Republican Party of Iowa Chair
On this edition of Iowa Press, Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Republican Party of Iowa discusses Republican electoral gains in Iowa, the 2024 Iowa caucuses and more.
Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register, and Clay Masters, host and lead political reporter for Iowa Public Radio.
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Kay Henderson: Iowa Republicans have wind in their sails after winning big in November and maintaining first in the nation presidential caucuses for 2024. We sit down with state party chairman Jeff Kaufmann on this edition of Iowa Press.
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Announcer: 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, February 10th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.
Kay Henderson: As you likely know, last weekend, the Democratic National Committee voted to dethrone the Iowa Democratic Party's caucuses. This past summer, really, the Republican National Committee voted to keep Iowa's Republican Party caucuses first in the nation. Our guest today was just in early January reelected as chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. Welcome back to Iowa Press, Jeff Kaufmann.
Jeff Kaufmann: Thank you.
Kay Henderson: Joining the conversation today are Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Brianne Pfannenstiel of The Des Moines Register.
Brianne Pfannenstiel: So the Democrats have completely reshaped their calendar. They've moved some other states up into the early window, kicked Iowa back in line. The Georgia secretary of state, who is a Republican, recently said that he'd be interested in moving Georgia into the early window for Republicans in 2028. Is there added pressure on the Republicans this cycle to get it right to protect the future of the Iowa caucuses?
Jeff Kaufmann: Absolutely. There's pressure to get it right. I mean, we've had problems in 2012, although that wasn't necessarily endemic in the process. It was more bad decisions at the top. But, yes, sure, that puts pressure on us. And we are working overtime and have been in terms of how to make sure that this caucus that's entirely funded by the party, unlike a primary, taxpayer dollars don't go into this and making it right and making sure the country knows and the 168 RNC members know and the Georgia secretary of state -- and he's not the first person that thinks he wants what we've got and then finds out he's got to pay for it -- make sure they know we can handle this and we will.
Clay Masters: As far as counting the vote for the caucuses, that made a lot of national attention for the Democrats with that faulty smartphone app in 2020, Republicans have more of a paper trail in the way that the caucuses are conducted, filled out on a secret ballot. How are you going to count the ballots so that you can do a recount if it's necessary?
Jeff Kaufmann: You bet. And that's very, very important to us. And Clay, you hit the nail right on the head. We have a paper trail. We will make sure we have multiple, multiple layers of making sure we get the vote right, making sure that it's transparent, making sure that media sees it as quickly as possible. I will say this about my colleagues and the Iowa Democrats, they were set up. That app was handed to them in the ninth inning. It was set up so that it was never going to work. And then it's being used even though the National Party put that on their plate. Now they're blaming them for that. The other thing I find rather odd is that the California Democrats are saying, well, it took so long to count. Really? You had three weeks before you actually ended up with congressional victories. How dare you criticize Iowa for being a little bit more careful with their caucus results? This is all hypocrisy in order to rig the election in the Democrats for Joe Biden. Start with South Carolina so Joe Biden can win and then move on. Can you even imagine if Republicans were attempting to do that with Donald Trump? Change our entire process just for one candidate? We all know that's what's going on. And the national Democrats put the state Democrats in a precarious position, all to protect this poor soul in the White House.
Kay Henderson: Let's just feed on Clay's question a little bit. Counting votes has become very important to Republicans across the country. They've questioned election results in other states. How exactly are you going to do it?
Jeff Kaufmann: Well, that's remains to be seen. I mean, we are talking about the layers of security that we need. I can promise you two things. And this is based on the last two election cycles that we went through. Number one, it's going to be transparent. So however, we're counting it, everyone else in the state, including folks like you, can count it as well, number one. And number two, we're going to be aware of all of the shenanigans that could potentially occur. Especially if it's just the GOP. We all know if it's just a GOP caucus, there's going to be a lot more people interested in the GOP not being able to get this right. So we have layer upon layer. We were never shy about asking for outside help. We had a group from Harvard come in, in the 2016 caucus and look at our entire system. We have every intention of doing that again. So I can look you in the eye and assure you that transparency and accuracy will happen with this caucus, and hopefully it will happen with the Democratic caucus, because I'm not ready to say that that's over yet.
