar County's next representative, I'm probably not going to be specific on that.

Pfannenstiel: We have got time for probably one final question. But a bit ago you mentioned whoever leads the Republican Party forward as Chair -- do you plan to seek another term? And if not, what is the succession plan?

Kaufmann: I don't know what the future holds for me. I may kickstart my modeling career. There's been talk about that. I've been getting a lot of calls on that not to do it. But ultimately, and I'm intentionally not answering your question, I don't know, Brianne, what I'm going to do yet. I do know this, that any chair of the party has got to have a great relationship with their elected officials and they have to know what the role of the party is. It's not to be a legislator, it's to elect republicans after a primary.

Henderson: My role here is to say we're out of time.

Kaufmann: Thanks.

Henderson: Thank you for being on this edition of Iowa Press.

Kaufmann: Thanks.

Henderson: You can watch every edition of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.


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