Deep down, Bill Salier argues, nearly everybody's a conservative. You might claim to be a Democrat or a moderate, but really, on the issues that matter, you're a conservative, believing in "individual accountability, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency," to quote one of his brochures.

And therefore, you shouldn't support U.S. Representative Greg Ganske - who's about as moderate as Republicans come - or third-term incumbent Tom Harkin, a Democrat who's about as liberal as you can get, when considering your vote for the U.S. Senate seat that's up for grabs this year in Iowa. You must vote for Bill Salier.

True conservatives are "statesmen," he said in an interview last week, not politicians with "their spines ... made of linguini." A statesman "inspires leadership," said Salier, a corn and soybean farmer from Nora Springs. "A statesman will frame the debate."

So the statesman starts out on the extreme, because in the give-and-take process that's part of politics, a strongly conservative point of view will lead to a more conservative compromise than one would get if one starts negotiating from a moderate position. "You never want to compromise with a moderate squish," Salier told a small audience at a campaign event/press conference in April. "The idea of running to the middle is wrong. When we run to the middle, we fail."

"Moderate squish" might well be Salier's nickname for Ganske, the Des Moines plastic surgeon who was swept into the House in 1994 as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolution. "He has abandoned his conservative base," Salier said of his opponent.

Salier seems to think that it's impossible to be a principled Republican if one holds moderate views. "Either you are a whole conservative, or you are not," he said. So when they face off in the June 4 primary for the Republican nomination and the right to face the incumbent in the November election, the conservative Salier will try to derail the campaign of the man he calls "Harkin Lite."

Ignoring the Enemy

Ganske, as much as possible, is trying to pretend that Bill Salier doesn't exist. In an interview last week, he began by immediately digging into Harkin, seemingly assuming a primary victory. When asked whether he's overlooking Salier, who has been running for three years, Ganske gives the standard political answer: "We don't take anything for granted."

Salier is easy to overlook. As of March 31, Harkin had $2.5 million on hand, while Ganske had more than $1.3 million. Salier? A relatively paltry $66,000.

And it makes some sense for Ganske to ignore Salier. Because the farmer doesn't have the money for a prolonged media blitz, Ganske doesn't want to help Salier get his name out there.

Yet the upstart Republican can also be used to Ganske's advantage. With Salier on his right and Harkin on his left, Ganske can claim the moderate ground. And he does, to some degree, when he jokes, "I guess there's no pleasing my opponents."

But opponents on both sides also makes Ganske's job more difficult. If he acknowledges the Salier challenge, Ganske must affirm his conservative credentials in the primary and then re-focus his message on being moderate if he defeats his current opponent. That basically plays into Salier's hands, because the farmer pegs Ganske as a politician whose votes don't reflect a set ideology.

"He's voted on all sides of every issue," Salier said. "He's straddled every single fence he can possibly straddle."

But that's a facile analysis based at least in part on rankings from various special-interest groups. Those ratings, in any given area or by any individual group, do tend to jump around, but that's the nature of politics. Overall, Ganske is a legislator who sits just to the right of center, yet according to an analysis by Project Vote Smart, the U.S. Representative votes with the Republican party approximately three-quarters of the time, including 84 percent of the time in 2001. Conservative interest groups typically give Ganske decent ratings; in 2000, separate groups said he voted their way on issues 73, 66, and 68 percent of the time, while the ultra-conservative John Birch Society gave him a rating of 48 percent.

Looking at the ratings of a wide variety of special-interest organizations, Ganske typically votes with groups considered conservative between two-thirds and three-quarters of the time, and he agrees with liberal groups between one-quarter and one-third of the time. While that might not be the black-and-white difference between Salier and Harkin, it shows a pretty marked contrast between Ganske and the incumbent.

Salier's literature compares his views with those of Ganske and Harkin on five issues: "campaign-finance reform," "abortion," "gun control," "stem-cell research," and "health care."

This selective list casts Ganske (labeled as "middle") as a Harkin (labeled as "left") clone, supporting funding for Planned Parenthood (which would more accurately be categorized under "family planning" rather than "abortion," because the bills always forbid using federal funds for abortion); supporting gun-control measures; opposing "medical savings accounts"; supporting funding for embryonic-stem-cell research; and supporting campaign-finance reform. The message is that there's no difference between a moderate and a liberal.

There are clear differences between Ganske and Salier here, especially on campaign-finance reform and gun control. Ganske voted for the Shays/Meehan campaign-finance-reform bill that would ban soft money and "issue ads" financed by corporations, unions, or other interest groups, while Salier said it infringes on citizens' free-speech rights. On the issue of gun control, Ganske has typically been given poor marks by gun-ownership groups, while Salier is a Second Amendment champion. He has said he would support maintaining a ban on felons owning guns, but he is otherwise against gun control.

Yet Ganske's voting record, particularly on abortion, is more conservative than Salier gives him credit for. In 1999-2000, the National Right to Life Committee gave Ganske a rating of 78 percent.

Even here, though, there are contrasts. While Ganske has a pro-life voting record, he is not nearly as absolute as Salier, who calls himself "unwavering" in being pro-life. "I will work for the immediate end of all international policies of population control with government funds," Salier writes on his Web site. He opposes allowing abortion in situations of rape or incest.

Ganske said his leadership style is well-suited to the Senate, noting that Congressional Quarterly named him one of the House's most effective legislators. Yet Ganske hasn't able to push through his signature piece of legislation: a "patients' bill of rights" that would give consumers the right to sue HMOs for inadequate care. (Salier opposes the idea.)

