DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has spent the past year leading an effort to seize control of his state party, hoping to send a message that the kickoff presidential caucuses will be welcoming to all 2016 GOP hopefuls.
But as conservative prospects flood the state for a major annual gathering of evangelical Christians this weekend, it's not clear whether the party makeover will make Iowa more attractive to a mainstream GOP contender. Evangelicals, tea partiers and libertarians remain strong in Iowa, which has been difficult terrain for more moderate Republicans in recent presidential cycles.
The lineup for the Family Leadership Summit in Ames — a daylong event expected to draw more than a 1,000 conservative Christians — features Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former caucus winners Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has also been touring the state this week.
Meanwhile, appearances in Iowa by the more pragmatic options have been sparse.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came once in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has not been seen since 2012. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, busy with a re-election campaign, last came in May 2013.
Still, Branstad insists he is confident the state will get plenty of candidate attention.
"My advice is always come to Iowa early, spend a lot of time here," said Branstad, who is running for his sixth non-consecutive term and said his efforts are also geared at making 2014 a strong year for Republicans in Iowa.
The recent party shake-up came after veteran Iowa Republicans grew concerned that the party's more conservative factions were displacing traditional Republicans. The victory by Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, in the caucuses in 2008 showed the power of the conservative vote.
Iowa Republicans are also still reeling from the debacle in 2012 when the state GOP initially declared Mitt Romney the winner and then admitted three weeks later that the conservative Santorum had received more votes. Shortly after that, supporters of libertarian U.S. Rep. Ron Paul took over the party leadership. The chairman then openly disagreed with Branstad on political and policy matters and fundraising languished.
Above all else, Branstad and his allies want to preserve Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, which have given the state — with just 3 million residents — an outsize influence on presidential politics.
Without new steps to assure the caucuses' stability, "it would limit the number of candidates willing to take part in the caucuses and it could harm the caucuses," said Jeffrey Boeyink, former chief of staff to Branstad.
Sen. John McCain skipped Iowa in his 2000 campaign and limited his time in the state in 2008.
The Iowa GOP now has a new chairman and new professional staff. Branstad supporters got involved in early party meetings this year so they had greater say in picking the leaders.
"There's obviously a strong social conservative base to our party and that's not changed," said Branstad ally Doug Gross. "The traditional Republicans, those folks have sat out. Those folks have now re-energized and are back in the party."
Supporters of these changes note that the party is now raising money again after several years of limited fundraising success. In addition, some note the wide range of Iowa candidates this year — Senate candidate Joni Ernst, a Branstad-backed conservative, and U.S. House nominee David Young, a former Capitol Hill staffer who defeated more vocally conservative candidates.
But, Chuck Laudner, a former executive director of the state GOP, said it would be hard to significantly increase the number of caucus participants — meaning a conservative may still have a leg up in 2016.
"Nothing's changed on that front. The Iowa caucus turns out around a 150,000 on caucus night and they're going to be the same 150,000," he said.
Still, Sara Fagen, former political director for President George W. Bush, said this shift matters outside the state.
Candidates, she said, want to know that "you're not going to have party officials undermining your effort."