Brianne Pfannenstiel: Republicans, you know, as much as you want to make the process open and transparent, all it takes is one person to kind of question the integrity of those results. We saw Donald Trump in 2016. He came in second in the caucuses to Ted Cruz and he said that Cruz, quote, stole that caucus from him and he questioned the integrity of that result. What do you do when it's something like that, that may not be based in anything tangible, but there are folks going around questioning the integrity of the results.
Jeff Kaufmann: Well, Brianne, what I can do is what I did in 2016 when that happened, I declared Ted Cruz the winner. And I did it very, very boldly. And I had transparent results. And we had I mean, we were able to and I believe within three days and there was a snowstorm, we were able to go back through an audit, all of those results. Any system we use, any system we use will have multiple checks and it will be open to anyone in the media and any Republican to take a look at it and here's how we've done it. You're going to be very pleased as folks in the Iowa media. You're going to be very pleased at how transparent we are because I know you've been pleased in the past with that.
Clay Masters: What about upping participation in the caucuses in 2024? Part of the pitch that the Iowa Democrats gave to the National Party was this mail in presidential preference card, where it would be, you know, tallied up on caucus night. It would change a lot of what the Iowa Democratic Party's caucuses have looked like. And it looks like they're still going to move forward with that, still trying to work through all the details of understanding how that process moves forward for them. But is a mail in kind of presidential preference card or are you still going to be hoping to just center these around people showing up on a Monday night and doing it the way that they've done it for years?
Jeff Kaufmann: You know, we've had record turnout. I think we're probably going to do that. Look, everybody is going to know as soon as we set this date. And of course, we got a lot of pontificating and muscle flexing and all of that that goes with this, you've all been through this before. But in the end, in the end, we cannot run anything that's like a primary or we run right smack dab right into New Hampshire. And part of the reason why Iowa Republicans are where we're at today, knowing that Iowa is going to be first is because we have a pact among our carve out states that we all stand together and what that includes is making sure that New Hampshire is comfortable with what we do. Look, this doesn't just happen with Republicans. I was working on this before 2020 to make this a reality. And part of that reality is to make sure that we also respect what New Hampshire is doing as well. So I would be very, very cautious of anything and quite frankly, probably run things past New Hampshire to make sure that we are a group of four because we're going to need each other again in 2028.
Kay Henderson: Speaking of being very cautious, how do you make sure that someone doesn't participate in the first in the nation Iowa caucuses and cast a ballot and then say, you know what, I think since the Democrats aren't having their caucuses on the same night, I’ll cast a ballot for the Democrats too.
Jeff Kaufmann: All I will say about that right now is we are having conversations about that very problem and potential problem, and that would not be in the spirit of the caucuses. And we will be searching for solutions.
Kay Henderson: Does it require a legislative solution?
Jeff Kaufmann: Honestly, I don't know yet. We are, we literally have a committee that is looking at that very issue and that committee is looking at all options, because you are correct, if we are going to go it alone -- and I hope we do not, I'm not ceding that point -- but if we are going alone, you know, there's a whole new set of problems we haven't had to deal with in 30 years. And so we are looking at every one of those, including that issue.
Kay Henderson: Well, this wasn't 30 years ago, but you mentioned 2012. On January 3rd, the night of the caucuses, the chairman of the Republican Party came out and said, Mitt Romney won by eight votes. And then two weeks later, there was an announcement that Rick Santorum had actually won. Explain to people who weren't paying attention then what went wrong and the results that you announce in 2024 aren't going to have that same difference.
