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November 10th, 2009

GOP Gubernatorial Primary Begins to Take Shape

Branstad RPISaturday’s Republican Party of Iowa fall fundraiser provided the first opportunity to see all six Republican gubernatorial candidates share the same stage and make their case to the assembled audience. While former governor Terry Branstad has been in the race for almost a month now, this was the first time he has joined the other candidates at an event.

By now, you have probably read various media accounts of the event. Branstad’s speech was good on content, but his delivery was lackluster to say the least. Branstad’s primary opponents took the stage without prepared remarks, but he was scripted, and it was obvious that he was not prepared to deliver the remarks as his campaign would have hoped.

The 800 pound gorilla that many expected Branstad to be was a no-show on Saturday night. In fact, if you were looking for a word to describe the field of GOP gubernatorial candidates on Saturday night, the word parity comes to mind. Stylistically, Bob Vander Plaats delivered the most rousing speech of the gubernatorial candidates. Chris Rants offered the most specifics and also used his time to attack Governor Culver for forcing local communities to raise property taxes. All the candidates were solid, but it was Branstad who failed to connect with the audience.

While Brastad’s delivery was lackluster, this one speech does not signal the end of his legendary political career. If anything, it might help lower his expectations and force him to travel the state to work on his delivery.

The event signified the official beginning of the Republican gubernatorial primary. With that being the case, now is the opportune time to look at how each candidate did on Saturday night and what their strengths and weaknesses are as the gubernatorial primary enters a new stage.

Jerry Behn

State Senator Jerry Behn has been absent from the campaign trail as of late because he is working to bring in his harvest. Behn did himself some good on Saturday night. His speech was a good mix of him telling his personal story and talking about the important issues that the next governor will have to address. Out of the current field of candidates, Behn probably has the best ability to relate to everyday Iowans. His common sense conservative approach will play well with grassroots activists.

Behn doesn’t have much in terms of campaign staff, grassroots support, or fundraising ability. It is unlikely that Senator Behn will have what it takes to be a major player in the primary, and people are already speculating as to whether he will see the primary through to its completion. Behn has plenty to offer Iowa Republicans, but it will be difficult for him to build a strong following with better known and funded candidates in the race who share similar positions.

Terry Branstad

Former governor Terry Branstad struggled with his speech. The good news for Branstad and his campaign is that they can singlehandedly change the topic if they choose to do so. Media outlets from all across the state came to cover Branstad’s remarks. That shows just how fascinated the local media is with Branstad’s return to politics. All it will take to change the subject is for Branstad to criticize Governor Culver, and people will focus on that instead of poorly delivered speech. This is one of the luxuries afforded to frontrunners.

Out of all the GOP gubernatorial candidates, Branstad will enjoy some advantages that the others will never have at their disposal. Branstad has already assembled a well seasoned staff. In addition to campaign manager Jeff Boeyink and communications director Tim Albrecht, Branstad has also hired the state’s top political fundraiser in Nicole Schlinger and added an organizational director. Branstad will run a large, professional campaign, which will pay benefits in the primary.

While Bob Vander Plaats and other candidates will enjoy the support of the party faithful, people also need to remember this is a primary, not a caucus. Turn out for caucuses is typically low. A record 118,000 people voted in the last presidential caucus, but 200,000 people turned out to vote in the 2002 three-way gubernatorial primary. The larger the primary turnout, the better off Branstad will be.

Yes, Branstad has work to do, but he has the resources to run radio and TV ads, send direct mail, and the cash necessary to hire staff to run a statewide campaign. Those are all things that his competitors will have difficulty doing.

Christian Fong

Christian Fong is the new face on the GOP scene. Fong’s demeanor is refreshing, and there is no doubt that he is very intelligent. Fong’s speech on Saturday night focused less on what is taking place right now, but what Iowa should look like in 2020. Fong’s main proposal is to eliminate personal income taxes.

Early on, Fong seemed to be the candidate most likely to break out. He raised $100,000 in the first month of his campaign. He hired long-time GOP operative Marlys Popma to manage his campaign. Things were looking good for Fong until Terry Branstad emerged as a potential candidate. Branstad’s emergence as a candidate has dried up the fundraising for his most gubernatorial opponents. Fong and Rants are the two candidates who are affected the most.

