Terry Branstad may win the GOP gubernatorial nomination, but two others won’t go down without a fight.
By Douglas Burns
Illustration by Jim Engler
Veteran Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt paused after the question, but only briefly.
Is the Iowa GOP gubernatorial primary a lock for former Gov. Terry Branstad with scenarios for his lesser-known rivals simply the yarns spun by columnists and pundits for debates with each other, fodder for political junkies without any real nourishment for the actual election?
“Yes, we’re talking to ourselves,” says Schmidt, who sees Branstad as the clear favorite.
Iowa political blogs may light up with cases for the other two candidates, Sioux City business consultant Bob Vander Plaats and State Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll. But in the end Branstad has the firepower, and his challengers have come to a political gun fight with knives, and not very sharp at ones at that, goes Schmidt’s line of reasoning.
He’s not alone in this assessment.
Former southwest Iowa Republican legislator Jeff Angelo, now a popular political blogger and party activist living in Ames, sees the GOP gubernatorial primary playing out like the opening scenes of “The Blues Brothers.”
The band is getting back together — Terry Branstad’s band of political pros, operatives and fund-raisers. And they’ll control the tunes, thank you, at the polls on June 8, says Angelo, who counts himself as a “quiet” supporter of Branstad, Iowa’s former four-term Republican governor.
“It’s the old band,” Angelo said. “Those guys know how to raise money and win elections.”
There are, of course, two other candidates still standing in the GOP field, eager and ready for the summer showdown they see as a referendum on the future of the party itself, not just their own careers. Yes, the Smart Guys of Iowa politics have spoken. But much of the base of the party is clearly more comfortable with Roberts and Vander Plaats, even if the betting odds are against them.
In Sheldon-native Vander Plaats’ home turf, ultra-Republican northwest Iowa, many activists see Branstad as too moderate.
Dave Raak, 66, a communications company owner from Hospers, south of Sheldon, said he’s undecided but will vote for Roberts or Vander Plaats. He gives the edge to Roberts on experience, and thinks Roberts’ knowledge of the Legislature and Des Moines politics positions him well to advocate the interests of northwest Iowa.
“Everybody in Des Moines thinks we have to march to their beat,” Raak said.
Raak’s wife, Arlene, said she doesn’t trust that Branstad’s stated position on abortion is truly heartfelt pro-life. But she and her Republican friends also wonder if Vander Plaats has the mettle to stand up for northwest Iowa in Des Moines.
“I don’t know if he (Vander Plaats) can take the pressure because he’s never done this,” Arlene Raak said.
In the Lyon County seat of Rock Rapids, just miles from Minnesota and South Dakota, local GOP chair Cody Hoefert, a veterinarian, said many conservatives are looking for a fresh face as Vander Plaats is now on his third run for governor, having been a candidate in 2002 and for a time in 2006 before signing on as then-Congressman Jim Nussle’s lieutenant in that losing campaign for Terrace Hill.
“Bob has been running for governor for 10 years,” said Hoefert, who is supporting Roberts.
Republicans have big voter registration advantages in northwest Iowa, making it valuable political territory.
In Lyon County, 62 percent of the active registered voters is Republican. Factor in independents, and the percentage of Democrats in the county stands at 25 percent. There are 8,489 registered voters in Lyon County.
Over in Osceola County, home of Sibley, 15 percent of the registered voters are Democrats with Republicans and independents making up the rest of the 4,464 total.
“I think that being in the backyard of Bob Vander Plaats, you’re in enemy territory, so to speak,” Raak said.
Perhaps. But then there are the numbers in Iowa’s metro areas, places where the politics moderate and the TV ads have reach.
John Deeth, a liberal blogger in Iowa City and one of the state’s great political numbers crunchers and ears on the ground, says he thinks the Branstad organization, with absentee balloting and other shoe-leather work, is far superior to the former governor’s primary opponents in Johnson County, which has 100,767 registered voters, including 16,419 Republicans and 29,837 independents.
“I get the idea that it’s Branstad around here,” Deeth said. “I think Branstad’s people are working the absentees.”
