Iowa's top-ranking Republicans may have made the mother of all Faustian bargains this past year when they jumped on Donald Trump's bandwagon. And, as proven in the past three weeks, they know it.
But there's a bright side to the president's recent swipes at Iowa's most sacred of cows. Slowly and quietly, Iowa's most influential Republicans aren't rolling over for the president anymore.
The past week saw an all-hands push to scuttle Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's call to reduce the amount of corn ethanol in the country's gas tanks. No state has benefited more from the Renewable Fuel Standard than Iowa. U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Gov. Kim Reynolds were especially loud about their displeasure.
No one should be surprised about Pruitt's maneuver. The man spent his career in the oil industry. But the political peril that reductions to RFS pose to Iowa GOP's brand cannot be overstated.
Any deal with the Devil is perilous.
Trump promised to protect RFS while campaigning in Iowa. Anything else would be political suicide in a state that's built an entire economy around biofuels. But he preceded to stock his cabinet almost exclusively with oil industry executives, a slew of generals and the executive team from Goldman Sachs.
Thing is, Trump's word isn't worth much. The man wants applause. He has just two real goals: Elevating himself and scrubbing his predecessor from the history books. That pesky policy bit bores him, evidenced by the fact that, in a matter of hours, he came out for, and then against, a bipartisan Senate deal to prop up the very Affordable Care Act that Trump himself threw into chaos by executive order. His opinion on any given issue depends entirely on whom last had his ear. As such, Trump may be waffling on Pruitt's RFS rollback after Iowa's full-court press, according to Bloomberg News.
In the past few weeks, Trump and his administration have repeatedly targeted Iowa. Pruitt proposed drastic reductions in ethanol. He argued against tax credits for wind energy, another cash cow for Iowa's economy, hated by the vaunted coal industry. Trump reportedly personally intervened against Iowa's proposal to stabilize its health insurance marketplace.
Iowa went for Trump in November. Its Republican officials stumped for him. Ernst championed him at the Republican National Convention. To this day, Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann lambastes anyone — Republican, Democrat or Martian — who criticizes the president.
But, slowly, the very criticism Kaufmann detests is beginning to bubble among Iowa GOP's most powerful elected officials. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowed to hold up Trump's nominees for key EPA posts if Pruitt continues to move toward gutting RFS. On Thursday, Grassley co-authored a letter to the Trump administration lampooning its proposed withdrawal from agricultural regulations designed to keep small farms competitive with factory farms. This week, Reynolds lobbied Trump by phone and is scheduled to next week fly to Washington for a sit-down with Vice President Mike Pence to talk health insurance and ethanol.
Such gripes aren't on par with the likes of Sens. Bob Corker or John McCain. Corker, a Tennessee Republican, this month labeled the president a threat to peace and stability. No, Iowa Republicans, still clinging to a hope that the president suddenly reinvents himself, are taking a less feverish approach. It's a form of criticism that's strongly worded but grounded in the specifics of policy, not an area the president has shown much interest. It's a form of critique that's unlikely to raise the president's ire and fuel an early morning Twitter rant.
Again, these are officials who carried Trump in Iowa. And, quite literally, they're having to beat back his anti-Iowa agenda just to save face.
Mainline Republicans in Iowa ignored their instincts and backed Trump this past year. They focused on isolated issues — especially judicial nominations — instead of Trump's temperament, character and basic lack of curiosity. They promised that the gravity of the presidency would change him.
So, they're stuck fighting weekly battles against pro-oil and pro-coal policies that would be catastrophic for Iowa.