Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch
As U.S. House Republicans continue to deal with chaos of designating a House speaker, U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks hosted presidential candidates Friday at an Iowa City fundraiser while defending decisions that some fellow Republicans have criticized.
“If I was a Democrat, I would have run as a Democrat 10 years ago,” Miller-Meeks said. “And I’d have been in Congress for a decade. I mean, after all, we are here in the People’s Republic of Iowa City, Johnson County. I’m not a Democrat, I’m a proud Republican.”
Miller-Meeks addressed the crowd at the “Triple MMM Tailgate” event at Streb Construction Co. It was the third annual fundraiser since Miller-Meeks was first elected in 2020.
Miller-Meeks, who represents Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, said she received “credible” death threats after voting Wednesday against Rep. Jim Jordan for House speaker. While she supported the Ohio conservative for the position in the first vote, she changed her support to House Appropriations Committee chair, Rep. Kay Granger, while calling for a “conservative consensus candidate.”
Jordan failed to win the necessary support from House Republicans for a third time Friday. The Republican House caucus will reconvene Monday to pick a nominee to become speaker, a position that has been vacant for over two weeks since former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted by members of the far-right Freedom Caucus early in October.
Miller-Meeks said she was delivering a “fact check” on some of the criticisms she has faced for voting against Jordan, as well as voting against an agriculture appropriations bill. She said she did not support shutting down the government because she didn’t want veterans’ pay to be stopped, and said she opposed the agriculture appropriations bill because it cut vital supports for Iowa farmers — things she promised to support during her campaign, she said.
“So if you think you can intimidate me … Suck it up, buttercup,” she said.
Seven presidential candidates followed Miller-Meeks’ speech, asking Iowans for their support in the GOP caucuses on Jan. 15, 2024. While some candidates weighed in on the House Republicans’ struggle, most focused on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group.
The frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, former President Donald Trump, did not attend the Iowa City fundraiser. Trump has skipped out on most multicandidate “cattle call” events in Iowa, instead holding his own rallies across the state. Trump spoke in Adel and Clive Monday, and plans to hold a rally in Sioux City next week as he aims to shore up support from Iowa Republicans leading into the caucuses.
Here’s what the presidential candidates told Iowans Friday:
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis repeated his calls to deny Palestinian refugees entry into the U.S., deport international students demonstrating in support of Palestinians and support Israel. The Israel-Hamas conflict highlights the need to remove President Joe Biden from office, DeSantis said.
“We have hostages, our own people being held hostage, and is what is he doing? He’s out of the beach in Delaware again, not doing his job,” DeSantis said. “We can do better. You deserve a president’s gonna take that 2 a.m. phone call, is going to do everything he can to advance this country’s interests.”
DeSantis also spoke in support of Miller-Meeks, saying that places like Iowa’s 1st Congressional District are vital to win in order for a Republican president to effectively govern.
The candidate asked Iowans to look at his record as Florida governor, citing measures he signed into law including a six-week abortion ban, a ban on sanctuary cities and allowing legal carry of a handgun without a license or permit.
“You can’t do it by yourself as president, you got to have people that are going to help in the legislature …” DeSantis said. “So my pledge will be it’s not just going to be about me. It’s going to be about bringing in House members and bringing in U.S. senators. I will say — I’ve been watching what’s going on in D.C., and in Florida, we don’t do the theater. … we just deliver results. And that’s ultimately what it’s all about.”
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told Iowans that the biggest threat to the U.S. is Iran, the country she said is funding Hamas.
“Don’t ever forget: there would be no Hamas if there wasn’t an Iran,” Haley said. “See this for what it is.”
Haley called for supporting Israel and bolstering the U.S. military earlier Friday during an event with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst in Cedar Rapids. She repeated those remarks in Iowa City, saying that the U.S. should not give the militant Palestinian group any leniency for the release of two American hostages the same day.
But Hamas and Iran are not the only threats the U.S. faces, Haley said. The second biggest threat is China, she said, and Russia is also an adversary. She said these countries are collaborating while pursuing their anti-American interests.
“The one thing I will tell you is there is an unholy alliance,” Haley said. “China and Russia have named themselves unlimited partners, and Iran as their junior partner.”
She criticized Biden and Democrats for inadequate responses to international conflicts, but said that Republicans’ “chaos” in the House must also be addressed. As the former governor of South Carolina, Haley said she had a message for Republicans in Washington D.C.: “They need to get in a room and figure it out, and get us a speaker and get on with their job.”
