Most Republican candidates for statewide and federal office skipped The Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at this year's Iowa State Fair. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Out of 15 candidates for statewide and federal office who spoke at the Iowa State Fair, the one remark from a politician that I agreed with most came from a surprising source: perennial third-party candidate Bryan Jack Holder.
Holder, who has lost his last five runs for office, is running for Congress on the Liberty Caucus ticket. He may be best known for wearing a tricorn hat at public venues. He took time during his speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox to ask why his Republican opponent, Rep. Randy Feenstra, and other Republicans including Gov. Kim Reynolds weren’t participating in the traditional forum.
Sen. Chuck Grassley and Reps. Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks also skipped the soapbox, as did Secretary of State Paul Pate and Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, even though all of them spent time at the fair. State treasurer candidate Roby Smith also declined to appear. The only Republicans to speak at the soapbox were those challenging incumbents: attorney general candidate Brenna Bird, 3rd District congressional candidate Zach Nunn and state auditor candidate Todd Halbur.
Holder said Iowa’s state and federal leaders need to do more to interact directly with their constituents.
“We need to take every opportunity that we’re given to communicate with our fellow citizens,” Holder said. “It’s only through talking about these very highly controversial and divisive issues that we can reach common ground.”
The Register soapbox isn’t the only media-sponsored venue that Republicans are bypassing. Many GOP candidates, in Iowa and around the country, have been skipping editorial board meetings and even debates. Long-gone are the days when Iowa governors had regular, weekly news conferences – these days, Reynolds prefers appearances on conservative media outlets that won’t ask challenging questions.
The soapbox, however, is essentially a free stage. Candidates have 20 minutes to say whatever they want. There have occasionally been hecklers at the soapbox, but this year it was only Republicans who staged demonstrations in the audience – and they were silent ones.
There are no questions from journalists, unless the candidate chooses to answer some afterward. And they can decide whether to take questions from the audience – made up of dozens and sometimes hundreds of people from all over the state.
The only reason to turn down an opportunity like that would be to show contempt for the host, and I believe that’s exactly the reason so few Republicans chose to participate. And that’s a shame, because the people they’re actually turning their backs on are those in the audience: the fairgoers and the readers and viewers of all kinds of statewide and local media that covered the event. A photo op at the Pork Producers’ tent just isn’t the same as spending 20 minutes speaking about why voters should elect or reelect a candidate.
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Politicians who speak only at party-sponsored venues or through ideologically friendly media or campaign advertising are missing a major segment of Iowa voters. And that seems to be by design. It’s so much easier and feels better to surround oneself with sycophants and cheerleaders than to listen to someone with a different view. If you never talk in public about what you’ll do in office, nobody can hold you accountable for getting it done.
Now that the fair is over and school is starting, the fall campaign will kick off in earnest. I hope Iowans are paying attention to which candidates have the courage and confidence to speak to people who may not already agree with them.
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