Today, Iowa Republicans go out to the polls to cast a vote for who they believe should be the Republican nominee for governor. The most familiar name on the ballot is also the one person that nobody could have guessed would be on the ballot following the 2008 elections. Terry Branstad has been out of office almost 12 years, and now he is the odds on favorite to be the Republican nominee.
After leaving office, Branstad found his niche as Des Moines University’s President. The role fit him well, and the school flourished under his leadership. While he never totally unplugged from politics, Branstad wasn’t an overwhelming personality in Republican politics in the state. While he was a featured guest at a few fundraisers and got involved in a few campaigns, his presence in Iowa politics was minimal.
Branstad’s name never entered into the 2010 gubernatorial campaign discussion until May of last year. By that time, Bob Vander Plaats had already been in the race for over four months, and the field of potential candidates was about to explode to seven candidates.
The first time Branstad’s name was brought up in the 2010 gubernatorial conversation was after the Iowa First Foundation’s (IFF) poll in May. The Iowa First Foundation is lead by two close associates to Branstad – Doug Gross, and Richard Schwarm.
In the poll, they asked whether or not people would like the next governor to be someone like Governor Branstad or not. Fourteen percent of respondents said they wanted a governor a lot like Branstad, and 35% wanted someone that was somewhat like Branstad. The poll also measured Branstad’s favorability, but the results were not released to the public.
In July, TheIowaRepublican.com conducted a general election poll and included Branstad’s name in the matchups against Culver. Branstad’s name was included in the poll because of the IFF poll and because he had never said he wouldn’t run. At that time, he kept saying the he was focused on his job at Des Moines University. TheIowaRepublican.com poll showed Branstad beating Governor Culver by 16 points.
For the rest of the summer, rumors and speculation of a Branstad comeback ran rampant. In October, Branstad announced that he would be leaving Des Moines University, but his campaign really didn’t take shape until January after making a formal announcement.
Branstad didn’t return to the political arena empty handed. Hhe also brought with him a campaign strategy that has been successful ten other times. Like his previous campaigns, Branstad has made his 2010 comeback effort all about jobs and the economy.
While he is pro-life and supports traditional marriage, Branstad has been careful not to make his campaign just about those issues. While he is asked about those issues at most of his campaign stops, the focus of his campaign is on pocketbook issues and jobs.
The other thing that Branstad brought to his campaign is his 16-year record. Branstad’s record has provided his Republican opponents and the Democrats plenty of ammunition to attack him. Most of the damage done to Branstad during the primary has been done by Iowans for Responsible Government, a Democrat group, not his Republican opponents.
Branstad has been attacked on his two sales tax increases and his increase in the gas tax, among other things. Remarkably, despite the million dollars that has been spent attacking him, Branstad’s polling numbers remain unchanged since last July. He still leads Governor Culver in a general election matchup by 15 points, and he clears his closest primary opponent, Bob Vander Plaats, by whopping 28 points in a recent Des Moines Register Poll.
According to Branstad’s detractors, Terry Branstad is no different than Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. Even Iowa Democrats have tried to make that argument. The only problem is that Iowans don’t find it to be believable. What his Republican detractors don’t understand is that Branstad has already been put through the political gauntlet for his tax increases and fiscal policies. Branstad’s 1994 primary against Congressman Fred Grandy was all about that. Branstad won, and then he united Republicans that fall for and won an easy re-election.
Branstad’s Democratic opponents thought they could damage Branstad in the primary. At last count, they have sent around ten mailers attacking Branstad and have been advertising on Fox News for almost a month now. The problem is that their attacks don’t come across as believable. The ads are too cute by half. Instead of confronting Branstad with a serious ad, they show him and a cartoon version of his campaign bus.
Branstad is uniquely Iowan and his passion for the state is unmatched. While there are things in his 16-year record that are of concern, like his tax increases and state sanctioned gambling, there are also things like the largest tax cut in the state’s history, the defense of marriage act, parental notification for abortions, and legalizing home-schooling.
At the age of 37, Branstad first took office in 1983. He took office at a time when the entire economy of the state was dependent on agriculture, and Iowa was in the midst of the farm crisis. There is no doubt that Branstad left the state better off than he found it. The same cannot be said of our current governor, Chet Culver.
If Branstad’s polling numbers hold up and he is the Republican nominee, Branstad will once again need to coalesce Republicans behind him. That is likely to be a more difficult in 2010 than it was in 1994. However, the political environment could be very similar to what it was 16 years ago.
If Branstad has proven anything in his most recent campaign, it’s that his campaign philosophy still works. He has also build a well-oiled campaign team that is ready for the general election. If Branstad is the nominee, he already has the necessary people in place to go toe to toe with Governor Culver.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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