DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Republican Party is in turmoil 15 months into the tenure of chairman A.J. Spiker, and his critics worry the discord could forever mar the politically significant state’s longstanding tradition of holding the nation's first presidential-nominating contest.
At issue: Tensions with the state’s old-guard Republican leadership and Spiker’s affiliation with the group of activists tied to former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
Spiker jokes that party bosses at the Republican National Committee rarely bother to learn the names of state party chairmen due to their relatively short tenures.
"They always joke that state chairs, they never bother learning their names, because they're gone so quickly," he said, noting that the average chairmanship for leaders of state Republican parties lasts about 18 months.
But Iowa is no typical state. It is the state that plays host every four years to the first presidential-nominating contest — its tradition-laden caucus — that can boost or break presidential hopefuls' chances of ever reaching the White House.
And though the 2016 Iowa caucuses are still years away, Spiker's chairmanship has divided the Hawkeye State's Republicans. They fret that party-building exercises like fundraising and infrastructure have ground to a halt. And more alarmingly, Republicans worry that Spiker and the rest of the state GOP, which has close ties to Ron Paul's political movement, would become an informal extension of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's presidential campaign should he decide to seek higher office in 2016.
Matthew Holst / Matthew Holst / AP
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner event, Friday, May 10, 2013, at the Hotel at Kirkwood Center, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"We're a long way's out from another presidential caucus, but even still, people are concerned: is it a fair playing field for the next set of candidates?" said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa GOP and a prominent critic of Spiker's chairmanship.
"They're looking at what's best for themselves and the candidates they support," he added. "If they're not careful, they could damage the institution of the caucuses after 2016."
Spiker responded: "I think the notion that it's just about Rand or Ron is really kind of silly."
Spiker was elected — he calls himself the "first non-establishment chairman" — following the resignation of Matt Strawn, who stepped down as chairman of the Iowa GOP following hiccups in the caucuses. The party had initially proclaimed Mitt Romney its winner, but was forced to reverse itself once the final tally found that former Sen. Rick Santorum had actually won by a handful of votes.
Spiker won the chairmanship of the state GOP due to persistent efforts by Ron Paul supporters to win smaller, less-noticed elections to local and lesser statewide Republican offices. By the time had come to elect a replacement for Strawn, Ron Paul acolytes had the numbers.
During his tenure, he has openly challenged Gov. Terry Branstad, who is on the cusp of seeking his sixth term as governor since 1982, over the fate of the Ames Straw Poll (an informal precursor to the caucuses) and a new gas tax that had pended before the state legislature.
"I'm not going to comment on that," Branstad pointedly told NBC News when asked about his assessment of the state GOP's health. "I just think, I'm focused on helping Republicans win elections, and we're going to put together the strongest team possible. And by the time we get to Election Day 2014, we'll see a very strong, united party that will work together."
Indeed, Election Day 2014 includes two marquee statewide races: Branstad's would-be re-election, and more significantly, an open Senate race that offers Republicans their first chance of holding both Senate seats for the first time in decades.
"The current party leadership has some bridges to build," said a GOP strategist and former Iowa party official, who requested anonymity to offer candid assessments about the party. "Sometimes they misunderstand the core function of the party, which is to win elections and provide an effective infrastructure. This is what candidates need and donors expect."
Criticism of Spiker has assumed a new urgency given the intense and early interest in the 2016 caucuses, jockeying for which began on Friday night when Rand Paul — at Spiker's invitation — headlined the party's annual Lincoln Dinner fundraiser.
Of Rand Paul's appeal in Iowa, Spiker said: "I think it would be a mistake not to put him in the top tier in Iowa, and I would be surprised if he didn't poll that way." (He also named Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as two additional major contenders.)
Behind the scenes, Republican critics of Spiker's have asserted that a backlash against this self-described "constitutionalist" chairman is taking shape. As with many battles on the national level, the establishment GOP community and its donor class have begun the work of reclaiming the levers of power in the state GOP.
"If this Paul takeover of the party has done one thing, it has kind of awoken your traditional Republican activist," Robinson said.
For his part, Spiker says that he's leaning against seeking another term as state party chairman in January of 2015; he explained that he had also leaned against seeking the office in the first place, and seeking re-election to a full term this past January.
Spiker, who has a young family, mused that it might actually be more liberating for him to work for an issue group come 2016. Or a candidate.
"The candidate and issue things are much easier, because with a candidate you have a specific candidate, and you have specific policies of the candidate," he said. "You have very clear things. With the political committee, it's much broader, much bigger and it is a lot more complicated than it is with a candidate or an issue group."
This story was originally published on Mon May 13, 2013 3:29 PM EDT