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March 15th, 2010

With Three Debates Set the GOP Primary is About to Heat Up

BVP3In 85 days, Iowa Republicans will head out to the polls and select the candidate that they want to see go head-to-head with Governor Chet Culver in the general election this fall. Various public and private polls show that Governor Culver is in serious trouble, meaning that Republicans stand a great chance at winning the office.

Since last July, Terry Branstad has led Culver the polls by anywhere from 16 to 29 percent. Branstad’s chief primary opponent, Bob Vander Plaats, has also beat Culver in head-to-head polls since last fall, but by a lesser percentage. Even relatively unknown State Representative Rod Roberts polled well in a matchup between himself and Culver. Roberts trailed the incumbent Governor by only 5% in February, just outside of the poll’s margin of error.

With each new set of poll numbers that are released, Iowa Republicans are becoming more and more confident that they have a real chance to unseat Culver in November. If successful, it will be the first time an incumbent governor has not been re-elected in Iowa since 1962.

Governor Culver’s vulnerability in polls means that the candidate who gives a victory speech on primary night will likely be giving an inaugural speech next January. With just three months until the primary, the Republican gubernatorial race is now in full swing.

The biggest development thus far in the race is that there will be a series of three Republican debates this spring. The debates will be held in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines. By agreeing to the three debates, Branstad avoids any criticism that he is unwilling to debate his primary opponents, but he also opens himself up to be attacked in front of a TV audience. The gubernatorial candidates have now shared a common stage a number of times, but for the most part, Vander Plaats and Roberts have not used those opportunities to criticize Branstad directly.

All three candidates spoke at the Iowa Christian Alliance event last week, but no candidate took a shot at Branstad. Vander Plaats did criticize Branstad at the Scott County Republican convention a week ago Saturday, but beyond that, there have not been as many sparks flying around in the primary as some had expected.

As the primary campaign enters into its final stage, it’s once again time to see how the Republican gubernatorial primary has evolved over the last year. For much of 2009, Bob Vander Plaats focused on one issue – gay marriage. Vander Plaats’ entire campaign last year centered around the Iowa Supreme Court’s April 3rd decision that opened the doors for gay marriage in the state.

Vander Plaats has vowed to put a check on the Court’s power by implementing an executive order that would put a stay on gay marriage until the people of Iowa have an opportunity to vote on the matter. Vander Plaat’s stay on gay marriages might have to last through his entire first term in office, since the process of passing a constitutional amendment is a difficult one in Iowa.

Some of Vander Plaat’s most ardent supporters have taken Terry Branstad to task for his pick of Joy Corning to serve as his Lt. Governor during his last two terms in office. Corning supports homosexual rights. Yet, at the Iowa Christian Alliance event last week, Vander Plaats chose not to talk about Branstad’s past and instead focused on jobs and the economy.

Vander Plaats is already identified as the socially conservative candidate in the race, so one might understand why he made the decision to talk about other issues at the event. However, his decision to not draw a stark contrast between himself and Brastad in a room packed with social conservatives and the media seems like another missed opportunity for his campaign. The closest Vander Plaats came to criticizing Branstad was a vague reference to gambling, which got its start in Iowa while Branstad was governor.

Branstad, on the other hand, used his time behind the lectern to tell those in attendance that he shares their values and has fought for them as governor. He talked about the Defense of Marriage Act that he signed into law, legislation that allowed parents to educate their kids at home, and statistical reporting, parental notification, and banning partial birth abortions.

As a former high school basketball coach, Vander Plaats should realize that the end of the game is drawing near, and while he’s still in the game, he’s going to need to hit some three pointers to pull off an upset. Thus far, he is playing like the looming primary is just halftime.

While Vander Plaats has a dedicated group of supporters across the state, you can now start to see the differences between the Branstad and the Vander Plaats campaigns.

The Vander Plaats campaign consists of a core group of five or so paid staffers. The Branstad campaign has more field staffers than Vander Plaats has paid staff. This allows Branstad to have a presence at various Republican gatherings across the state, not just where the candidate is visiting. I noticed this in Cedar Rapids last Tuesday. The only campaign to have a representative at the Five Season’s Republican Women’s luncheon was Branstad. These little things make a difference in the outcome of a campaign.

Last fall, Branstad was criticized for not attending county GOP events like the other candidates. While it’s likely that some are still bothered by his early absence, Branstad has traveled the state and hosted his own events. By doing so, he has been able to identify more supporters for his campaign than just those who regularly attend GOP meetings and events.

If Vander Plaats wants to win the GOP primary in June he’s going to have to be more aggressive and show a willingness to attack Branstad. The three upcoming debates provide him with an opportunity to do just that, but if he wants to build his case against Branstad, he needs to start making those arguments now.

As this campaign progresses, it is becoming more and more like the Republican gubernatorial campaign of 2002. Instead of Doug Gross joining the race late, we have Branstad. Instead of Steve Sukup being the candidate who many expected to win the primary until Gross’ late entry, you have Vander Plaats. Then there is Rod Roberts, who while nobody gives him any chance of winning, he will stay clear of the negative attacks between Branstad and Vander Plaats, and find himself as the fresh-faced alternative in the race, much like Bob Vander Plaats was in 2002.

While the sparks have yet to fly, the Republican gubernatorial primary will provide plenty of fireworks before it’s all said and done. How good or bad the fireworks display will be this year is up to Vander Plaats. Thus far, Vander Plaats’ allies have been the ones attacking Branstad. That might get some people talking, but if Vander Plaats wants to be the Republican nominee, he must be willing to draw the stark distinctions between himself and Branstad.

Photo 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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