An Early Look at the 2016 GOP Field

  It was a packed house at Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa Saturday night for the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Spring Kickoff event, dubbed the “Iowa Faith Forum”. A crowd of just over a thousand poured into the church’s main gathering space and two overflow rooms, listening to the parade of speakers over the ensuing five hour event. While protestors from NARAL and atheist groups lined the street on the way to the Forum, the crowd inside was in great spirits, cheering for every speaker who took the stage. As one would expect, given the setting and the name of the gathering, faith was a prime topic of most speeches, especially concerning the issue of religious liberty and the persecution of Christians across the world at the hands of radicals.

Nine of the top names in the GOP were in attendance, including Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, all of whom have announced their candidacies; Carly Fiorina, expected to announce May 4; and former Governor Mike Huckabee, who stated that he will announce in his hometown on May 5. Also speaking at the event were Senator Rick Santorum, Governor Rick Perry, Governor Scott Walker, and Governor Bobby Jindal, all of whom are likely to announce their own candidacies shortly. While not in attendance, Governor Jeb Bush, businessman Donald Trump, retired surgeon Dr. Ben Carson and Senator Lindsey Graham made statements either via video or by surrogate.

This was the first real opportunity for all of the prospective Presidential hopefuls to gather for an event, and for voters to get a look at the 2016 GOP field. What follows is a brief rundown of the highlights from each of their speeches, along with my take as an observer and conservative/conservatarian Iowa voter.

US Senator from Florida Marco Rubio addresses the audience at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, on August 30, 2012 on the final day of the Republican National Convention (RNC).

US Senator from Florida Marco Rubio addresses the audience at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, on August 30, 2012 on the final day of the Republican National Convention (RNC).

Florida Senator Marco Rubio led off the event speaking about the economy.   He shared his concern that we Americans are holding ourselves back with tax policies and regulations and a national debt that hamstrings our efforts. He further noted “in this new economy machines have replaced the jobs that people once did. The good news is this leads to new jobs that pay more than the old ones. The problem is we don’t have enough people with the proper training to do them.” He expanded on this thought to say that jobs such as welders and plumbers are good jobs with good pay and we need to stop stigmatizing them. Touching upon a faith issue, he declared marriage an institution that existed before government itself, saying “The union of one man and one woman existed before laws existed. The ideal setting for raising children is when a mother and a father married to each other live together raising those children.” Finally, he left the audience with encouraging words for 2016: “We have had bad Presidents before and we have overcome. We will again.”

Bobbi’s take: Rubio is fairly new to the Iowa stage, but his message was well received by this audience. It will be interesting to see how his marriage stance plays out in less conservative parts of the country.

Sen. Rand Paul

Sen. Rand Paul

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was next to speak. He jumped right into an issue that concerns most Christian conservatives: abortion. Paul noted that 84% of Americans are not comfortable with third trimester abortion, and urged the audience to “flip the tables and push back on this issue” by asking liberals whether they thought seven pound babies had rights, and if so, at what point did those rights become established. Pivoting to foreign policy issues but keeping the faith element, Paul pointed out that “Christians are being persecuted around the world and sadly many are being persecuted with your money.” He stated his position that countries who persecute Christians shouldn’t get one penny of our dollars.   In one of his greatest applause-generating lines, he noted, “the Bill of Rights isn’t just for the Prom Queen or the Quarterback–the Bill of Rights is for all of us,”   stressing the importance of individual liberty. Finally, he left the audience with a warning: “We’ve gotta do something different-we’ve LOST Iowa the last two times.” He encouraged those listening to engage their friends and neighbors and to get involved beyond simply casting their votes.

Bobbi’s take: This was classic Rand Paul, stressing liberty and freedom above all else. It resonated with me, and those in the crowd cheered him on, but it remains to be seen whether values voters will embrace a candidate with a strong libertarian streak.

