In Iowa, a GOP stalwart becomes a casualty in party war

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Former Scott County Republican Party chairman Dave Millage at his home, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Bettendorf, Iowa. Within a day of declaring that former president Donald Trump should be impeached for his role in the deadly Capitol riot, Millage was forced to step down as chairman of the Scott County GOP. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa – The flood of calls, texts and emails came swiftly and most with the same message. Dave Millage sat by the fireplace in his living room in a quiet Bettendorf neighborhood as he read them.

He had braced for some blowback ever since he'd told a local reporter what he thought about President Donald Trump's behavior on Jan. 6. Still, one email stung.


“These were friends I had made over the years in the Republican Party,” Millage, a longtime conservative activist in eastern Iowa, said in an Associated Press interview days later. “I didn’t expect people to be mad at me. I can see being mad at my comments, or disagreeing. But it turned a little personal.”

Indeed, years of anti-abortion rights advocacy and devout party organizing didn't shield the typically understated Iowa Republican from retribution. Within a day of declaring that Trump should be impeached for his role in the deadly Capitol riot, Millage was forced to step down as chair of the Scott County GOP.

The episode was a minor skirmish in a much larger battle for the future of the GOP, now raging through Republican America. Since Trump refused to accept his loss and urged his supporters to “fight” to overturn it, Republicans have split over whether the former president should be punished or defended.

Still, in close-up, the experience of one mild-mannered, 67-year-old retired general practice lawyer illustrates the passions that make the debate as personal as it is political. And it suggests Trump’s grip on the grassroots may be slow to weaken, even as some in Washington appear ready to move on.

Millage was not intentionally seizing the spotlight when he answered the call from The Quad City Times. It was the evening of Jan. 6, and Millage had watched on TV as a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, scenes of incivility and violence he described as “disgusting.”

Millage had settled on his preferred penalty for Trump before he picked up the phone. “I think they ought to impeach” him, he said, answering a question the reporter didn't ask.

“For the president to egg them on is just atrocious conduct,” Millage told the newspaper.

Though never a Trump champion, Millage voted for him twice. He credited the president's economic policies, especially the 2017 tax cut, with the growth that marked most of Trump's term. He had heard positive reactions from farmers about Trump's renegotiated trade deals and had seen small businesses flourish in his small city on the Mississippi River.

Millage, a devout Christian though not evangelical, also was among the many Republicans particularly pleased with Trump's commitment to putting conservative judges on the courts. “He appointed three very well-qualified, highly respected jurists to the Supreme Court,” he said.

And though Millage long chafed at Trump’s unorthodox, often coarse style, including name-calling and praise of foreign dictators, “those flaws did not constitute high crimes and misdemeanors.”

It was an anti-democratic streak that Millage could not abide.

“That he would rather have state legislatures and judges appoint our president rather than the voters, and then what he did on Jan. 6 was just over the top,” Millage told The Associated Press.

Within 24 hours of the newspaper's story posting, Millage had resigned, having been called “narcissistic" by a fellow Scott County Republican, accused of not “thinking of the good of the party.”

“The worst invective I received is that I was a traitor,” he said.

It's understandable that the epithet would strike a nerve.

After moving to Iowa from Oregon for college and law school in the 1970s, marrying and raising four children, Millage put an early passion for conservative politics into practice as a state representative for a decade in the 1990s.

Millage led the fight, albeit unsuccessfully, for reinstatement of capital punishment after high-profile killings in the 1990s. During his tenure, Millage also was a leading voice for abortion restrictions, championing the 2001 measure to require physicians to inform women of possible abortion risks, legislation vetoed by the Democratic governor.

“Anybody who doubts Dave Millage’s conservative credentials are mistaken,” said Brent Siegrist, a state representative from western Iowa who was House speaker during Millage's tenure. “David is and was a very strong conservative, particularly fiscally.”

Siegrist recalled in 2000 when Millage, then chair of the appropriations committee, burst into the speaker's office to announce he would fight a statewide building project despite overwhelming bipartisan support.

“He was tightfisted and unwavering in limited government,” Siegrist said. “You really had to work with him to convince him to spend money.”

Hardly a Trump hotbed, Scott County has a mix of rural, suburban and urban residents that has given it a reputation for political diversity, despite usually tipping Democratic in statewide elections.

Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump there by 3.5 percentage points, about 3,600 votes, in November. Democrat Hillary Clinton eked it out over Trump by fewer than 1,300 votes in 2016.

Still, Scott County voters have long chosen Republican lawmakers. Davenport, Bettendorf's larger neighbor in the Quad Cities, was long the home of former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, who defined the moderate Republican ethos for 30 years. Millage's adopted hometown of Bettendorf especially has a tradition of electing Republican state legislators and local officials.

But there was no mistaking the consensus of opinion about Millage. “I had lost their confidence, and they demanded my resignation," he said.

The Scott County GOP’s divisions are not so different from ones playing out nationally.

The Wyoming Republican Party publicly warned GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted for impeachment: “The consensus is clear that those who are reaching out to the Party vehemently disagree with Representative Cheney’s decision and actions.”

The Allegan County GOP in Michigan voted to censure its veteran Republican Rep. Fred Upton for voting the same way.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, Rae Chornenky stepped down as GOP chair this month amid a power struggle with those in the state party claiming widespread election fraud.

Millage says he's not giving up on politics and still considers himself a Republican. He hopes that appealing to common values of low taxes and business deregulation can ease tensions with Trump loyalists angry with him and others who have turned away from the former president.

But he has doubts, as long as Trump remains on the political stage.

“I think he will continue to hover over the party. Less so, if he’s convicted and is no longer able to hold office,” Millage said. “But it won’t stop him. He loves the publicity."