It’s certainly not a sure thing, but the fate of one David Wiggins could play a key role in determining, on November 6, who becomes the leader of the free world.
David Wiggins is a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court, and this fall he’s up for a retention vote. A controversial decision about gay marriage has given rise to a sizeable grassroots movement among Hawkeye social conservatives who want to push him out. Their get-out-the-vote efforts could mobilize otherwise unmotivated conservative voters and tip the balance in Iowa. It’s a state where Mitt Romney was not expected to win, but he now trails by just two points in the Real Clear Politics average.
This is happening because of the Iowa Supreme Court’s controversial 2009 decision on the state’s restricting its marriage licenses to straight coouples. The seven justices on the court ruled unanimously that the statute denied same-sex couples equal protection and didn’t serve a compelling state interest. But the kicker for conservatives, according to former Iowa GOP political director Craig Robinson, came when the court also stipulated that same-sex couples had now won the right to marry. The unconstitutionality of one statute doesn’t imply that its inverse is law, Robinson notes, but that was the result of the court’s ruling. Opponents of the ruling argue that in legislating from the bench, the justices overstepped their constitutional bounds and deserve to be thrown out.
And some of them already have. Iowa has a election-based judicial system that brings justices up for retention votes every eight years. In 2010, three of the seven on the Supreme Court were up, and all three were voted out. This was unprecedented; since the system’s 1962 implementation, not a single judge had ever lost a retention vote.
Referring to the wave of removals for a particular decision, Robinson suggests “it was shocking, and it’s not just because it’s the first time it happened in Iowa. It’s the first time anything like that happened in the country.”
Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the Family Leader, a social-conservative organization that helped lead the 2010 push, is optimistic about the cause’s 2012 prospects. Only Wiggins is up for a retention vote — the final three are up in 2016 — and Vander Plaats thinks he’s in trouble. The Family Leader has an arm, Iowans for Freedom, devoted specifically to addressing judicial activism. Their grassroots network seems to be stronger and farther-reaching than the opposition’s, and is sure to increase conservative turnout, in turn helping Republican candidates on the ballot, including Mitt Romney. Robinson says that Iowans for Freedom is well-organized across the state, and in 2010 multiple smaller groups also sprouted up to oppose retention. The pro-retention group, Justice Not Politics, is primarily composed of attorneys and their colleagues in Des Moines, Robinson explains, and doesn’t have as broad an operation. Justice Not Politics has fewer people involved and operates more on a top-down than grassroots model, meaning Iowans for Freedom will likely have a more effective get-out-the-vote effort than their opponents.
“We believe that the focus on Justice Wiggins motivates and inspires all freedom-loving Iowans to go to the polls,” Vander Plaats tells National Review Online, “whether they are interested in private property, religious liberty, the Second Amendment, parental rights, or the definition of marriage.” And, he says, “when freedom-loving Iowans go to the polls, it will benefit Mitt Romney.”
Robinson is on the same page, and doesn’t think voter turnout from the pro-retention crowd will balance out the work of Iowans for Freedom. In fact, Robinson even argues that their tone and approach could make their efforts counter-productive.
“They’re almost their own worst enemy, in my opinion,” he says. “They’re very condescending and they speak down to people by telling them that, ‘You can’t vote no, you’re injecting politics into this race.’”
There are a number of scenarios in which Iowa’s six electoral votes would determine who becomes president. And if the two candidates are as close as the polls say, then a strong grassroots get-out-the-vote movement among conservatives could be a real boost for Romney. And the fate of America’s president just might be inextricably bound to that of one Mr. Wiggins.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.