After more than two years of public handwringing over whether the event has done more harm than good and should be abolished, Iowa's Republican State Central Committee is expected to vote on Saturday to move forward with the Ames Straw Poll later this year.
The quadrennial August free-for-all -- complete with free barbeque, live entertainment and an unabashed bidding war among the candidates for prime real estate -- typically serves as the first major test for GOP White House hopefuls the year before a presidential election.
But in 2015, political watchers won’t have to wait until summer to catch their first collective glimpse of most of the likely Republican contenders, who are set to stand shoulder to shoulder at a high-profile event in the nation’s first voting state later this month.
Republican Congressman Steve King and the conservative group Citizens United are jointly hosting the event, which is being billed as the Iowa Freedom Summit on Saturday, Jan. 24, in Des Moines.
Conservative confabs that attract GOP presidential aspirants are nothing new in Iowa, but what makes this particular gathering stand out is its especially early date on the pre-caucus year calendar and the robust level of participation from the would-be candidates.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday became the 18th high-profile Republican to confirm a speaking role at the event, and at least a dozen of the participants have expressed serious public interest in running for president in 2016.
“This is going to be the first big event of the 2016 caucus cycle,” said Iowa Republican Party Co-Chairman Cody Hoefert. “It’s the first time we’re going to see them on a stage side by side where we can compare and contrast presentation, style, how they carry themselves. So it’ll be a good first test of the prospective candidates.”
Other confirmed headliners include Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but it’s not just the movement conservatives and Tea Partiers of the bunch who are coming out to try to win over the sold-out crowd of activists who will hold sway come caucus time.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be there, as will former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who has recently begun taking steps toward a long-shot 2016 bid.
“I don't think anyone, King or Citizens United, ever imagined this thing would balloon this quickly,” said one longtime Iowa Republican operative, who is working for a likely 2016 contender with a speaking role at the event. “It will be no small feat for them to pull this off in an orderly manner, and the stakes for King are high -- I think really high. People will be looking at where they're slotted, who's first, who's last, before lunch, after lunch, etc. This is bigger than the Straw Poll which is taking up too much oxygen in the discussions presently.”
The function has been sold out for months, and organizers expect about 1,500 people will be packed into Hoyt Sherman Place -- a historic theater and concert venue in downtown Des Moines.
Citizens United President David Bossie said that the response to the event has left him “overwhelmed and incredibly proud.”
“I think it’s just a testament to the importance of the conservative grassroots in Iowa,” he said. “It is a testament to the importance of Congressman Steve King and his place in Iowa politics and therefore presidential politics. And it’s a testament to how these people honor and respect the people of Iowa to come speak directly to them at a time when it’s probably not the best time to come to Iowa -- it’s going to be cold and a very wintry day in January.”
King, who represents the heavily conservative quadrant of northwest Iowa, has long been an influential player in the run-up to the caucuses in encouraging candidates to stand firm on their principles.
But the outspoken six-term congressman, whose past comments on hot-button issues like immigration have made him one of Iowa’s most provocative public figures, is making a more overt effort than ever this year to assert his sway.
So far, it’s working, as even Christie -- whose more moderate positions on certain issues like gun control are out of step with King's hardline approach -- has made a concerted effort to court him.
“I will be a supporter of Steve King for as long as he continues to be in public life,” Christie said after keynoting an Iowa fundraiser on King’s behalf last October. “I consider him a friend.”
Bossie suggested that Christie’s presence and performance at the event would be particularly significant, as it will appear to signal the New Jersey governor’s intent to compete in Iowa.
“Make no bones that Citizens United is one of America’s leading conservative voices, and we take that very seriously, but we also take very seriously the opportunity for people like Chris Christie who want to come before conservative audiences to discuss conservative ideas and principles with them,” Bossie said. “It will be up to the people of Iowa to determine whether he is sufficiently conservative.”
Two likely top-tier candidates for the Republican presidential nomination -- Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- will not attend the summit, citing scheduling conflicts to explain their absences.
The event will be carried live by C-SPAN and on the Des Moines Register’s web site.