To a casual observer of Tuesday’s special election for Iowa House District 37, Republican candidate Mike Bousselot is simply a former aide to two governors with agreeably generic positions in support of public safety, job growth, lower taxes, and — naturally — allowing parents to choose whether wearing masks to school during the coronavirus pandemic is best for their own children.
This impression conceals Bousselot’s central, ethically compromised role in former Governor Terry Branstad’s controversial privatization of the state’s Medicaid system. It also overlooks the fact that Bousselot’s campaign has welcomed the support of outspoken COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, and that the candidate himself has subscribed to numerous falsehoods about the pandemic and supposed fraud in the 2020 presidential election, among other subjects.
The special election was scheduled August 3 by Governor Kim Reynolds following the death of Ankeny Republican John Landon from cancer the previous month. Bousselot’s Democratic opponent is Andrea Phillips, a moderate whom the GOP has madly smeared as a cop-hating communist sympathizer and “extreme Liberal candidate” with an amoral thirst for power demonstrated by her decision to announce her campaign bid before Landon’s funeral was held — a decision plainly spurred not by malice but the proclamation of a Republican governor. (Laura Belin has written more about Bousselot’s negative ad campaign, as well as his role in Medicaid privatization, at Bleeding Heartland.)
Phillips previously lost to Landon in 2016 and 2020, and the district continues to favor Republicans, although less so now than before. Even after Landon’s death, Republicans control the Iowa House of Representatives by a 17-member margin. But the Iowa GOP, in dramatic and conspiratorial terms, has cast the special election in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny as a pivotal battle for control of the state’s suburbs as a whole.
“Help us HOLD THE LINE on September 14!” reads a pitch for donations to Bousselot’s campaign that’s been widely shared by Republican operatives and politicians, including the governor, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, and his grandfather, Charles. “Democrats are already talking a big game about re-taking the suburbs. We can’t afford to lose any ground now. Give today to help us elect Mike Bousselot, keep Ankeny red, and show Democrats that Iowans still aren’t buying their radical agenda.”
Left unsaid: “Hold the line” is a common refrain among followers of QAnon, a wide-ranging conspiracy theory about a pedophilic cabal of global elites including Democratic politicians who operated a shadow government intent on ousting Trump from the presidency. Since his loss to Joe Biden last November, the phrase has been used by QAnon proponents to reassure fellow travelers that Trump rightfully won the 2020 election and to not give up hope that he will soon return to power.
“Hold the line,” of course, is also a common phrase that long predates both the 2020 election and QAnon movement, and that’s no doubt how the party would explain away its use of such a dog whistle. But as the Informer has extensively documented, the movement and many of its views, including the thoroughly discredited notion that the election was stolen, have been embraced wholesale by GOP leaders throughout Iowa. In Polk County, where Ankeny is located, QAnon was explicitly promoted by the party’s official chapter as recently as last year.
Bousselot appears to support many of these views himself, as evidenced by a screenshot compilation of tweets he has liked that was provided to the Informer (you can view that full document here) and our own review of the candidate’s Twitter account. Among those tweets were more than a dozen that promoted falsehoods about fraud in the 2020 election.
One featured a Fox Business clip in which Jason Miller, a former Trump spokesperson and campaign adviser who allegedly drugged his pregnant mistress with an abortion pill, promoted a baseless claim about illegal “ballot harvesting” in Georgia. Another featured a quote from then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying seven days after the election, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” (the election had been called for Biden three days earlier). Another shared a link to a Washington Examiner article about Rudy Giuliani falsely claiming the Trump campaign had found sufficient evidence to overturn the result of Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. Another was a tweet from South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem that listed a series of falsehoods about illegal activity in Pennsylvania and Nevada, including dead people voting, and computer glitches switching votes from Republicans to Democrats in Michigan. Yet another was a tweet from Donald Trump Jr. about supposed glitches that quoted a tweet from Jack Posobiec on the same subject. Posobiec is a neo-Nazi collaborator and conspiracy theorist who was a leading promoter of the Pizzagate child sex-trafficking myth — a precursor to QAnon — that led to a man traveling to Washington DC and firing a rifle into a pizza parlor in 2016.