Governor of Texas Rick Perry

Governor of Texas Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry was next to speak, and started off with some humor. Recalling his small-town roots, he told the crowd, “I always like to tell people I graduated in the top ten of my class. Then they ask me how many there were and I say, thirteen.” Perry continued to poke fun at himself noting, “I went to Texas A&M to be a vet but Organic Chemistry made a pilot out of me.” After a bit of humor, Perry became serious talking about his conversion to Christianity as a young man. Acknowledging his own shortcomings, he said God gave him a second chance. Taking it further, he noted: “Paul was given a second chance on the road to Damascus. Ours is a God of second chances, and third and fourth…and America is the land of second chances.” He took this theme of starting over and applied it to America herself, telling the audience, “I believe as sure as the sun is going to rise in the east tomorrow that America’s best years are in front of her. When Carter was in office we were on our backs, and ten years later with a new leader we saw the Berlin Wall torn down and the Soviet Union collapse…This is our moment. This is our time.   It is time for America to be America again, to lead.”

Bobbi’s take: The audience really enjoyed Perry’s message, and he delivered it well, though at times it felt a bit like a locker room speech from Friday Night Lights. Inspiring, if we’re looking for a coach to lead Team America in a new direction.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal began by sharing his own testimony. He said that he had previously been asked what the most important day of his life was, and that “The most important day of my life was when I found Jesus Christ or rather, when He found me, because I was the one who was lost”. Keeping the focus on faith issues, he told the crowd, “We have legislation in Louisiana in this session to protect people of faith and conscience. Corporate America is not going to bully the Governor of Louisiana. Save your breath,” going on to say that at one time, the ‘elite’ used to support tolerance. Now they support tolerance for everyone except evangelical Christians. In one of his more popular lines of the evening, he proclaimed: “I have a message for Hollywood, the elites and the Liberal Left: The United States of America did not create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America.”

Bobbi’s take: While Jindal talks a good game, Louisiana insiders don’t think his religious liberty legislation (nor his plan to remove Common Core) will pass during the current session. At this point it’s not clear how far his message reaches within, let alone beyond, his home state.

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Former HP Exec Carly Fiorina

Former HP Exec Carly Fiorina was the only woman to speak at the event, and when she announces she will be the first female GOP Presidential candidate. Fiorina has been first before–she was the first woman to lead a Fortune 50 company, doubling HP revenues to $90 billion and quadrupling its growth during her tenure.   She was not afraid to take on Hillary Clinton, pointing out that while Hillary traveled to Iowa to meet with “pre-screened audiences”, during her travels she has spoken to over 2400 Iowans visiting 15 cities. In regards to her faith, Fiorina told the crowd, “Like all of you I have gone through hard times. When I battled cancer six years ago it was the strength of my family and the power of my faith that saw me through. When we later lost our daughter to…the demons of addiction, it was my husband’s and my faith that saved us from the desperation of depression.” Touting her conservative street cred, Fiorina noted, “When I ran for office in California I ran as a staunchly pro-life candidate. You don’t do that in California unless you mean it.” Reflecting on her status as a female seeking the Presidential nomination, Fiorina told the crowd, “I was asked one week ago by a reporter whether a woman’s hormones would prevent her from serving in the Oval Office.”

Bobbi’s take: As a woman, I think Fiorina will have more freedom to take on her presumed challenger, Hillary Clinton. Historically when men criticize female candidates they are labeled hateful misogynists. Fiorina won’t have to overcome that hurdle. Further, Fiorina has solid business experience and is clearly bright and well-spoken, which are always positives.

