Strawn to the Rescue of Iowa GOP

Posted February 9, 2009 at 6:14pm

Every Capitol Hill staffer knows the road to the White House begins in Iowa.

But for newly elected Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matthew Strawn, a career path that began on Capitol Hill has ended back in the Hawkeye State.

At the relatively young age of 35, Strawn is charged with the daunting task of reinvigorating the GOP in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state.

Strawn cut his political teeth on Capitol Hill as a former chief of staff to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), and by all accounts he has his work cut out for him now.

He takes charge of a party that has fallen more than 110,000 behind the Democrats in voter registration. Barack Obama easily won the state in last year’s presidential contest, and in 2006, Democrats won the open-seat gubernatorial contest and picked up two Congressional seats.

“To unite the conservative and moderate factions of the party so that they are pulling together, I would see that as the biggest challenge,” said former Iowa state Rep. Danny Carroll (R), whom Strawn defeated for the party chairmanship.

The state party has other challenges, such as fundraising woes and local candidate recruitment, according to Carroll. He also said he had not heard of Strawn before he ran for party chairman.

But those who have worked with Strawn over the years say he is capable of meeting the difficult challenges.

Rogers first met the University of Iowa graduate when he interviewed for the legislative director position in his Capitol Hill office. At the time, Strawn was a senior legislative assistant and Budget associate for then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Rogers was staffing up his office after winning his first election — a contest that he won by 111 votes after a recount.

“I realized pretty quickly that this was a pretty talented guy,” Rogers said. “He will settle factions down in that party and bring people together probably like that not seen yet in that party.”

During his tenure on Capitol HIll, Strawn was promoted to Rogers’ chief of staff, finished first in his night school class at Catholic University Law School and met his wife playing for the Bullfeathers softball team.

“It’s one of the few places where you really do have the opportunity to prove yourself,” Strawn said during an interview in Washington, D.C., in January. “It was my experience that the Hill was a meritocracy: You could be young and relatively inexperienced, but you would have the opportunity to prove yourself very quickly.”

Strawn said he always tended to be more interested in politics than policy. He was coy when asked whether he harbors any personal political ambitions, as many current and former Hill staffers do.

Outside of his daily duties on Capitol Hill, he exercised his political acumen by working to help Indiana Republican Chris Chocola beat former Rep. Jill Long Thompson (D) in an open-seat contest in 2002 and by working on behalf of GOP Congressional candidates and the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign in his native Iowa.

“As chiefs of staffs go, I obviously tended to be more politically inclined,” Strawn said. “And that’s one thing that Congressman Rogers was always gracious with, allowing staff to take leave to go help the cause.”

Those who have worked with Strawn on various campaigns described him as a hard worker who was always willing to do the most trivial tasks. Peter Matthes, the state Senate Republican caucus staff director in Iowa, has known Strawn personally and professional since the 2004 election cycle.

“He’s never going to ask anybody to do anything that he’s not willing to do himself,” Matthes said.

Iowa has seen its fair share of House and Senate staffers come in for campaigns and some are more useful than others, he said.

“In Iowa we got a lot of folks who are airdropped in,” Matthes said. “Some of them are helpful, some of them are not.”

After 10 years on the Hill, Strawn moved his family back to Iowa in 2007. He took a job with a private consulting firm and became a co-owner of the Iowa Barnstormers arena league football team. Strawn claims the team — where Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner launched his professional career — is the second most popular arena football club in the nation.

But after Republicans lost Iowa in the 2008 presidential contest, Strawn’s colleagues and friends encouraged him to run for state party chairman.

He defeated Carroll in a 10-7 state GOP committee vote to win a two-year term. Strawn is now one of the youngest state party chairmen in the country, and he is committed to using newer networking technologies such as Facebook to help transform the party’s communication efforts and ability to reach younger voters.

Still, one of his first moves as chairman didn’t ultimately turn out so well. He backed incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan in the recent election for national chairman. Duncan lost to former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.

But Rogers said Strawn is someone who has an uncanny ability to land on his feet.

During his tenure in Rogers’ office, Strawn went on a snowmobile trip to northern Wisconsin while his wife was pregnant with their first child. He seriously injured himself on the slopes and ended up in the hospital with a broken leg and five staples in his head.

Strawn told Rogers about the accident but did not mention it to his expecting wife because he said he did not want to worry her. When Strawn’s wife was in Rogers’ office the next day, the Congressman asked her for an update on his top aide.

“There is probably no political disaster that he couldn’t figure his way out of” after that, Rogers said. “Best soft-shoe I’ve ever seen in that particular circumstance.”