Many people have speculated that once former Governor Terry Branstad enters the gubernatorial race, the current field of Republican candidates will shrink substantially. Some speculate that a Branstad candidacy would clear the entire field except for Bob Vander Plaats. The chances of a two person primary between Branstad and Vander Plaats are slim. While a Branstad candidacy will winnow the field, I believe that at least three candidates will remain throughout the remainder of the primary.
Both Branstad and Vander Plaats should be considered top tier candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primary. If Branstad enters the race, he will bring with him a large, dedicated group of supporters. Vander Plaats is the only current candidate who has a large support base of his own. He also has shown the ability to raise the necessary funds to run an effective primary campaign.
While it’s only natural to want to focus on the battle between Branstad and Vander Plaats, it would be foolish to ignore or diminish the viability of the person who is able to emerge as the third candidate in this race. In fact, there very well could be some advantages to being the alternative candidate to both Branstad and Vander Plaats. If the primary turns out to be as heated as many think it will, this candidate would be in the prime position to pick up a lot of supporters who are disillusioned with both of the top candidates.
This scenario would not be new to politics. What is being describing is similar to what transpired earlier this year in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia. In that race, former state delegate Brian Moran, who was endorsed and supported by many of the state’s Democratic Party officials, was being opposed by Creigh Deeds, a state senator, early in the campaign.
In January of this year, just six months before the primary, former Hillary Clinton advisor and DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe joined the race and was deemed the frontrunner. On election night, Moran finished third, and McAuliffe finished in second place to State Senator Deeds. Deeds’ campaign spent $14.49 for every vote he received in the primary; McAuliffe spent $68.25 per vote.
With so much time spent on the perceived front runners for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, it might be wise to look at who is best positioned to be the Creigh Deeds of the GOP gubernatorial primary in Iowa. Below are my rankings from one to five for the remaining candidates. The candidate who is ranked number one is the person most likely to stay in the race and have a chance at pulling off a huge upset next June.
1. Rants: If any candidate has the intangible qualities one needs to remain relevant in a crowed primary race, it’s State Representative Christopher Rants. Rants is probably the smartest candidate in the Republican primary, and his knowledge of how state government works is a huge asset. He is also known as a policy wonk, which means we you can expect a lot of big ideas from his campaign and harsh criticism of what his opponents are proposing. We have already seen this in the primary when Rants proposed a major overhaul of the property tax system and attacked numerous proposals from his chief rival, Bob Vander Plaats.
Rants also has a lot of fundraising connections. The years that he spent raising money for House Republicans helped him expand his rolodex like no other political candidate in Iowa. There is just one problem – a lot of his best fundraising contacts are the same people who want to see former Governor Terry Branstad run. Still, Rants knows the right people and has the ability to do more with less.
While Rants may find the fundraising trail to be frustrating, Rants has developed a lot of good relationships with the members of the Iowa press corps. That means, when Rants attacks, there is a good likelihood that his press release is going to find its way into the news cycle. It also means that, when news breaks, reporters will seek comment from him. His ability to impact a news cycle is unmatched by his opponents.
If there is any candidate who can lay low, conserve campaign resources, and remain relevant, it’s Chris Rants. While he has the most positives, he also has the most negatives. Many activists already have an opinion about Rants that was formed while he was Speaker of the House and Minority Leader. There is no doubt in my mind that he has recently changed as a person and a candidate, but it’s never easy convincing people to give you a second chance.
2. Fong: The concept of running a young, intelligent, unknown candidate from eastern Iowa makes a lot of sense politically. The only question that remains is whether or not Christian Fong is the right candidate to fit that bill. To his credit, Fong has done more than any of the other candidates who are included in this list. He has hired a well-known campaign manager who has experience in running presidential caucus campaigns, the daily operation of the Republican Party of Iowa, and has worked on a gubernatorial campaign. Fong was also the first candidate to run statewide radio ads, a move that his campaign hopes raise his name ID across the state.
Fong wouldn’t be able to do those things without some success in the fundraising department. In July, Fong announced that he had raised $100,000 for his campaign. That’s an impressive amount of money for a newcomer, especially when you consider that it is almost as much as then-Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge raised for an entire year for her gubernatorial campaign in 2006.
3. Roberts: While State Representative Rod Roberts is basically an unknown legislator, he has done an admirable job in traveling the state and introducing himself to people. If you are looking for a candidate to bring the house down with a rousing speech, he’s not your guy, but if you are looking for a respectful, competent candidate he might be the candidate you are looking for. Roberts might struggle to distinguish himself from the other candidates, but his calm, mature manner makes him a safe candidate for people to support.
4. Behn: Like Rod Roberts, Sen. Jerry Behn doesn’t really have a niche. That said, he does have a solid conservative voting record and knowledge of how state government operates. Since his announcement, Behn hasn’t been in the news or attended many event. After initially committing to attend the Iowa Family Policy Center’s gubernatorial forum, Behn backed out for unknown reasons. His decision not to talk to 300 people last Saturday is puzzling. When you are one of the unknowns in the race, you need to use opportunities like the IFPC forum to introduce yourself to people. Behn’s decision not to participate makes people wonder if he is a serious candidate or not.
5. McKinley: Rounding out the list is State Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley. Since announcing his intentions to “aggressively campaign” for governor, McKinley has been absent from every political gathering in the state. He has also indicated that, if Branstad does run for governor, he will drop out and focus on his current job of leading Republicans in the State Senate.
McKinley’s indecisiveness since announcing his gubernatorial campaign hasn’t just sunk any aspirations he may have for higher office in the future, but it might also have impacted his effectiveness as the Senate Republicans’ chief fundraiser, recruiter, and strategist. With McKinley not devoting his full attention to his gubernatorial campaign and not having communicated his progress in advancing the Republican cause in his current position, one might question if he is the right person to lead Republicans in the State Senate.
Whoever is capable of becoming the alternative candidate to Terry Branstad and Bob Vander Plaats might find himself in a desirable position. Patty Judge wasn’t able to mount much of a gubernatorial campaign, but she found herself on the ticket, and her campaign manager is now the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. Judge didn’t team up with Culver until after the fundraising disclosures came out. A similar scenario could play out with Rants, Fong, or Roberts.
Another possibility is that no candidate reaches the 35% threshold required to secure the GOP nomination in the primary election. That almost happened in the Republican primary in 2002. The more candidates who are on the ballot in June of 2010, the more likely it is that the nominee will be selected at the Republican state convention. Many believe that would lead to a Vander Plaats victory, but anything can happen once the deal making begins at a convention.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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