Still, Fong likely has a future in Republican politics. He’s graceful and respectful on the campaign trail. Many people already think that he’s angling for the Lt. Governor spot. Whether he gets that position or not, if Fong continues to be the respectful, fresh-face, he will be well positioned for future political endeavors.

Chris Rants

Rants was the only candidate who took a direct shot at Governor Culver in his remarks. While each of the candidates referred to the bad situation the state finds itself in as a result of the Culver administration, Chet Culver’s name was not mentioned much on Saturday night. Rants’ speech was good. It was full of specific policy ideas, but he didn’t connect to people in the audience like he did at the Iowa Family Policy Center speech.

Rants finds himself in an interesting position. Out of all the candidates in the race, none have raised as much money as Rants has in the last four years. Yet, the emergence of Branstad has dried up a number of fundraising sources for his campaign. Still, Rants is the most aggressive candidate in the race and is a self-described policy wonk. The combination of those two attributes would be potent if he can find the ability to raise his name ID across the state.

With little or no staff, Rants faces an up-hill battle in his campaign. While the race has two clear front runners, there is probably space for a third candidate to become a factor. If he can find a way to emerge as the clear alternative to Branstad and Vander Plaats, he could play a critical role in the race.

Rod Roberts

Roberts just looks like a governor. His calm, smooth speaking ability doesn’t hurt him either. Robert’s spent most of his time telling people who he is instead of what he wants to do as governor. That probably is a wise decision since he lacks the name ID of Branstad or Vander Plaats. Roberts has been able to parlay his likeability and speaking skills on the campaign trail to supporters. Just last week, he won the Allamakee GOP straw poll. While people always like a fighter, people tend to vote for people they like, and it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Rod Roberts.

Bob Vander Plaats

Vander Plaats’ speech was well received and came following Terry Branstad’s lackluster speech. Vander Plaats didn’t necessarily do anything out of the ordinary to be named the winner of Saturday night’s festivities, but the contrast between his speech and Branstad’s speech was stark. I was reminded of the 2007 Reagan Dinner that featured Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and a few other presidential hopefuls. Huckabee spoke right before Thompson took the stage. Huckabee wowed those in attendance. Thompson had great content but lacked the delivery.

Vander Plaats is hands-down the best speaker in the race. This isn’t an attribute that he just mastered; he’s been doing this since 2002. Vander Plaats’ campaign enjoys the support of many grassroots activists from all across the state. His campaign staff consists of Eric Woolson (communications), Wes Enos (political director), Tim Dusenberry (fundraising), and Greg Baker (organization).

There is no doubt that Vander Plaats’s campaign has plenty to work with, but it remains to be seen if Vander Plaats’ campaign will operate like that of a top contender in terms of organization. Vander Plaats has also proved himself to be an adequate fundraiser, but to be able to challenge Branstad next spring, he will need to have a significant about money on hand on the first of the year. That is something Vander Plaats has struggled to do in the past, but something he must do if he wants to win the primary.

How the candidates currently stack up.

2.Vander Plaats
3.Rants (Tie)
3.Fong (Tie)
3.Roberts (Tie)

Another Winner:

Matt Strawn and the Republican Party of Iowa

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as much media at an off year RPI event. CSPAN and FOX News were obviously there to cover Governor Pawlenty’s speech. The Iowa TV stations from all across the state were probably in attendance because it was the first time the gubernatorial candidates shared the same stage. RPI also reached out to bloggers and had a place where they could set up shop and cover the event.

The main purpose for these events is to raise money, but they also help the Republican Party of Iowa market itself and communicate to Iowans all across the state. The set up of the event was a little different. Once again, there was no sit-down dinner. Instead people could grab a hot dog or hamburger. There was theater style seating for 400-500 people in front of the press riser, with a standing reception space located behind. No word on how successful the event was in generating funds for RPI, but the media coverage was astronomical.

Photo by Dave Davidson

About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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