Votes for Sale in the Iowa Caucuses?

Perhaps it's time to re-think Iowa's spot in the election hierarchy.

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Iowa State Senator Kent Sorensen speaks at a rally for Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, at the Iowa State Fair Grounds in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011. Sorensen, formerly the Iowa campaign chairman for Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., announced his support for Paul.

I so want to believe in the Iowa caucuses. There's something kind of romantic about the early contest. In the bitter cold, Iowans spend a day deciding whom they will choose to represent the parties in the November elections. (Why do the parties hold their early contests in the winter in places like New Hampshire and Iowa, then hold their conventions in the heat of summer in places like Atlanta and Tampa?)

They take it seriously. They go to campaign events, even for candidates they might not necessarily like. There isn't much media to buy, so you can't buy their votes. Except – oops, maybe you can.

Reports came out this week that a state senator, Kent Sorenson, may have sought payment from the Ron Paul campaign so Sorenson would switch his endorsement form Rep. Michelle Bachmann to Paul. This would be laughable in most other states (and Sorenson denies it), since endorsements from state legislators are about a notch and a half above utterly meaningless. But in Iowa, where a strong showing can give life to a backfield candidate – and a poor showing can take the steam out of an alleged front-runner – even a low-level endorsement means something.

This comes after the debacle of the 2012 vote count, which initially declared Mitt Romney the winner, then – oops! – was changed to name Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum the victor. Romney was likely going to end up with the nomination anyway, but even the brief misreporting of the results was an unfair setback for Santorum, who ended up doing surprisingly well in the GOP primaries.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

And adding to the embarrassment in the Sorenson case is the disclosure that a former Ron Paul aide, Jesse Benton, told a GOP activist that he was "holding my nose" as the campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is facing a serious challenge for re-election next year. In the conversation, conservative activist Dennis Fusaro asked Benton about the payoff allegations. Benton said he knew nothing about it, but – since he had been working on the campaign – was concerned about it and wanted to know more about it. "I've got shared responsibility, so if you've got proof, I'd like to take action," Benton said during the call, which took place earlier this year.

Fair enough. Then, when the conversation turned to friendly chit-chat (or what counts as "friendly" when campaigns are involved), Benton made the unfortunate comment, adding that he wanted to make things run more smoothly for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in 2016. The sympathy here has to go to Benton, who was just engaging in usual workplace grousing, and whose trust and privacy were surely violated when Fusaro taped the conversation and released it.

But the underlying issue is still the alleged payoff. There was already suspicion around Fusaro's flip from Bachmann to Paul. Iowans have been given an extraordinary responsibility in holding the first caucuses. They're starting to lose their argument for being first.

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