It's a vacation only political nerds could love: a trip to chilly Iowa in the lead-up to its famed presidential caucuses. California Assemblyman Matthew Harper, a Republican from Huntington Beach, booked his first-ever trip to the Hawkeye State months ago, before he even had chosen a candidate.
Last weekend, Harper, one of the more conservative members of the Assembly GOP caucus, spent 36 hours making calls and walking neighborhoods in support of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. He talked to The Times about his whirlwind trip when he returned.
First stop: Statehouse comparisons
Since winning his Assembly seat in 2014, Harper has made a point to visit other statehouses to compare them to California's Capitol. First thing Friday morning, he visited Iowa's gold-plated Capitol in Des Moines.
Assemblyman Matthew Harper on the floor of the Iowa statehouse. (Courtesy of Matthew Harper)
One thing that stood out to Harper right away: there are no legislative offices for most lawmakers inside the Capitol building. That made the cramped quarters that many California Republicans get in Sacramento seem downright spacious. "It's still way bigger than what your average state legislator gets in other states," Harper said.
The scaled-down Iowa Capitol complex suits Harper's conservative inclination toward smaller government, he said.
And he said it was interesting to hear about life in a statehouse where power is more evenly distributed between the two parties. In Iowa, Democrats hold the majority in the Senate, Republicans dominate the lower chamber and a Republican occupies the governor's office — a stark contrast from the Democrats' domination in California.
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Cheering for Cruz
After meeting several presidential candidates who swung through his district for fundraising, Harper went with Cruz, deciding the senator had the conservative bona fides and the biography to appeal to general election voters.
On Friday, Harper visited the Cruz campaign headquarters in Urbandale. He also found time to partake in some trash-talking toward Iowa Democrats.
Harper, who has been doing phone-banking and precinct walking since he was a teenager, said he was impressed by how willing to chat Iowa voters were, even as they've been bombarded with phone calls and campaign ads.
"[You wonder,] are these people tired of getting on the phone?" he said. "But people are engaged...[and] they appreciate it's a person giving them a call, not a robo-call or a taped message."
And, he said, voters take that deliberation seriously.
"You hear on news reports they don't make up their mind until caucus night because they are genuinely listening what the candidates have to say," Harper said. "They have genuinely taken that attitude — they suspend their judgment until it's the actual time for choosing."
Showing Trojan pride on neighborhood walks
It was about 40 degrees for the Saturday morning neighborhood walk through the western Des Moines suburbs, so Harper bundled up with a cardinal and gold scarf — the colors of his alma mater, USC.
Iowans would probably find the weather relatively balmy for January, but Harper's winter wear had one inadvertent benefit: The colors also stand for Iowa State University, and the basketball team had a game that day.
Harper said he was struck by how much Iowa Republicans said they were yearning for change.
"They want someone who's not a business-as-usual candidate," he said. "They want someone who will be strong. It's part of the reason the candidacies that are resonating are doing well."
Harper said he made his pitch for Cruz in part by pointing to history.
"If you really want a Republican to defeat Hillary Clinton, you've got over 100 years of history of general election voters not being willing to consider a candidate who's not a senator, governor, vice-president or winning wartime general."
One thing he didn't mention during his 45-second get-out-the-caucus-vote pitch for Cruz: his own status as an elected official.
"I wouldn't really mention I'm state legislator. I'm not sure they would've found it relevant," he said.
Hopefully, he said, his travels will sway some lawmakers back home.
"The fact that I did this ... probably gives a validation that if I'm willing to volunteer my time, perhaps more of my friends and extended circle would be willing to consider him as a candidate when the California primary rolls around."
Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics and visit latimes.com/politics
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