Bousselot also liked several tweets that downplayed the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. One was a tweet from Fox News personality Brit Hume, who advanced the baseless suggestion, “Do not be surprised if we learn in the days ahead that the Trump rioters were infiltrated by leftist extremists.” In February, after the Senate’s predictable, partisan vote to acquit Trump in the second impeachment proceeding against him, Bousselot liked a tweet from Donald Trump Jr. dismissing both impeachments as “show trials for free air time,” despite there being ample evidence of his guilt in both cases.
More recently, Bousselot appears to have taken a liking to COVID-19 misinformation. He’s liked a handful of tweets that misrepresented the views of Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, to accuse him of lying about the pandemic, including one from far-right Congresswoman Lauren Boebert; and a couple others about ivermectin, the anti-parasitic drug whose use as a COVID-19 treatment is unproven and not recommended by the FDA while it undergoes further clinical trials. One tweet in particular was from Joel Kahn, a “holistic cardiologist” who has amplified numerous anti-vaccine conspiracy theories related to the pandemic.
On the campaign trail, however, the candidate has been more guarded about his views. When President Biden ordered a vaccine and COVID-19 testing mandate last Thursday that would affect an estimated 100 million Americans, essentially aimed at those who are prolonging the pandemic over misinformed beliefs about the shots, Bousselot joined the predictable Republican chorus further stoking their outrage. “I support your freedoms,” he said. “I know you can decide what’s best for your families better than the federal government. Vote for me on September 14, and I will do my part to stand firm against the Biden Administration’s attack on your personal freedoms.”
Dishonesty is central to Bousselot’s pandemic politics, at a time when COVID-19 has surged in Iowa schools whose ability to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus has been undermined by the candidate’s would-be legislative allies.
During an August 31 interview with WHO Radio host Jeff Angelo, he claimed that his rival, Andrea Phillips, was “desperate to make this campaign about anything other than the fact that she was wrong” for supporting remote learning for schoolchildren during the pandemic when she ran against Landon in 2020. “Ultimately, I support local control at the most ultimate level, which is parents at their kitchen table with their kids, making choices for their family,” he said. “That’s local control. My opponent would rather have that choice made at the Statehouse or some other room by some other people than families at their homes.”
Bousselot is no political novice — he joined the administration of former Governor Terry Branstad in 2011, serving as a policy adviser before his eventual promotion to chief of staff in 2015, and more recently was director of the Iowa Department of Management under Reynolds — and surely knows this is not the definition of local control, which is about the ability of local governing bodies to make their own decisions.
In recent years, Statehouse Republicans have repeatedly voted to strip local governments of this authority. The Iowa Code explicitly states that each school board “shall operate, control, and supervise all public schools located within its district boundaries and may exercise any broad and implied power, not inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly and administrative rules adopted by state agencies pursuant thereto, related to the operation, control, and supervision of those public schools.” But in May, Reynolds signed into law a bill banning local mask mandates. The state is currently being sued in state and federal court over the legislation, with one Iowa parent arguing it violates legal precedent establishing that a school district has a duty to “take all reasonable steps to protect its students.”
Angelo, a former Republican state senator who lives in Des Moines, did nothing to push back on Bousselot’s inaccuracies. Nor have local news reporters covering the race — like KCCI’s “chief investigative reporter” James Stratton — who have also completely failed to address Bousselot’s extensive and easily uncovered ties to conspiracy theories and their proponents. This has made it simple for the Bousselot campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment from the Informer, to ignore inconvenient questions on such topics.
Just four days after his interview with Angelo — 10 days out from Tuesday’s special election — Bousselot was joined on the campaign trail by Kimberly Reicks and Emily Peterson, two now-notorious Ankeny mothers with deep connections to the QAnon movement and to leading proponents of the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. The three posed in a photo with other volunteers, including Nicole Hasso, a Black Republican candidate for the 3rd congressional district race in 2022 who lives in Johnston and recently opposed the hiring of a new diversity director in her school district.
