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Unflattering side of Iowa's GOP politics draws new scrutiny

If the political world loses confidence in Iowa's system, the state's first-in-the-nation status will be that much more difficult to sustain.
A farmer plants corn in a field near De Soto, Iowa on May 5, 2014.
A farmer plants corn in a field near De Soto, Iowa on May 5, 2014.
Just last month, one leading Republican activist in Iowa conceded he had sincere doubts about Donald Trump's "moral center and his foundational beliefs." When Rick Perry called Trump a "cancer on conservatism," the same Iowan praised the former governor's condemnation. When Trump went after John McCain, the activist added he was offended and insulted.
The activist is a man named Sam Clovis, a failed far-right U.S. Senate candidate, former talk-show host, veteran, power player in Iowa GOP politics, and former chairman of Rick Perry's operation in the Hawkeye State.
The fact that Clovis found Trump offensive wouldn't be especially noteworthy, were it not for the fact that Clovis last week joined Team Trump as the Republican's new national co-chairman last week -- just a month after Clovis expressed his contempt for the candidate he's now working to elect.
There is no evidence at all that anything untoward caused the unexpected shift, but the New York Times reported over the weekend that some in the state party are beginning to ask, "Is Iowa for sale?"

That is the perception sending shudders through the state's Republicans, after the leader of Rick Perry's Iowa campaign quit when Mr. Perry suspended pay to staff members, then quickly went to work for Donald J. Trump, who he had earlier said lacked a "moral center." The head-spinning dismount and remount came three weeks after another embarrassing episode for the state's Republicans. A long-running scandal over under-the-table payments to a state senator to endorse Ron Paul's presidential bid in 2011 led to the federal indictment this month of Mr. Paul's former campaign manager.

The Times said the two unrelated events are being linked "by Iowa's political insiders, who are hypersensitive about the state's privileged role as the first to vote in presidential races."
It's important to emphasize that, at least at this point, there are important differences between the two stories. In 2012, an alleged bribery scheme unfolded in which Ron Paul's operation simply paid an Iowa Republican state senator $73,000 to abandon Michele Bachmann and throw his support to the then-Texas congressman.
The state senator eventually pleaded guilty to two criminal counts associated with the bribe and the lies told to cover it up. One of Ron Paul's former aides, who was a leading official in Rand Paul's operation, was recently indicted.
There are no similar allegations at all against Sam Clovis, who may simply have had a dramatic change of heart as it relates to Trump's candidacy. There's nothing illegal about that.
But the fact that Clovis' reversal is so hard to understand, and it comes on the heels of the more serious criminal controversy stemming from the 2012 race, the combination risks tarnishing the Iowa GOP process itself. As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizz noted this morning, state Republicans run the risk of turning the caucuses into "a massive shakedown operation."
A top Republican official in Iowa told the Times, "I think it sends a perception that we're pay-for-play, and if that's the case, we lose credibility as the first-in-the nation caucuses." The article added that this sentiment "was echoed in more than a dozen interviews with Iowa officials and political strategists."
If the political world's confidence in Iowa's system is shaken further, the state's first-in-the-nation status should be that much more difficult to sustain.