This past weekend, the Republican gubernatorial candidates squared off in the second of their three scheduled debates. If you are already a supporter of one of the candidates, there is a good chance that you think your candidate won the debate. If you don’t have a candidate in the race, then this debate probably didn’t help make up your mind.
There are three headlines coming out of Saturday’s debate.
All three candidates think they could save the state $100 million if they stop providing services to illegal immigrants.
Bob Vander Plaats obviously got under Branstad’s skin when he needled the former governor about his support of Ben Nelson, a Democrat senator from Nebraska.
Terry Branstad made Vander Plaats look foolish when Vander Plaats implied that the executive order that Steve King sued then-Governor Vilsack over was about voting rights for felons, not special rights for gay, lesbian, and transgendered individuals.
With Arizona’s aggressive new immigration laws garnering constant news coverage, a question about the issue was bound to be asked. All three of the candidates support tougher immigration laws, and all of them believe that the state should not provide services to illegal immigrants.
Members of the media have been critical of the candidates for using the numbers in a report that was done by the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA). The LSA estimated that the state pays $92 million a year for benefits for illegal immigrants. What the news media missed was an obvious flip-flop on the issue by Rod Roberts. In 2004, Roberts voted to give the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition if they attended one of the regent universities.
Neither Roberts’ opponents nor the debate panelist pointed out that he supported the Dream Act in 2004. With nobody pointing out his flip-flop, Roberts was allowed to dance around the issue by focusing on adults who are in the country illegally taking state benefits. Both Branstad and Vander Plaats said they would not give in-state tuition to students of illegal immigrants as did Roberts, in an apparent about-face on the issue.
After the immigration questions, the candidates were asked a series of questions about gay marriage. The first question that was asked was whether or not each candidate would support the eventual nominee if unsuccessful in the primary. Branstad said that he’s a team player and has always supported the Republican ticket. While that may be true in Iowa, his answer presented the perfect opportunity for Vander Plaats to bring up Branstad’s support of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, a pro-life Democrat, who also cast a critical vote in support of President Obama’s healthcare bill.
Vander Plaats rightfully made the most of the opportunity and it was apparent that he got under Branstad’s skin. Branstad tried to interrupt by saying that he made that endorsement while not in office, but it only made things look worse for him.
Vander Plaats scored points for his criticism of Branstad, but he failed to answer the question. Vander Plaats did say that the eventual nominee would have to work hard to earn the support of his peers and their supporters, but he isn’t exactly pure when it comes to endorsements either. Last summer, Vander Plaats was quick to endorse a state legislative candidate who, at the time, was running as an independent instead of the Republican.
It’s safe to assume that the Vander Plaats campaign and its supporters celebrated landing a solid blow on Branstad, but the person who looked the best after that exchange was man to Bob’s left, Rod Roberts. The entire theme of Roberts’ campaign is that he is the only candidate that can unite the Republican Party in the fall. The exchange between Branstad and Vander Plaats only helped him make the point.
Vander Plaats’ criticism of Branstad clearly got to the former governor, but in the blink of an eye, it was Branstad who was on the offensive. The next question also dealt with gay marriage and Branstad rebounded nicely. Branstad reminded the audience that he signed the Defense of Marriage Act and said the court is not above the law, but neither is the governor. That was a direct shot at Vander Plaats’ executive order. Branstad then mentioned Tom Vilsack’s executive order that was taken to court by then-State Senator Steve King.
Vander Plaats responded next and said that the executive order that Branstad was referring to dealt with voting rights for felons. Vander Plaats was wrong, and Branstad jumped in to make sure everyone knew it. The executive order that Branstad was speaking of was Vilsack’s order granting gays, lesbians, and transgendered people civil right. The fact that Vander Plaats didn’t know this was shocking considering his entire campaign strategy revolves around issuing an executive order. If any candidate should know the ins and outs of previous executive orders, it should be the candidate who is advocating for one.
The candidates were asked 18 questions during the 90-minute debate. The candidate who actually answered the question the most directly was Terry Branstad. He also gave the most detailed answers. Vander Plaats on the other hand only offered generalities, but excelled at delivery. There were numerous times during the debate when he said that certain groups of people like illegal aliens should be held accountable, but he never offered details on how he plans to do that.
Vander Plaats also seemed to contradict himself in a few of his answers. When asked about the smoking ban exemption for casinos, Vander Plaats said that he would get rid of the exemption, but then he argued against the entire smoking ban. Branstad said that he would have signed the ban in a heartbeat.
The final GOP debate will probably be the most spirited yet. It is likely that the Des Moines Register will let the candidates ask each other a question. If that is indeed the case, the Thursday afternoon debate might create the fireworks the gubernatorial primary has lacked to date.
Bob Vander Plaats did a good job of using the debate to needle Terry Branstad. It’s obvious that he has annoyed the former governor, but he has yet to do anything that will dramatically alter the race. If Vander Plaats had the financial resources to go after Branstad in radio and TV ads, the race would take on a whole different tone.
Photo by Vander Plaats by Dave Davidson
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