“When I was governor, we had a Republican House and a Republican Senate,” she said. “They butted heads all the time and what I would do, is I bring them in a room and I’d say, ‘we’re not leaving until you figure this out.’ And I never let South Carolinians see how the sausage was made. We need to start getting focused.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott said he would take away Pell Grants from any universities that allow protests in support of Palestinians.
The South Carolina Republican said he has already sponsored legislation to remove Pell grants from colleges and universities that say “it’s OK to spread terrorism on our campuses.”
The senator’s proposal came after some students and professors at colleges including Harvard and Columbia University released statements supporting Palestinians and condemning Israel’s actions against the population.
The “Stop Antisemitism on College Campuses Act” would remove federal funding from higher education institutions that “authorize, fund or facilitate events that promote violent antisemitism,” according to a news release from Scott, pointing particularly to protests hosted at campuses by the organization Students for Justice in Palestine.
He criticized Biden for not taking action against student protesters following the Israel-Hamas conflict.
“Instead of addressing the antisemitism on college campuses, he does nothing,” Scott said. “Worse, in the end — our tax dollars supplement universities and colleges that allow for mass protest saying ‘let’s have a Jewish genocide.’”
Vivek Ramaswamy started off his address complimenting his rival, DeSantis, for his decision to charter emergency flights from Israel to assist U.S. citizens fleeing the conflict.
Ramaswamy said he “respects” the Florida governor’s choice to arrange those flights, and said he and his wife have made a similar choice to charter a flight through their charitable organization, evacuating 200 Americans from Israel.
While he condemned the actions of Hamas as “barbaric” and “morally wrong,” Ramaswamy called for the U.S. and Israel to not repeat America’s mistakes in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
“So I’m gonna say it, I don’t know whether this is politically advisable or not, I’m told it’s not, but it’s the truth: I am deeply worried about the wisdom of this ongoing, potentially imminent ground invasion to Gaza, which I do not believe is going to be good for Israel, and do not believe it’s going to be good for the United States,” Ramaswamy said.
The biotech entrepreneur said the U.S. spent more than $6 trillion dollars on military expenditures following the World Trade Center attack, but that this response was not successful, with anti-American leadership still in control of Afghanistan and Iraq. He said Americans were told to “shut up, sit down, go along” following 9/11 — and called for Israel to not make the same mistakes.
“Some people will ask, ‘is that anti-Israel?’ No, no, no,” Ramaswamy said. “This is the most pro-Israel thing we can do, as a friend, to say, ‘learn the lessons from the mistakes we made 20 years ago in this country,’ to make sure that we — together — don’t repeat them again.”
As candidates focused on international conflicts, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said there were major domestic issues impacting national security that went overlooked.
“We can’t have national security without food security, energy security and border security,” he said.
Earlier in the day, during an interview on Iowa PBS, Burgum said he believed the president could play an important role in resolving the internal disputes among U.S. House Republicans in nominating a speaker. The current system of a “divided Congress” allows both parties to lead deadlocks in Congress, he said.
“You know who loves the fact that the Republicans can’t get their act together and lead? The Democrats,” Burgum said on “Iowa Press.” “… They love what we’re doing, because this is all helping them in 2024. And we don’t have either side that’s actually working to try to solve the issues for the American people.”
At a Thursday event in Ames, Burgum said he would consider sending U.S. troops to Israel in response to the recent conflict with Hamas. At the fundraiser Friday, Burgum said Biden has been funding Iran, which has led to the conflicts with Hamas, as well as potential threats with Hezbollah.
“We’re in a proxy war with Russia, we’re in a proxy war with Iran, we’re in a cold war with China,” Burgum said. “… We’re generating conflict through weakness. We need peace through strength.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he is often asked what distinguishes him from other candidates.
“My answer is that I’m the only one that was in 4-H,” Hutchinson said. “Now, that’s not all joking, because I think it’s important for Iowa that you have somebody that grew up on a farm, that understands small communities.”
Hutchinson also said he is the only candidate with a law enforcement background, having worked as a federal prosecutor and with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He said he has a unique position to take on U.S. border security and the fentanyl crisis as the only governor in the race in a border state, and that he has worked with border control.
Hutchinson served under former President George W. Bush following 9/11, and he said that experience will help him aid Israel in its war against Hamas. He criticized Ramaswamy’s comments on the two conflicts, saying that “it’s not difficult to make these decisions” for the U.S. to pledge support to Israel.
“It’s been raised by one candidate that we ought to debate what is the real reason that we want to go after Hamas … And the purpose is to destroy Hamas. … This is a challenging time, we need to have leadership that understands that we can’t keep the other nations out of that conflict.”
Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, who was scheduled to speak at the tailgate, suspended his presidential campaign Friday.
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