WAUKEE, Iowa – The establishment struck back.
The headlines will show that Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses, but the more significant message out of Iowa was that Marco Rubio was neck-and-neck with Donald Trump for second place and within a few points of the lead: It showed that mainstream Republicans are, at long last, pushing themselves back into the 2016 presidential race.
To see how, step into the caucus at the Waukee Middle School gymnasium, where 803 Republicans gathered for a showdown between the outsiders and the establishment.
Tapped by the Trump campaign to speak was 19-year-old Emma Budd, a political neophyte. “Our country is seriously off track! Frankly, I’m mad about it, and Donald Trump is, too!” she said. “Why can’t they get our jobs and bring them back from foreign countries?” The applause was respectful.
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Speaking for Rubio, by contrast, was a U.S. senator. “This country needs to look forward,” proclaimed Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican. Putting a sunny twist on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, Gardner said Rubio would ensure that “this country’s greatest days continue to be ahead of us.”
The caucus got raucous.
Then they counted the votes: Rubio, 342. Trump, 151. Cruz had 136, and nobody else broke 50.
The caucus results in Waukee are significant, because these fast-growing suburbs west of Des Moines represent the future of the Republican Party – if the Republican Party is to have a future.
The changes in Dallas County mirror the growth of America, as rural residents migrate toward urban centers. Here, where 44 percent of adults have college degrees (versus 26 percent for all of Iowa) and household income is 40 percent higher than the state median, the relatively young residents live in vinyl-clad tract housing with artificial ponds. There is a wine bar, doggie day care and a Caribou Coffee with a gelateria.
The importance of Waukee’s results, where Rubio more than doubled Trump’s tally, goes well beyond Iowa: If Chamber of Commerce Republicans in communities across the country rally around Rubio as a consensus choice, and if they have the enthusiasm to outpoll voters in poorer, rural areas, they can beat the “outsider” candidates and their angry populism.
I came here to see if the establishment still has any fight – and I was pleasantly surprised.
The participants, shattering previous attendance records, filled up the stands in the middle-school gym, then filled folding chairs on the floor, then stood on the gym floor. Ten minutes after the caucus was supposed to have started, 150 people were still in line – many of them first-time caucusgoers – and organizers had to delay the start by half an hour.
The Trump supporters in Waukee were, predictably, angry. “I’m kind of tired of everything,” said Paul Stout, a policeman. “I just want some change. He’s something different.”
Sue Petersen, a teacher, said she supports Trump because “Obama has totally screwed up the country and we need somebody to take him down. We’re a mess. He’s nuts. I’m fed up.”
But, less predictably, the anti-Trump caucusgoers were just as angry – about Trump. Asked about Trump, Cindy Garroutte, a paralegal, uttered an obscenity. “Absolutely not!” she said. “Trump hates women.” She also said she was caucusing to be the “voice” of her African-American friends, who detest Trump. “I don’t understand why Iowa is so for Trump,” she said. “I don’t know anybody for him.” And if Republicans choose Trump as their nominee, she said, “I’d probably be forced to vote Democrat.”
Barbara Wente, who works in accounting, called Trump a “fool,” “pompous,” “abrasive” and a “difficult” person. “A lot of people are ticked off by that,” she said. “I don’t think Trump can take Hillary with women and young voters.”
While Trump and Cruz have done their all to make the establishment poisonous, Rubio dispatched 14 office holders – four sitting senators, a former senator and nine members of the House – to argue his case at caucuses Monday night. Cruz hasn’t received the endorsement of one of his Senate colleagues, and Trump hasn’t been endorsed by a single member of the House or Senate.
Iowa’s Republican electorate is atypical of the country, and Cruz, who was propelled by evangelical voters here, may have trouble duplicating this brand of success elsewhere. But pay attention to Rubio’s strong showing here in the western suburbs of Des Moines, in Dallas County.
If mainstream, suburban conservatives across the country show the same energy that they did Monday night for Rubio in Waukee, the much-maligned establishment could yet prevail.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.