It seemed like a missed opportunity. The Iowa GOP Senate nominee, Representative Greg Ganske, ran the model primary campaign for a Republican moderate. Yet, his primary campaign was unlikely to be remembered since Ganske looked certain to lose the general election to Democratic incumbent Tom Harkin. That was until September 22.
On that day the Iowa media broke a scandal about the Harkin campaign’s involvement in a surreptitious recording of a private Ganske strategy meeting. In Iowa, a state that prides itself on clean politics, this has strong potential to turn the race in Ganske’s favor. That’s heartening in that it revives the possibility that the Ganske primary campaign could serve as the archetypal primary campaign for Republican moderates.
Ganske’s primary opponent was an arch-conservative former marine, Bill Salier. Although Salier was under-funded, he managed to build a formidable grass-roots organization among Iowa conservatives. His campaign really began to gather steam in the spring of this year when the supply-side group Club for Growth endorsed him.
As it became clear that Salier would present a formidable opponent, Ganske did not take a page from the John McCain/Richard Riordan playbook — i.e., imply that the problem is that the Republican Party is dominated by a bunch of intolerant right-wingers. Instead, Ganske’s campaign launched a two-pronged attack. First, it painted Salier as an extremist. For example, Ganske presented evidence to the media that Salier was in favor of phasing out Social Security. Second, Ganske emphasized his own conservative credentials. He ran radio ads touting his vote in favor of Bush’s tax cuts and his support of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The strategy worked: Ganske staved off the challenge from Salier, and in the June 4th primary beat Salier 59%-41%. Ganske set an example for future moderate Republicans: during the primary do not criticize the Republican base; rather, appeal to them by emphasizing your conservative values.
Ganske seemed to emerge from the primary in reasonably good shape for the general election. A new poll in late June showed him trailing Harkin by only nine points (50-41). Unfortunately, Ganske’s general election campaign turned lackluster. It went silent on the airwaves between late June and early September, and produced no criticism of Harkin that made a lasting impression with voters. As a result, Ganske gained no ground. If anything, he lost some: A Des Moines Register poll released in late August showed Harkin leading 52-40%.
Enter Kathie Obradovich, a political reporter for the Quad City Times. In the process of doing a story, she gave a copy of a transcript (which she claimed she had received from a “Democratic source”) of a September 3 Ganske strategy meeting to the Ganske campaign for verification. The problem is that the meeting, held at the Savery Hotel in Des Moines, was supposed to be private. The Ganske campaign quickly released the transcript to the media, speculating that the Harkin campaign had either bugged or planted a “mole” in the meeting. Apparently forgetting the Watergate principle of “It’s not so much the crime as the cover up,” Harkin campaign manager Jeff Link denied any involvement on the part of the Harkin campaign. He even suggested that it was a trick on the part of the Ganske campaign. But late Monday evening, Link reversed course and admitted that the Harkin campaign had obtained a transcript of the Ganske meeting and had given it to the media.
The Iowa GOP began investigating the matter. By Wednesday, Iowa GOP Chairman, Chuck Larson, stated that he believed he knew who had taped the meeting. But instead of naming the taper, he coyly dropped clues about the identity. The Iowa media picked up the ball, and soon discovered that the taper was a Des Moines man named Brian Conley. Conley, a former staff member for then Representative Harkin in the 1970s, had been invited to the Ganske meeting due to his association with the Greater Des Moines Partnership. According to the Iowa GOP, Conley contacted the Harkin campaign after receiving the invitation to the Ganske meeting. A campaign staffer, 21-year-old Rafael Ruthchild, encouraged Conley to attend the meeting and asked him to stop by the Harkin campaign office before he went. Conley did, at which time Ruthchild provided him with the recording device.
By the end of the week both Ruthchild and Link had resigned. Harkin was doing the “I’m responsible but not really responsible” dance. He also dismissed the matter as a “Dennis the Menace” caper. Yet nearly one-quarter of the first debate between Harkin and Ganske, held on Sunday, was devoted to the scandal. In addition, some serious questions are unresolved:
• First, was a young staffer fresh off an internship in Washington, D.C. the only member of the Harkin campaign involved? That seems unlikely, to say the least.
• Why are Rafael Ruthchild and Brian Conley keeping silent? What is their story?
• Was the recording legal? Iowa law does allow secret recordings if the person doing the recording is an “open participant” in the conversation. (Conley emphasized this in a statement released through his attorney.) But many legal experts contend it may not be legal if the intent behind the recording was to do harm. As of now, the police are investigating the matter.
• And most importantly, as Ganske asked during the debate on Sunday, what did Senator Harkin know and when did he know it?
Such questions ensure that this scandal will continue to “have legs.” That increases the chances that it will breathe new life into the Ganske campaign. That’s good news, because Ganske ran a model primary campaign for Republican moderates. If he wins in November, it will be remembered.