For most of this year, former Governor Terry Branstad has dominated political news stories across the state. The speculation that began this past summer about a run for a fifth term for Branstad came to fruition this fall when he retired from Des Moines University to focus on his campaign.
As a potential candidate, Branstad enjoys what one would expect from a former governor. Since June, Branstad has beaten current Governor Chet Culver in head-to-head polls conducted by TheIowaRepublican.com, the Iowa First Foundation, and The Des Moines Register. In each of those polls, Branstad doesn’t win by a narrow margin; he crushes Governor Culver by 20 points.
Much of the success that Branstad enjoyed in the early polls can be attributed to two things. First, Branstad has tremendous name recognition across the state, even after being out of the political spotlight for the last decade. Second, Iowans are frustrated with Governor Culver and have concluded that he is not up to the task of leading the state through these difficult economic times.
Yet, there is one thing that Branstad continues to struggle with – his own record.
The best example to date of how Branstad’s record as governor is hurting his campaign came late last week. The Branstad campaign issued a press release calling out Governor Culver for wanting to use $50 million from the Road Use Tax Fund to pay for the Iowa State Patrol. Branstad called it, “Road Raid.”
Branstad’s statement fit nicely with his previous statement about the Road Use Tax Fund. In an interview with Radio Iowa, Branstad told Kay Henderson, “I don’t think we need a gas tax increase, and I wouldn’t support a gas tax increase,” Branstad said. “In fact, I think what we need to do with the Department of Transportation — what we need to do with all state and local government — (is) look at how can we eliminate some of the administrative costs and some of the inefficiencies so more of the user fees, which is the gas tax (and) your vehicle registration, that that goes for what it’s supposed to go to: roads and bridges.”
The problem for Branstad is that he is guilty of the same “Road Raid” of which he is accusing Governor Culver. Chris Rants, one of Branstad’s primary opponents, claims that Branstad began the practice of using the Road Use tax Fund to pay for the Iowa State Patrol in 1985.
Rants said, “Candidate Terry Branstad is now criticizing Governor Terry Branstad’s record. The Branstad campaign is criticizing the Culver administration for considering a practice that the Branstad administration employed for more than a decade. It was a bad idea when Branstad did it, it was a bad idea when I had the showdown with Vilsack in the special session, and it’s still a bad idea now.”
Rants told TheIowaRepublican.com, “The practice didn’t come to an end until my first term in the legislature when people like myself made the tough decisions needed to get Iowa’s fiscal house in order.” From 1985-1995 Branstad diverted over $275 million from the fund to pay for the Iowa State Patrol.
The Branstad press release clearly states, “This is no savings. This is a diversion from the Road Use Tax Fund and a detour from pay-as-you-go budgeting. This is a bad budget practice that was used in the past, and as governor, I put an end to it. This is a step backward, and the governor should not play budgetary shell games with our roads and Iowa State Patrol.” While Branstad admits that he ended the practice, he forgets to mention that the practice began under his administration.
The question that this issue raises is, how well do the people running Branstad’s campaign know the former Governor’s 16 year record? Either they didn’t know that Branstad implemented the practice of using Road Use Funds to pay for the state patrol, or they did know and thought they could get away with the language in their press release. Neither option is good for the Branstad campaign.
The Branstad campaign should have expected Chris Rants to be waiting to call out Branstad for these types of mistakes. Rants has based his entire campaign on the notion that Republicans will not be able to defeat Governor Culver if they nominate a candidate who has employed the same accounting practices when he was governor. Rants was able to add credibility to his argument on Friday when he pointed out Branstad’s apparent hypocrisy.
Branstad’s 16 year record as governor will continue to be a major issue in the Republican primary and general election if he wins the nomination. With that being the case, the Branstad campaign needs to know and understand its candidate’s record better than its opponents do. That currently doesn’t seem to be the case.
This latest gaffe surrounding the Road Use Fund also begs the question, where is the input of Doug Gross, David Oman, and Dave Roederer on the Branstad campaign? All three served as Branstad’s Chief of Staff in the past, and all three are involved in his current campaign. With that amount of institutional knowledge just a phone call away, one has to wonder how a mistake like this was made.
While Branstad’s general elections polling numbers are stellar, winning the Republican primary will be no easy task. The last thing Branstad’s staff should do is take their Republican opponents for granted. Thus far, it seems as if the Branstad campaign is living off of the inevitability that they will win the nomination. That’s a strategy that invites failure. Instead, they need to use this latest episode to make their campaign better. Unlike any other campaign, Branstad has everything a candidate needs to run an outstanding campaign, but it’s obvious that his campaign is not yet running on all cylinders.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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