Reicks and Peterson call themselves the “Iowa Mama Bears” and have a website on which they claim their children “were abused by the schools’ mandatory masks and mask policy.” When Reynolds signed the mask mandate ban into law, the Mama Bears stood by her side, Reicks holding a sign falsely alleging that her daughter got a staph infection on four occasions caused by a mask she was forced to wear at school. On her TikTok, Reicks has spread conspiracy theories about topics including vaccines.
The Mama Bears have traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Tampa, Florida, to speak at conspiratorial conferences about their opposition to school mask mandates. They’ve met with people like Lin Wood, the pro-Trump attorney who filed multiple frivolous election fraud lawsuits and later insisted that he wasn’t insane after suggesting that former Vice President Mike Pence should be executed for treason for his refusal to attempt to overturn Biden’s victory. “As a result of our actions,” the Mama Bears website boasts, another Trump loyalist and QAnon proponent “General Flynn awarded us as the first recipients of the Fearless Fighters for American Values award on stage in Tampa.” On January 6, they were in Washington DC at the Stop the Steal rally to protest the supposedly stolen election. (Thomas Lecaque has written more about the mothers’ activities at The Bulwark.)
Before Reynolds signed the law to ban mask mandates in May, the Ankeny school district required students and staff to wear masks. Reicks and Peterson repeatedly spoke out against the requirement at school board meetings. At one, they invited an ophthalmologist from Tulsa named James Meehan — an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist — to speak to the board virtually.
In June, Reicks sued the school district for allegedly retaliating against her for her anti-masking efforts by mistreating her daughter, isolating her from other students with a plexiglass enclosure attached to her desk. Her lawyer, former Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren, is a Bousselot supporter who has contributed $500 to his campaign, according to reports filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. “I’m sure you’re going to get that feedback trying to belittle her and make her seem like, well, like a conspiracy theorist, and that’s just not the case,” Ostergren told the Des Moines Register after the lawsuit was filed. “She’s a mom who cares about what’s happened to her kids.”
In August, the Mama Bears appeared on the Stew Peters Show hosted on the conspiratorial Red Voice Media network, where Reicks singled out school board member Lori Lovstad as “an evil person” who “will do anything to push anybody out of the way” over her support for mask requirements. In early September, they made another appearance to talk about what Peters described as “the so-called virus that nobody can prove exists.” The two mothers spoke about the hardships their children supposedly faced when they were forced to wear masks.
“I don’t know how you’re not in prison yourself,” Peters responded after listening to their story. “I would have gone to that school and done some horrific things to those people.”
Reicks and Peterson are not the only Ankeny residents with delusional beliefs who have been harassing the school board. Stacy Pierce’s yard in south Ankeny, just off the suburb’s main drag of strip malls, is covered in pro-Trump flags, including one that reads “TRUMP JFK JR. WHERE WE GO ONE WE GO ALL 2021,” a reference to a zany QAnon conspiracy theory about the former president retaking the White House this year with a man who died more than two decades ago. Another message is more succinct: “FUCK BIDEN.”
The owner of a local real estate company called Adept Management Services LLC, Pierce attended an August 17 school board meeting where he parroted a series of easily disproven claims about COVID-19 from the right-wing conspiracy mill before imploring the board to “do your homework.” Among the falsehoods were that PCR tests don’t work and that the CDC has provided unreliable information about the virus because it has been unable to study isolates of it.
Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s special election, the conspiratorial fervor gripping the suburb of Ankeny shows few signs of abating anytime soon. Already, the governor has made a campaign stop for an anti-mask candidate for the November school board election with apparent ties to the Mama Bears named Sarah Barthole. And Bousselot has enjoyed wide support from Iowa Republicans and several of the state’s powerful business lobbying groups despite his open embrace of some of his party’s most sordid elements.