Ganske worked closely with Representative Charles Norwood on the legislation, but Norwood - without consulting Ganske - forged a deal with President George W. Bush that would limit litigation against HMOs and cap damages at $1.5 million. That version of the bill passed the House in August, and it now awaits a conference committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. (The Senate bill does not cap damages.) The online newspaper The Hill called the deal a "devastating loss" for Ganske.

But Ganske called the legislation a success. "The president endorsed 95 percent of my bill verbatim," he said. On the bill's prospects of getting signed into law, Ganske said, "I'm still very hopeful."

Meanwhile, Ganske hasn't defined much of a campaign message yet. When asked to name three pieces of legislation that would be his highest priorities if elected to the Senate, he named two before going off on a tangent: reforming Medicare funding (Iowa is lowest in the country on reimbursement rates) and establishing policies to preserve and protect small towns, such as improving broadband access for rural communities.

Cutting Government

Salier is what he calls a "strict constitutionalist," which means that he believes that the federal government's role should be limited to only those powers specifically granted it in the constitution. This is based on a basic distrust of the federal government. "Washington doesn't solve your problems," Salier said. "It creates them."

It's for that reason that Salier said he "probably" would not have supported the USA PATRIOT Act, which increased law-enforcement powers in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. "I fear the losing of our liberties," he said. "We do not want to give away our liberties for supposed safety."

But Salier's view of limited government creates practical problems. One cannot dismantle federal farm programs, the Department of Education, or Social Security all at once, because that would create chaos. And while Salier wants to cut federal involvement in these programs, he acknowledges that it can't happen overnight. "None of these you can walk out and end because we've created a dependency," he said.

Salier supports moving federal farm programs away from subsidies and toward a free-market system. (He said he does currently receive farm-program money from the federal government.) He said that because federal farm programs offer price supports, consumers of agricultural products often lowball prices; farmers know they're getting a set price, so what does it matter from where the money comes?

In agriculture, Salier has said he supports the federal government being more aggressive in trade negotiations with other countries so that demand for American agricultural products grows, raising prices and reducing the necessity of price supports.

Ganske also backed increased farm exports, and voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Salier does not support NAFTA.

Salier also supports gradually dismantling the federal education bureaucracy and returning money to the states to disburse. Ganske has been an advocate for charter schools and has said that he supports reducing regulation on schools but maintaining accountability.

Salier talks in absolutes on issues such as education, abortion, and gun control, but he also makes comments that suggest he's flexible.

He supports a 17-percent flat tax with "generous personal exemptions," for example, but he'd also vote to maintain the current tax structure but eliminate the "marriage penalty" or the "death tax." Salier said he'd support anything that shifts programs - however little - to the right. "If I can only baby step back [to the right], I will," he said.

Of course, Salier criticizes Ganske for not voting to abolish the United State federal income-tax code, even though Ganske has been a consistent supporter of income-tax reform. He voted to end both the "marriage penalty" and the "death tax" provisions, and he's expressed support for replacing the current income-tax code with something simpler, although he has not taken a position on either a flat income tax or a national sales tax. Ganske justified his vote against abolishing the income tax by saying that Congress must first decide what to replace it with.

Salier is focusing his campaign on Social Security, endorsing a plan put forward by President Bush that would maintain the current system while adding Social Security Part B, in which citizens would be allowed to invest some of their federal retirement allowance themselves. The plan has a twofold purpose: to stop the current government practice of spending surplus Social Security funds (and therefore to prevent the system from going broke), and to allow the private investment of Social Security dollars. (To see the plan, visit http://www.heritage.org/library/backgrounder/bg1512.html.)

The current system, Salier argues, is designed to encourage dependency. If you control your own Part B money, "it breaks the cycle of poverty," he said. "I've had it up to here with 'federal funding.' It's your money."

Ganske, too, supports allowing people to put some of their federal payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts.

Even if the gap between Salier and Ganske is not as big as the farmer would like voters to think, there's a world of difference in their dispositions.

Salier, a fiery and compelling orator, speaks with great conviction. He says he's out to win "hearts and minds," and that's partly because he can't buy them with his relatively meager campaign funds. If he can reach enough people who share his views, he might have a shot.

Parties Enter the Fray

If the primary campaign is as tight as Salier thinks it is, the farmer might have found a strange ally in Tom Harkin. While Salier's campaign has been upset that the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has been running pro-Ganske ads in recent works, he must be positively giddy that the Iowa Democratic Party has recently begun running ads attacking Ganske's record.

Running these ads during the primary campaign could mean one of two things: either the incumbent Harkin is already running behind Ganske in polls - unlikely, given nearly identical 32-percentage-point leads Harkin had over Ganske in separate 2000 and 2001 polls - or Democrats think that Salier has a shot to beat Ganske, and therefore make the general-election campaign a study in stark contrasts. (Harkin would clearly prefer to face political novice Salier instead of Ganske in the general election.)

Political observers have also noted that Ganske's campaign has been ineffective to this point. The Cook Political Report notes that "Ganske has worried national Republicans by getting off to a slow start, but GOP strategists say his campaign is finding its bearings."

Ganske said the characterization of his campaign as "weak" is incorrect. "That was an echo chamber from months and months ago," he said. The perception of a floundering campaign was the result of "three months [in the fall] when I was intensely busy ... and put off some of our campaigning."

The campaign has been "hitting on all cylinders" for the past four months, Ganske said, and "this is a very competitive race with Harkin."

But that's being premature. Before Harkin looms Salier, and he's not going away.

Bill Salier's campaign Web site is located at http://www.salierforussenate.com). Ganske's campaign Web site can be found at (http://www.ganskeforsenate.org).

Support the River Cities' Reader

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!

 

"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993. Now we find our ability to continue providing all the features you love in serious jeopardy without the financial support of our readers.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher