It seems that a week doesn’t go that somebody in the media or one of the Republican campaigns for governor doesn’t spend time analyzing Branstad’s return to politics and what it says about Iowa Republicans. For the most part, it seems people think that Branstad’s return to politics is a result of a lack of a deep bench of talent on the GOP side of the aisle.
The Republican bench in Iowa was pretty much decimated in the 2006 elections. At the beginning of the election cycle, Jim Nussle seemed to be well positioned to be the next Governor of Iowa, the spirited primary to replace Nussle in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District was sure to produce a legitimate candidate, and Jeff Lamberti had Congressman Leonard Boswell in his crosshairs.
Despite a pretty solid slate of candidates, 2006 was a terrible year for Iowa Republicans, just like it was for Republicans all across the country. So what do the election results of 2006 have to do with Terry Branstad’s comeback in 2010, you ask? In essence, everything.
While the effort to “Draft Branstad’ was successful this fall, the political comeback that Branstad is now attempting would never had been possible had the entire bench of potential Republican gubernatorial candidates not been wiped out in 2006.
Having spent most of the past decade being involved in the fundraising efforts for numerous campaigns in Iowa, it is easy to see how Branstad was able to swoop in and instantly become the Republican frontrunner. While many believe that Branstad’s remarkably high name ID is what allows him his instant credibility, it’s actually the void that was left unfilled after Jim Nussle lost to Culver in 2006.
Running for governor is a massive undertaking. While the campaign typically lasts for the better part of two years, many candidates begin to cultivate their statewide aspirations long before they step forward as a candidate. Following the 2006 elections, nobody was mulling over a potential 2010 gubernatorial bid, not even current candidate Bob Vander Plaats. Vander Plaats didn’t rekindle his political aspirations until Mike Huckabee caught fire before the Iowa Caucuses.
In 2006, I was involved in two campaigns where the candidates had laid the ground work years before they declared their candidacies. The first example is Bill Dix. Dix, a State Representative at the time, spent years raising money all across eastern Iowa to help elect more Republican in the Iowa House. Dix’s hard work and perseverance paid off when he chose to run for Congress. He had built up a number of relationships across the 1st Congressional District by the time he really needed their financial support.
The other candidate was Congressman Jim Nussle. Many people forget that Nussle and Vander Plaats were not the only candidates in the race in 2005. The 2002 nominee, Doug Gross, had filed papers with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board and was in the process of raising money for a second campaign. It is likely that Gross would have been the nominee in 2006 had Nussle not been aggressive in locking up early financial support by January. Nussle spent most of the 2004 cycle getting to know more people across the state and having a statewide presence. Nussle even created an Iowa PAC to help state legislative candidates, which helped lay the groundwork for his gubernatorial campaign.
What I’m getting at is that good candidates for office usually begin to lay the groundwork long before they officially announce that they are exploring or running for office. That means as soon as one election is over, these candidates are already planning their next move. In the cases of Dix and Nussle, both candidates had a game plan in place before Election Day in 2004 for what they were going to do in the 2006 cycle. The problem for Iowa Republicans is that the devastating election results of 2006 put Iowa Republicans into a malaise. Instead of up and coming candidates beginning to plan for 2008 and 2010, they held back, analyzed what had happened, and ultimately did nothing. To be honest, who could blame them?
The Republican Party of Iowa struggled to recruit congressional candidates, and the primary field for the US Senate race didn’t take shape until just months before the primary. Even with a three person primary for the Republican nomination for US Senate, many people didn’t believe any of the three candidates had shot against Senator Harkin. The sole focus for Iowa Republicans in 2008 was to take back control of the Iowa House of Representatives, and while a number of races were incredibly tight, Republicans still lost seats.
None of the candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Governor began laying any groundwork for their campaigns until this year. Sure, Vander Plaats had run twice before, so he’s unique to the rest of the field, but even he wasn’t doing the work one would expect to see from a potential gubernatorial candidate.
This created the perfect environment for a well-known and respected former Governor to return to the campaign trail. While some have said that Branstad’s campaign is just a power-play in an effort to maintain control of the Republican Party in Iowa, it’s really more that Branstad and his supporters saw an opportunity and took it.
Obviously, this opportunity would have never existed had Jim Nussle defeated Chet Culver in 2006, but it also wouldn’t have happened had a candidate been laying the groundwork for a 2010 gubernatorial campaign beginning in early 2007. Branstad’s 2010 comeback really just fills the void that was left unfilled for almost three years following the 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Such a void might not exist again for decades, but you can’t blame anyone for seizing an opportunity.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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