Jeff Kaufmann: Fair question. And the bottom line is that the chair is the one that decides. Now they can have their communications team grab them by the arm and say, don't go out there and do that. But ultimately, that's my choice. So I can tell you what I did in 2016. I didn't make that choice alone. I had our data people come in. I had people that were from the National Party come in. I had people that were my executive director, even Governor Branstad at that time was there. And that was the decision. And I didn't go out there until unanimously we all agreed that this is the winner. I am going to be more cautious than hurried about that, even if it means that Brianne’s getting just a little nervous because she wants to know what that is. I'm going to I'm going to err on the side of caution, because one of you mentioned this before. We have to get this right.
Kay Henderson: So that was sort of like the certification that happens in an election. There was an election. Unofficial results were announced and then there were official. So what you're saying is what is happening on caucus night are the official results. That's it.
Jeff Kaufmann: Unless it is so close that we would have to you know, we would have to recount or check those paper ballots. But then you would not have me coming out and saying anything other than we do not have an answer for you yet. I have got to get that right. And here's the thing. If we're transparent, like I'm promising all of you, every single person at this table is going to be second guessing me. And that's the way it should be.
Brianne Pfannenstiel: The party's governing body, the state central committee, has taken a pledge to remain neutral through this caucus cycle. Why is that important? Why was that a vote that you needed to take? And is that different from previous years?
Jeff Kaufmann: I believe we took -- I know we took that pledge in 2020, although, you know, it was, some would argue, not necessary. Some people argued that the caucuses weren't necessary in 2020. And you know how I stood on that. Absolutely we are. Because I think it helped our argument in 2024. Why is it important we're doing this in 2024 and I believe we did it in 2016? Because it's going to help our cause in 2028. I believe that the RNC, the 168 and they passed this unanimously, and that includes states that are typically thinking they want what we've got, and I believe they expect us to not choose the presidential candidate. We were never supposed to do that. But to help winnow the field and provide a way where people that are not billionaires, you can't be a billionaire, but even if you're not a billionaire, you can make your case like Barack Obama, like Rick Santorum, like Jimmy Carter, like Mike Huckabee. And in order to do that, this has to be a even playing field. And so I think that was very, very important. I could not compel the FCC to do that, but we all did it unanimously, put our name down. And we are a neutral playing field. And I've communicated that multiple times to the candidates that have been calling me.
Brianne Pfannenstiel: In some ways, are you relieved that that takes some of the pressure off of needing to weigh in and vocalize support for or against President Donald Trump?
Jeff Kaufmann: I'm an old legislator that used to make endorsements. So it's been a little bit of an adjustment, I'll be honest for me, too. But I move into this role of being neutral. I just think it's, I don't hesitate to make a tough decision, you know that. But I am relieved that when we're all doing this, that the candidates know -- and there's going to be high profile endorsements in this state, I mean, legislators love to endorse and a lot of them do -- but in this particular case, they're going to know that the person that makes that call on caucus night, the person that actually is promising you transparency, that person has pledged and all of you can hold me accountable that I'm going to be fair in this process.
Clay Masters: The Iowa Democratic Party just elected a new chair, Rita Hart, a former state senator, a farmer out in eastern Iowa. Have you -- and you've sat across this table many times with the Democratic Party chair, whoever that might have been at that time and, you know, said that the caucuses are going to remain first. You're going to work together. Have you had conversations with Rita Hart since she's taken that position about the caucuses?
Jeff Kaufmann: We have tweeted, I will be honest with you, I have had more conversations leading up to this with the people in the Democratic Party that are trying to keep them first in the nation. You would all be very happy. I think Iowans on both sides of the aisle would be very happy if they could be a mouse in the corner and hear the conversations that I've had over these last six months with the highest level, the highest ranking Democratic officials in this state. They will all tell you to the person that I have offered unmitigated help. I have reacted when they needed me to react. And I've been quiet when I needed to be quiet. And I want this to work for them because I don't see this as an Iowa Democratic Party problem. I see this as a Joe Biden rigging the system problem and a California New York problem. But I will tell you this, if this doesn't work and the Iowa Democratic Party doesn't put their foot down and say you can keep your delegates to the convention, which is a three day, which is a three day commercial, it's going to hurt the Democratic Party. So when I help the Democratic Party, I'm actually in a way hurting myself because my life would be a lot easier if the Democrats don't hold their first nation caucus here, because we all know there's going to be people who hold that against them for a generation. I want them to succeed.