Former Senator Rick Santorum

Former Senator Rick Santorum

Former Senator Rick Santorum was greeted warmly by the crowd–not surprising considering he won the 2012 Iowa Caucus. Santorum told the audience, “I got as far as I did in 2012 because I stood for something and I stood for someone. For every person in America who feels like they are being left behind.” Santorum was quick to point out that Republicans have been stuck with a 35 year old message on the economy, which includes cutting taxes for wealthy business owners. He points out a flaw in this logic: “90% of Americans who work in America don’t own a business. They work for a business. We need to help them, too.” Moving from workers to families, Santorum stated, “There are books out by the far left and the far left and both say that the hollowing out of the middle of America is the breakdown of the American family...what’s changed since Reagan’s America is the breakdown of the American family.” Keeping the family as a focus, Santorum shifted slightly to education as he ended his speech, telling the crowd that “Parental involvement in children’s lives directly affects their success in school. So what do we focus on? A ridiculous concept called the Common Core that keeps parents out of the process.”

Bobbi’s take: I have personally met and spoken with Senator Santorum a handful of times. He’s as genuine, kind and earnest a man as you will ever meet. He genuinely wants to help the American worker and America in general. While he is a nice guy, it remains to be seen if he is “the” guy. While Iowa has been strong for him, that hasn’t been the case nation-wide.

Former Arkansas Governor Huckabee

Former Arkansas Governor Huckabee

, a former pastor, clearly felt he was in his element at this faith-focused event, leading off with the Biblical story of Abimelech. He noted, “Abimelech said if you make me your leader I will simplify your life. You see how that ended.” The main theme of his speech focused on the notion that we are making the American people dependent on the government in a way that they will never be independent, which he calls “a great disservice. Personal faith and religious liberty were his key topics through the speech, as he noted, “The freedom to believe in something is the foundation of all other freedoms. If the government can restrict what you believe then it can automatically restrict everything that you do,” going further to say that “we are criminalizing Christianity in this country by telling people who hold a Biblical world view that if you adhere to that then you will be guilty of discrimination”.

Bobbi’s take: Huckabee won the Iowa Caucus back in 2008, but his time has come and gone. He came across to me as a little on the schmaltzy side, preaching to the proverbial choir. He knows he has found favor with Iowans in the past–what he hasn’t been able to do is to turn that into national success.

US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas started out praising the other speakers, saying he wasSo happy with the array of candidates here tonight. We have Senators, Governors and leaders ready to stand and fight.” Like most of the other speakers, Cruz hit hard on the area of religious liberty. He said, “We’ve seen religious liberty under threat at a level that is unprecedented in America. It wasn’t so long ago that the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was supported by such ‘Right-Wingers’ as Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy and signed into law by Bill Clinton… We need to remember who we are, a nation founded by men and women fleeing religious persecution…JFK said I will not stand next to a man who will not stand up for religious liberty. How many Democrats would say that now?”

Bobbi’s take: Cruz gained national attention, and the respect of many conservatives, during his 21-hour filibuster. However, his appeal may be limited to social conservatives, as just last week he introduced in the US Senate a constitutional amendment to preserve the states’ rights to define marriage as the union between one man and one woman. This may be desirable for social conservatives, it remains to be seen how it will play out across the party.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was last to take the stage and began by listing his successes in Wisconsin: Over 150K new jobs created, unemployment down to 4.6 percent from over 9 percent, Planned Parenthood defunded in his first term, and a budget surplus created where a deficit had been. In 2012 he was the first governor to win a recall election and went on to be reelected in 2014, despite living in a “blue state”. One of his biggest applause generators of the night focused on freedom: “Freedom is endowed by our creator, defined by our constitution, and defended by the brave men and women in uniform who protect and serve every day.” Walker praised the voter ID legislation passed in Wisconsin, saying voter ID “makes it easy to vote and hard to cheat”. Walker went on to say that “Americans have the right to religious liberty and the government should back you up on that every time.” Finally, Walker looked toward the future with hope: “What makes America amazing is that all throughout our nation’s history there have been men and women of courage who thought more about the futures of their children and grandchildren than they did about themselves. We need to do what is necessary to make America great again.”

Bobbi’s take: Walker has the tough talk down, and has been a survivor in his own state. As a former Iowan, he was welcomed here. It will be interesting to see how he is received in other states should he decide to run.