If you want to know what’s on the minds of Iowa conservatives — and if you want a hearty breakfast — the Westside Conservative Club is the group for you.
Twice a month, dozens of central Iowans who fall on the right side of the political spectrum gather at the Machine Shed, an Urbandale restaurant steeped in agricultural tradition, to hear from elected officials, party leaders and presidential hopefuls.
On the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, businessmen and women, farmers, civically engaged parents, and the occasional young political operative gather around large wooden tables and slide into long booths. They order scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, and pancakes from waitresses in overalls and red-and-white checkered shirts.
The dimly lit room, which can hold more than 100 people and often does for the club’s biggest speakers, is decorated with classic farming equipment such as shovels, hoes and washboards.
Hanging next to the tools are vintage advertisements.
“Use Madison’s Best,” one advertisement reads. It prominently features a cow and corn silo.
“D.W. Hall’s Balsam / For the Lungs / Cures Consumption,” reads another.
As the crowd fuels up on hotcakes, they trade hot takes. They shake hands with state lawmakers. And then they get, in the words of one of the club’s leaders, an unsifted message from the politicians who want their support.
“The message doesn’t go through the filter of the press,” said Ernie Rudolph, one of the club’s leaders.
The club began shortly after President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. A small group including Paul Zietlow, Chris Hagenow and David Van Ahn met for breakfast to lament the Republican Party’s loss. They asked each other, how could Obama — a fine man, but a liberal Democrat — not just win the White House, but win Iowa? Sure the state had a long history of electing presidents from both parties, but Obama, to the burgeoning breakfast club, was too outside the mainstream.
“We knew his politics would be tough for business,” Zietlow said.
They didn’t reach any conclusions that morning. But they agreed to meet again in two weeks. More people showed up to the second breakfast. They all agreed to return in two more weeks and bring even more people.
“It just began to grow,” Zietlow said, recalling the early days of the club.
Since then, the club has served as a hub for the political right. And today, the club is run by Rudolph, Kim Schmett and Brad Boustead.
When the club does meet, the three men work the room, welcoming old and new faces.
“The regulars have their tables,” Schmett said, adding that he likes to encourage people to sit with strangers to forge new connections.
Unlike the major political parties or other political nonprofits, the club has no fixed platform. And it does not endorse candidates. That allows the club to be a place where any curious or concerned citizen can take part in the conversation and maximize its only goal: to strengthen the conservative movement.
The club’s leaders say they’re not worried about reinforcing an echo chamber, a byproduct of social media and cable news channels. They’ve invited speakers from outside the conservative bubble, including members of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. More recently they’ve hosted nonpartisan city and county officials.
The club is perhaps best known for hosting nearly every Republican presidential nominee who has run since 2008.
“When someone comes to town, they call us,” Rudolph said.
The only GOP candidate not to stump at the Westside Conservative Club breakfast is former President Donald Trump. The club wanted to host him. But he would have brought too big a crowd for the restaurant. Club leaders briefly considered seeking a larger meeting space but decided to stay at the Machine Shed.
Do they want Trump to run again in 2024?
“We’ll have good candidates,” Rudolph said. “And they’ll all be here.”
Nic Garcia is the Des Moines Register’s politics editor. His favorite meal is breakfast — especially if it includes a side of politics. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @nicgarcia.
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