Clay Masters: Well, speaking of tweets, after Rita Hart was elected as the party chair, people might remember her as the person who also lost by about six votes to representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Did it ruffle your feathers at all to kind of see some tweets out there referring to her as an election denier? That was an election that she lost by six votes and sought recounts.
Jeff Kaufmann: I went, you know, I asked the chair of the party, I was I tweeted pretty aggressively about that situation. And when she was a lieutenant governor candidate, she and I went after each other pretty aggressively. Politics is a full contact sport, metaphorically, but when it comes to this caucus process, every chair that I have worked with will tell you that it is pure bipartisanship. So in terms of what’s happened in the past, we can litigate that in the press. We can tweet about that. And Lord knows we’re going to have plenty to disagree on. But when it comes to this particular issue, I am as adamant about defending the Iowa Democratic Party as I will be in criticizing the Iowa Democratic Party if they don't stand up to their national party in exactly the way that I would stand up to the RNC if they were pulling this crap on me.
Clay Masters: We'll move past caucuses in a moment. But one other question there. Back in December, we had a conversation for a story that I was working on where you had said that with the previous chair, Ross Wilburn, that you'd be willing to help with some of the financial obligations of running caucuses with the Democratic Party. Have you had those conversations?
Jeff Kaufmann: And it would be and what I would do is helping to raise money for that to find companies that would help us with an app. Absolutely. If they are able to salvage this thing, I expect meetings that I've had the last two caucus cycles where my ED and whoever is in charge of the caucuses and the Democratic ED sit down and a lot of it I probably won't even be able to relate to you folks because it'll be confidential. I will look everybody in the eye and say the Iowa Republican Party genuinely and sincerely wants this to work for the Democrats.
Kay Henderson: Moving on to some other topics. A lot of people are talking about Governor Kim Reynolds and her national prominence. Do you expect her ever to leave office early to go get a job in Washington, D.C., of some kind?
Jeff Kaufmann: I would expect at some point she's going to be recruited by a wide variety of people. When you have electoral and policy success like she does, of course she's going to get the ask. I can tell you as somebody that communicates with Governor Reynolds on a weekly basis, at a minimum, sometimes every day, there is nothing that I am hearing that takes away from her resolve to get her agenda through the legislature. We've already seen two of those areas. We've seen her be successful with the tort reform and with her education plan. I see her as putting 100% into being a governor. Look, the reason why she has a profile, high profile, it's obvious she's got talent. It's obvious that she has leadership potential that transcends Iowa. But the main reason why people are looking at her, the same reason when I go places they ask me, what's Kim Reynolds like? I mean, I honestly get asked that question. It’s pretty cool, actually. And the reason is because of the job she's doing as Iowa governor, the way that she's going to get the credibility and the respect that she deserves is through continuing to be a great governor. And I believe that Iowa is going to remain her focus. But what more can I ask for in a first in the nation caucus to have a superstar governor by my side? And really the de facto head of the Republican Party, I mean, it doesn't get any better than this.
Brianne Pfannenstiel: Two Iowa Republicans are facing a little bit more pushback. Senator Joni Ernst and Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks are facing pushback from some wings of the party for their vote on gay marriage late last year. They they've been censured by some county parties. What's your reaction to that?
Jeff Kaufmann: People don't want to admit, the Democrats don't want to admit this. But we are a party that is not afraid to have debates on issues. We do that all of the time. And quite frankly, the Democrats are better at having their debates quietly. Republicans don't do that very well and to be honest with you, there's a few gray hairs in this mustache because the Republican Party is more loud, more public, more vocal. Here's the thing. We have those debates and the people of Iowa have an opportunity to weigh in on how our officeholders vote every single time we have a primary. My role as the party chair is to make sure we have fair primaries and then to be the number one fan, the number one promoter of the winner of that primary. In these individuals, yes, I've been to central committees where there's been a censure vote of I remember one was 5 to 4. There's also 20,000 other Republicans in that county. And I've been in that same county where I've seen the same individual have hundreds of people giving standing ovations. This is very natural to have disagreements from various wings of the party. When it's all said and done, my prediction is, as we always have, we're going to get behind a presidential candidate. We're going to get behind a winner of a primary. What they can count on from me is that I am not going to get involved in primaries and I am going to support, without question, whoever wins the primary or the grassroots means nothing if I don't respect the winners of these primaries.
