It is likely that sometime this month, probably after Des Moines University’s Board of Trustees meets, former Governor Terry Branstad will enter the gubernatorial race. The instant Branstad enters the race, he will be the clear frontrunner. However, the primary will be no walk in the park. While Branstad will undoubtedly have advantages like high name recognition and a campaign flush with financial resources, he also has the most baggage of any candidate in the race.
Having previously served 16 years as governor, Branstad’s record will provide ample material for his opponents to exploit. His record, however, cuts both ways. For all the bad stuff that we have already started to hear, there are an equal amount of positive things to build a campaign around. There is no doubt that Branstad will have to defend his record, but a seasoned politician like him expects that. What Branstad might not grasp is the toxicity of his protégé and former chief-of-staff, Doug Gross, and the negative impact Gross could have on the primary.
If you think that the loathing of Doug Gross by some conservatives is only coming from a small but vocal group of individuals, you are mistaken. The closing moments of the Iowa Christian Alliance’s fall dinner provided an indication of how Doug Gross is viewed by the most loyal constituency group within the Republican Party.
As the event came to a close, Pastor Mike Demastus of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ took to the stage to offer the closing prayer. Before he got to the prayer, Pastor Demastus commented on David Barton’s presentation and how his church is teaching Barton’s “America’s Godly Heritage” series. Then he looked out at the crowd, pointed his finger and said, “Doug Gross is wrong.” Pastor Demastus was commenting on how Gross wants the Republican Party to moderate on social issues. Many in the crowd cheered.
Doug Gross used to be the ultimate powerbroker in Republican politics in the state. The height of his power came in 2002 when he jumped into the gubernatorial race just five months before the primary. Gross defeated Steve Sukup and Bob Vander Plaats, and for a while, it looked as if he had then-Governor Vilsack on the ropes. Vilsack defeated Gross 53% to 45%.
Since his 2002 campaign, Gross has seen his influence fade. In 2006, Gross was making the moves for another run at governor. He had hired staff and paid for opposition research, but it was clear early on that Republican donors and many activists had rallied around Congressman Jim Nussle instead of a second Gross campaign. Gross didn’t run for governor that year, and he also wasn’t involved in helping Nussle’s campaign.
Gross isn’t even much of a donor. Besides a $1000 contribution to Senator Grassley earlier this year, Gross hasn’t contributed to a federal candidate in Iowa since 2004. On the state level, the only contribution that comes up when you search his name is a $100 contribution to Iowans for Tax Relief in 2004.
Outside of being involved in Mitt Romney’s 2008 Iowa caucus campaign, a position for which he was paid, Gross hasn’t played a critical role in any of the state’s major campaigns for quite some time. Instead, he has chosen to declare war on social conservatives within the Republican Party. Despite his own polling data which shows that a majority of self-described social conservatives think that candidates should focus on economic issues, Gross continues to blame social conservatives for the recent losses of the Republican party, thereby infuriating many of the party faithful.
While Gross has every right to advocate for the issues and positions that he feels strongly about, there are consequences for his behavior. Most noticeable will be the impact he has on Governor Branstad’s campaign, and ultimately Branstad’s legacy.
Gross’ association with Branstad will make it more difficult for Branstad to court social conservatives across the state. The Republican gubernatorial primary looks as if it’s going to be a close contest, and thus, every single vote will matter. If Branstad can’t garner the support of some social conservatives, his primary campaign will struggle. In talking to a number of social conservatives around the state, it seems that most of their hesitation about Branstad is founded on his association with Doug Gross, not his record.
Governor Branstad has a lot of expectations he will have to meet once he becomes a candidate. He will have to defend his 16 year record as governor. He will have to defend the budgeting practices that he used while governor. He will have to show that he still has the passion and drive to campaign all around the state. While none of those things are easy, they are all things that Branstad can overcome.
Branstad’s most difficult test will be what does he does with Doug Gross. Gross’ negatives outweigh the positives he can bring to Branstad’s campaign. He is the arch enemy of the state’s social conservatives. His fundraising ability has been severely diminished, and most of those donors would contribute to Branstad anyway. In fact, a good question to ponder is, what positive attributes does Gross provide to Branstad that Branstad couldn’t find elsewhere?
If Branstad does become a gubernatorial candidate, he will obviously be in it to win it. Yet, to be successful, Branstad will have to distance himself from Gross. If he doesn’t, the former Governor’s legacy will be severely tarnished, especially if he gets beat in a primary.
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