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December 3rd, 2009

State of the Race: How Fong’s Departure Affects the Rest of the Field

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Written by: Craig Robinson
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Final FourWhen Christian Fong suspended his campaign for governor, the Republican primary field shrunk to a four man contest. Yes, five candidates still remain, but State Senator Jerry Behn isn’t a serious candidate like the other four are. Behn has only attended a handful of events in central Iowa and has been absent from the campaign trail for most of the fall. Still, while he may not have a legitimate shot at winning the nomination, he can influence the race by his presence and what he says when he does show up at events or forums.

As the end of the year approaches and people are preparing for the holidays, the gubernatorial candidates are in a mad dash to raise money before the end-of-the-year filing deadline. Candidates will have to report how much money they have raised in 2009 on January 19, 2010. On that Tuesday, we will have a better idea of how these candidates stack up against one another. Now that the Republican race for governor has narrowed, it is once again time to assess where the existing candidates stand as the off-year rapidly comes to an end.

The remaining field of candidates can be divided in to the “haves” and “have nots.” Christian Fong’s exit from the Republican gubernatorial race will not have much of an effect on the two frontrunners in the race – Terry Branstad and Bob Vander Plaats. Both Branstad and Vander Plaats have what it takes to see the primary through to its natural completion in terms of money, name ID, and campaign organization.

Terry Branstad: Fong’s departure was good for Branstad for a couple of reasons. First, it rekindles the notion of inevitability that Branstad will win the Republican primary. All through the summer, many people believed that, once Branstad entered the race, the field would narrow. That is what is happening now. Second, Branstad’s strength is in eastern Iowa. With Fong now out of the race, look to see if the Branstad campaign focuses on Cedar Rapids. While Fong wasn’t necessarily well known, he did have traction in Iowa’s second largest city.

Fong was forced out of the race because he couldn’t raise the necessary funds. I had a conversation with him about fundraising at the Tea Party Convention in Des Moines last month. At that time, Fong informed me that before Branstad was rumored to be entering the race he was able to raise about $25,000 a week. Once rumors of Branstad’s comeback began, it was like somebody turned off the water from the spigot. Fong then said if things didn’t change in the next six weeks, he would have to reevaluate. Now less than a month later, he is out of the race.

Fong’s experience shows just how much Branstad has been able to dry up other candidates’ fundraising sources. This phenomenon happens in two different ways. One way is that major donors (the usual suspects) want to invest in a candidate who they think can win and will not do anything to embarrass them. Another reason donors might not be giving to other candidates is that, even if they might not support Branstad, they think there is a good chance he’s going to win. These donors want to back the eventual winner and will just sit it out until the primary is over. Either way, it shows the effect Branstad has had on this race.

Bob Vander Plaats: It will be interesting to see how much money Vander Plaats is able to raise in his third gubernatorial campaign. Vander Plaats has a small but dedicated core of donors who have shown the ability to give significant contributions to his previous campaigns. With the recent Zogby and Des Moines Register polls showing him beating Governor Culver in a head-to-head matchup, it’s safe to assume that Vander Plaats is able to find success on the fundraising circuit. That said, even if Vander Plaats isn’t flush with cash, his supporters would frown on him moving aside before the primary like he did in 2006 when he joined the Nussle campaign.

Fong’s exit from the race should also benefit Vander Plaats. A voter or a donor who supported Fong is somebody who was not supporting Governor Branstad. Their support of Fong might have been because of a personal connection, but the people who have concerns about Branstad are ripe for Vander Plaats to swoop in and woo them to his campaign.

There is little doubt in my mind that Vander Plaats will post a significant amount raised in 2009, but the number to watch will be the amount of cash he has on hand in January. Vander Plaats will need a lot of financial resources to be able to run radio and television ads across the state. In 2006, Vander Plaats reported that he had raised $460,001.39 in 2005 but he also took out a $200,000.00 loan. Vander Plaats began 2006 with $431,556.28 cash on hand including the loan. In comparison, Nussle raised just under $2.5 million in and had $1.5 million on hand. Vander Plaats needs to be in a better situation against Branstad than he was against Nussle if he’s going to be able to mount a serious primary push.

Rod Roberts: Roberts turned a few heads this year when he was able to raise $50,000 at a fundraiser in his home county. Of all the remaining serious contenders, Roberts has the lowest expectations of them all. Roberts has never been a prolific fundraiser while in the Iowa House, but he does have a statewide network which he has been able to work.

Fong’s departure from the race in good for Roberts because it means there is less clutter for him to have to cut through. Roberts has proven himself to be Mr. Dependable on the campaign trail. With Fong out of the race, he becomes a more attractive option for voters who may not feel they have a natural home with Branstad or Vander Plaats.

In 2005, Patty Judge was only able to raise $125,000 for her gubernatorial run. She was a statewide elected officer, while Roberts is only known in his home area. It will be interesting to see how much Roberts can raise. I have a feeling he could be the candidate who surprises people. The total amount raised might be significantly lower than that of Branstad and Vander Plaats, but if he is able to bank most of what he raised, he could find himself in a good position as the primary enters its final phase.

Chris Rants: If any candidate is going to feel more pressure after the departure of Fong, it’s going to be Chris Rants. In the various polls, Rants and Fong often found themselves occupying the same space. In the Register poll, Rants and Fong finished within a percentage point of each other. In terms of fundraising, it’s probably a good bet that Rants experienced some early fundraising success, but his fundraising dried up with the emergence of Branstad.

The other thing that will haunt Rants is expectations. No candidate in the race has raised more money since 2000 than Rants has. He knows all the right people and has spent years building a rapport with Republican donors across the state. On January 19th, Rants needs to post a respectable number, otherwise his opponents and some in the media will just label him a bomb-thrower with no real chance of winning the nomination.

Still, if there is any candidate who can do more with less, it’s Rants. Rants is the one candidate who has made it a point to talk about ideas and solutions. Rants no longer has to compete with Fong to be the smartest guy in the room. Fong’s exit also means there is one less candidate talking about ideas, which should help him too.

Rants will continue to be a factor in the race because you know if he is going to run a radio or TV ad, it’s going to hit the intended target. He also has the advantage of being in the legislature, so as issues arise, he will have easy access to the media, and he always provides a good quote. However, for Rants to be a serious contender, he needs a good showing in January. He will need to out-perform Roberts and be in the same neighborhood as Vander Plaats if he is going to have a shot at winning the primary.

Finally, Christian Fong departed the race in a very savvy way. It’s far enough away from the filing deadline that people will not remember that he was driven out of the race by money. Instead, they will look back at his time as a candidate and remember that he was a thoughtful and respectful candidate. There is no doubt that Christian Fong has a future in the Republican Party. While he might not be a candidate, he does now become a sought-after endorsement. It will be interesting to see what he does.

Photos 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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