Kay Henderson: But did their support of same sex marriage damage irrevocably their ability to win reelection?
Jeff Kaufmann: Oh, I don't think so. But here's the thing, Kay, the answer to that question does not mean, does not need to be speculative. Every single one of these individuals will have two elections coming up, potentially a primary election. Maybe they'll run unopposed. Maybe they will. But that's ultimately not my call. That's the call of the grassroots. And the grassroots is more than a 5-4 censure decision. It's 20,000 Republicans in a small rural county. And ultimately, we don't know the answer to that until we have those primaries, because there's no entity or voice box for all 20,000 of those individuals.
Clay Masters: An issue going forward in the Iowa legislature or maybe everybody's waiting to see what lawmakers are going to react to are these three carbon capture pipelines that have been proposed in the state. For those that are unaware, the ethanol industry, biofuels groups are saying that this would be a way to capture carbon emissions, pump it out of the state, store it underground. There are concerns from landowners, environmentalists, a lot of different plays here. It doesn't really go down party lines. Maybe Republican presidential candidates will even get questions about those carbon capture pipelines there. Does a solution on that, having Republicans vote on that one way or the other, is that hard on the party?
Jeff Kaufmann: I don't think so. I mean, look, it's always more intriguing. It's always a little less predictable when you have issues that don't cut along party lines. And this is a classic example of that. I have Republicans that are adamant, I mean adamant about completely removing eminent domain authority from the Iowa Utilities Board, period. I have other Republicans that are advocating for these carbon capture pipelines and believe that it's the root of and the core of our economic development. That's what these debates are going to be about. And here's the thing. Iowans are going to see a debate of which we don't know the outcome. That's a positive thing. It's also a positive thing when you see Republicans and Democrats on one side on the other side, Republicans and Democrats. I actually think this is why we have a citizen legislature.
Kay Henderson: You mentioned earlier the passage this past week of a bill that limits medical malpractice, awards for pain and suffering damages as well as the bill that the governor signed into law in January giving state funded savings accounts to private school parents. It was not unanimous among Republicans in the legislature. There were 16 Republicans who voted against the bill this week on medical malpractice. Are those people still welcome in your party?
Jeff Kaufmann: Oh, absolutely. Look, you cannot have an actual debate and discussion in the Iowa House with everybody having their ear on their constituents. Constituents first. Then you have the debate, then you have the vote. Then comes my decision as the party chair. Who am I going to support in the next election if we want to take it to that extreme? It's a no brainer. In fact, I should be fired if my answer is anything other than the following. Whoever wins the primary, they have the support of the Republican Party of Iowa.
Kay Henderson: But do they have the support of a governor who went out and campaigned against Republicans who did not support her school choice plan?
Jeff Kaufmann: I have never seen a governor, this governor, Governor Kim Reynolds, proactively go after a fellow Republican. She may have advocated for people based on the issues that they supported. But no, I mean, here's the thing with Kim Reynolds. She campaigned actively on this issue. She campaigned it without hesitation. And then she ultimately signed the bill into law. There should be no surprise at what she's done. Did she support other people in a primary? Of course she did. That's not my call. That is her call. Just like when I was telling him when I was a legislator, I used to make endorsements, but I have not seen her personally go after an individual legislator. I have seen her proactively advocate for an issue. I've never had a conversation with her like that.
Kay Henderson: Well, I have to be proactive and say our conversation today is over. Thank you for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press.
Jeff Kaufmann: Pleasure to be here, all of you.
Kay Henderson: If you would like to watch this and every other episode of Iowa Press, you may do so online at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.
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