A national network news team sets up to cover a presidential stump speech in Iowa on Oct. 18, 2015.  State Republican insiders say there are four must-hit events that GOP presidential hopefuls should attend before the 2016 Iowa Caucus. (The Daily Iowan/Jordan Gale)
A national network news team sets up to cover a presidential stump speech in Iowa on Oct. 18, 2015. State Republican insiders say there are four must-hit events that GOP presidential hopefuls should attend before the 2016 Iowa Caucus. (The Daily Iowan/Jordan Gale)

Four must-hit GOP events before the 2016 Iowa Caucus

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A national network news team sets up to cover a presidential stump speech in Iowa on Oct. 18, 2015.  State Republican insiders say there are four must-hit events that GOP presidential hopefuls should attend before the 2016 Iowa Caucus. (The Daily Iowan/Jordan Gale)

A national network news team sets up to cover a presidential stump speech in Iowa on Oct. 18, 2015. State Republican insiders say there are four must-hit events that GOP presidential hopefuls should attend before the 2016 Iowa Caucus. (The Daily Iowan/Jordan Gale)

From a new fall festival complete with trick-or-treating to a Christian-conservative conference, there are the four must-attend events if Republicans want to win over Iowa caucus-goers, insiders tell The Daily Iowan. 

When the Republican Party of Iowa pulled the plug on the Iowa Straw Poll in June, pundits, activists, and the presidential hopefuls who had sought to use the state GOP’s largest fundraiser to capture support from the nation’s first nominating contest were left with this pressing question: What happens next?

The summertime political get-together was a 36-year-old tradition, near and dear to the hearts of party activists.

Since the cancellation, operatives, state county leadership, and presidential campaigns have shifted their focus.

For White House hopefuls, that means attending small-scale meet-and-greets, stumping at county GOP dinners and bolstering their ties with state Republicans such as Gov. Terry Branstad.

David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said the Iowa GOP calendar lacks repeat events; the Democratic Party’s calendar is chock-full with them.

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The death of the Straw Poll should signal a wake-up call for GOP contenders to put more focus on more localized gatherings, said Yepsen, who spent more than 30 years at the Des Moines Register as the paper’s chief political writer, political editor, and political columnist.

With 103 days until the expected start of the Iowa caucuses and one week before the next Republican national presidential debate, here are four critical events candidates are or should attend, party insiders told The Daily Iowan:

Growth and Opportunity Party

This Republican Party of Iowa gathering is new for the 2016 cycle, but it has secured 10 GOP aspirants: former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Pennsylvania Sen. and 2012 Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rand Paul, R-Ky., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and former Arkansas Gov. and 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee.

Organizers plan to bring together local Iowa food, drinks, games (including kid-friendly trick-or-treating), and a Saturday football tailgate section for the Oct. 31 event in Des Moines.

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Inside the Varied Industries Building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds, hopefuls will “share their vision for the future,” and guests will get the chance to learn about “scary Democratic policies,” according to event itinerary.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New York businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have also been invited to attend, but had not RSVP’d as of Tuesday evening.

The Family Leader Presidential Family Forum 

Six Republican candidates have signed on to attend a presidential family forum sponsored by the Family Leader, a deep-pocketed and widely influential Christian conservative advocacy group, next month.

Cruz, Huckabee, Jindal, Rubio, Paul, and Santorum will be in attendance at the forum, scheduled for Nov. 20 at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in downtown Des Moines.

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In the 2011 gathering — which hosted 2012 GOP presidential candidates Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Santorum, and Rick Perry in 2011 — 3,000 conservative caucus-goers and 160 media outlets came out.

Organizers expect a significantly smaller turnout this year because of new competitive factions in the Republican Party, said David Barnett, the deputy director of Ambassador Network at the Family Leader.

All 15 GOP candidates have been invited to the forum, Barnett said.

Westside Conservative Club breakfast

It is here, inside the roomy Iowa Machine Shed restaurant in heavily Republican Urbandale, where the Westside Conservative Club taps national party contenders early on in Iowa’s presidential horse race. The group of suburban Des Moines Republicans has an eye for spotting a presidential possibility even before the candidates may themselves.

Paul, the libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky, met with the group to gauge support from the group on April 6, 2014, 245 days before he launched his 2016 presidential bid.

Just 15 minutes from the Des Moines International Airport (where candidates often land), the Machine Shed offers that quintessential Iowa charm, from artery-clogging pan-fried chicken livers and steak to farm memorabilia, including a real John Deere tractor parked out front.

Trump, Fiorina, Santorum, Huckabee, Carson, Jindal, and Rubio are all current contenders that have visited the group this cycle.

The group will host seven more breakfasts before the Iowa caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 1, 2016.

Northwest Iowa GOP Rally

The same group of Republicans that helped catapult Gov. Scott Walker from Wisconsin’s chief union fighter to a household name among Iowa conservative circles earlier this year is preparing to host four presidential candidates later this month.

The Northwest Iowa Republican Rally will bring together Rubio, Santorum, Christie, and Fiorina all under the same roof at the Bultman Center at Northwestern College in Orange City on Oct. 30.

The gathering — set for 7-8:30 p.m. — is a joint venture spearheaded by the Republican Parties of O’Brien, Osceola, Sioux, Lyon, Plymouth, and Cherokee Counties.

The fundraiser will mark the second time in six months for national politicos with an eye on the White House to descend on the largely rural area of the state.

Represented by conservative stalwart Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, this corner of the state is largely Republican, according to state Secretary of State Office records.

King, Iowa GOP co-head Cody Hoefert, Iowa National Committee representatives Steve Scheffler and Tamara Scott, state GOP board members, and several local and state officials will attend.

Last year, former Texas Gov. and two-time presidential hopeful Perry served as that fundraiser’s headliner. In 2013, state GOP operatives lured in Santorum.

Branstad backing viewed as crucial

Hopefuls up and down the presidential-poll ladder would be stupid to write off the help of Iowa’s longest serving governor, Branstad, analysts say.

Come Dec. 14, Branstad will become the longest serving governor in American history, besting former New York Gov. George Clinton.

Christie, an ally and a friend of Branstad, will speak at a private fundraiser for the Republican Party of Polk County today at the home of Branstad’s son and daughter-in-law.

Addrianne Branstad, who is married to Branstad’s son Eric, is volunteering for Christie’s presidential campaign, but neither he nor his father have endorsed a candidate. Recently, Christie swept endorsements from six Iowa business moguls and Branstad loyalists.

Terry Branstad’s annual birthday bash in metro Des Moines has been a key event in pumping money into Branstad’s political coffers. Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Christie have each appeared there.

It’s no secret why rising and establishment Republicans court Branstad; the former Des Moines University president’s 2014 re-election campaign raised more than $4.1 million in January of that year, according to campaign-disclosure forms.

That haul was the largest in state history in a single reporting period.

Branstad also has deep ties to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he has persuaded such giants as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to set up shop in Iowa in the form of data centers.