Civic Skinny

Can it get any worse for Chet Culver?


Maybe things could get worse for Chet Culver. But it’s hard to see how.

The numbers in Sunday’s Iowa Poll are devastating.

Bob Ray, Terry Branstad, Tom Vilsack — none ever had an approval rating as low as the 36 percent posted for Culver. The poll shows pretty-conservative Branstad swamping Culver in November by 20 points — if Branstad gets the Republican nomination. But it also shows ultra-conservative Bob Vander Plaats beating Culver by three points should Vander Plaats get the nomination — which Culver backers are praying for. They’ll tell you that those three points are within the 4.3-point margin of error. True, but Christopher Rants — Christopher Rants, who has no money, who is out there all alone driving around the state, who has a zero-percent chance of getting the nomination and who isn’t Mr. Lovable to friend or foe — Christopher Rants is within the margin of error in a face-to-face with Culver. And Rod Roberts, the fourth GOP contender, a guy with no traction within the party, is within five points of Culver in a face-to-face match.

What does it all mean? Anybody but Culver.

And those are just the surface numbers. Beneath the surface, it’s worse. Last week, while Danny Carroll was saying his anti-gay-marriage crowd that backs Vander Plaats would sit out the election (and thus inexplicably help Culver) if Branstad got the nomination — “we’re not interested in the lesser of two evils,” he said on Iowa Press — the state’s likely voters were telling Ann Selzer’s pollsters the opposite. If Vander Plaats gets the nomination, they said, five percent of them would sit out the election. If Branstad gets it? Five percent.

That’s not all. The poll found that blue-collar families are abandoning the Democratic governor, who more or less abandoned his labor supporters for his first three years in office. Now, a couple of labor bills are likely to pass and be signed, and that should unloose some of the money labor has been keeping under its mattress. “We’re sure as hell not going to give to Branstad,” one mid-level labor leader told Skinny last week. But will the rank-and-file follow? It’s not likely.

Here’s why: The economy still sucks, and it’s the economy — not gay marriage, not puppy mills, not government reorganization, not union-organizing details — that the voters care about. Last week, the Legislative Services Agency came out with its monthly report on net total tax receipts. January receipts were down 17.2 percent from a year before. That deepened the year-to-year decline to 8.6 percent. Things are so tough in the state that even gambling receipts — which rarely decline — fell $4.1 million, or 15.9 percent, in January. Democrats say the worst is over, that things will get better. But State Auditor David Vaudt — an honest Republican (some say that’s redundant, some say an oxymoron) — issued a report last week that said Culver’s budget proposals are so screwed up they’ll end up forcing school districts to raise property taxes by as much as $170 million. If that happens and the Republicans can successfully blame it on Culver, he’s toast.

If Vander Plaats pulls it off and gets the nomination, Culver still could well be re-elected. If Branstad gets it, as is more likely, the numbers will narrow. Culver can be charming on the trail and connect with voters, but Branstad also connects with his passionate sincerity. And a 20-point deficit is hard to overcome when the economy is bad and when nationally it looks to be a Republican year. Against Branstad, the economy would be the issue, and Culver would be playing defense.

The question is: Will Culver drag down the rest of the ticket? It’s hard to tell. One piece of evidence that Democratic voters are anti-Culver but not anti-Democrat: Sen. Tom Harkin has a job approval rating of 77 percent among Democrats in the latest poll — a full 20 points higher than Culver’s rating with his party’s voters. That’s the same number Harkin posted last September, when Culver had a 72 percent approval rating among Democrats. Harkin’s not up for re-election this year, which is too bad for Democrats lower on the ticket. But right now, except for Culver and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, all the statewide incumbents, the three Democrats and two Republicans, are probably safe, just because they’re incumbents who stay out of the news and because none has much of an opponent and because the Iowa Republican party is so deeply split it can’t agree on much of anything.

One reason the state-wide Democratic incumbents seem safe is because the Republicans don’t seem very good at picking opponents. They don’t seem to understand what they’re running for. Brenna Findley, who (as Skinny noted two weeks ago and as the Register later reported) is running for Attorney General, says, “Iowa needs an attorney general who is a strong advocate for Iowa’s economy and understands what it takes to create private sector jobs in every community and in every county. My background and experience have given me the understanding about what it takes to ensure Iowa is a family friendly state where jobs, opportunity and prosperity can thrive in every community. Small business is the engine for job growth — my office will be small business-friendly.” But the Attorney General’s office isn’t about creating jobs; it’s about nailing bad people and bad companies and defending government employees and protecting consumers and that kind of thing. Perhaps she should, instead, hope to be appointed head of the Department of Economic Development.

Matt Schultz, the young Council Bluffs councilman who wants Michael Mauro’s job, has the same misunderstanding about what the secretary of state does. “I believe it is more important now than ever before that we elect a Secretary of State who will stand up and fight for Iowa jobs and free and fair elections.” The Secretary of State has nothing to do with fighting for Iowa jobs, of course; he oversees elections and keeps a huge database on Iowa corporations and businesses.

Finally, the Question of the Week: If the state is going to let tracks get out of the greyhound-racing business, can a move to quit horse-racing be far behind?

The Answer of the Week: No. CV

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