Often referred to as “The Peoples Republic of Johnson County” for its college-town liberalism and Democratic-lean, Johnson is vital for Republicans, too.
“Johnson County is one of the top 10 Republican counties in the state,” Deeth said, noting that there are more Republicans by the numbers there than in decidedly more GOP geography in the state.
This year, Deeth said, there are no contested courthouse races for Democrats in Johnson County. The only contest for the Democrats in Johnson County is the U.S. Senate race, widely believed to be a lock for Des Moines lawyer Roxanne Conlin. This means Democrats and independents will be more likely to vote in the GOP gubernatorial primary — which Deeth said is clearly to Branstad’s advantage.
The political math often works to rural Iowa’s advantage for the caucus process, giving places like Lyon or Carroll counties out-sized voices. But in a primary, the vote is a straight count.
These are the dynamics casual political observers don’t see.
“In that respect Gov. Branstad has probably lapped the field,” said David Oman, a Des Moines businessman and former top aide to Branstad and former Gov. Robert Ray. Oman is not actively involved in the campaign this year.
For his part, Branstad, is now in his sixth statewide race (he ran for lieutenant governor under Ray). Branstad is the runaway favorite to emerge from the primary and face Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.
“You have two players who are veterans at the game,” says nationally regarded and Des Moines-based pollster Ann Selzer. “One is a five-star general — Terry Branstad.”
In the GOP primary, that other “veteran” player is Vander Plaats, she added.
Selzer, president of Selzer & Company, has done polling for The Des Moines Register as well as other major newspaper across the nation, such as The Boston Globe and The Indianapolis Star.
Selzer hasn’t exactly invented a time machine. But with her spot-on predictions on the highly visible presidential campaign stage, this Des Moines pollster can make as strong a claim for clairvoyance as any earthly being today. Selzer Co. called the 2008 Iowa caucuses with uncanny precision for then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee only days before Iowans made her call official.
In a phone interview last week from Denver, Selzer wouldn’t say whether her firm was doing any primary polling in Iowa now and she won’t predict a winner. But she sees Branstad as having a clear advantage with independents, and believes a strategy aimed at getting them out for the primary will yield big-time results for the former governor.
“They tend to line up behind him is my sense,” said Selzer.
Which is a big deal in 2010.
There are 671,832 Democrats in Iowa, 572,436 Republicans and 707,785 independents or people who officially claim “no party,” according to the most recent numbers from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office on “active” voters, those who have cast ballots in at least the last two general elections.
In Iowa, crossing parties to vote or participating as an independent in Republican or Democratic primaries is easy to do. At polling places, when they are given an eligibility form, voters simply have to check the party in whose primary they wish to vote on the particular day. A committed Democrat, for example, can vote in the GOP primary using that process and then pick up a new voter registration form on the way out, fill it out and mail it back to their county auditor’s office that night to switch back to his or her home party.
“We expect to do very well among Republicans, but we also expect that there will be a number of young people who tend to be more independent that will participate,” Branstad said in a recent interview at Cronk’s Cafe Restaurant & Lounge in Denison.
Many insiders and veteran observers don’t see a path to the nomination for anyone but Branstad.
“Bob Vander Plaats has a fairly strong northwest Iowa constituency, but it isn’t enough,” Selzer said.
And Roberts is simply too unknown, said Selzer.
“Rod Roberts is just kind of a question mark,” Selzer said. “He’s neither fish nor fowl.”
Bottom line: Is this Branstad’s primary for sure?
“Short answer. Yes,” Oman said.
“Where are Bob Vander Plaats and Rod Roberts going to raise money?” said Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen. “That’s what a general election is all about.”
According to documents filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, Roberts had raised $100,000 as of late January. Branstad had raised $1.5 million, and Vander Plaats collected nearly $600,000 during the same time frame. Gov. Chet Culver who had amassed a campaign war chest of $2.6 million during the period.
Cullen, one of the state’s more progressive editorial writers, says Republicans would be “crazy” to nominate Vander Plaats or Roberts over Branstad.
“Why wouldn’t you go with a proven winner?” Cullen said. “I think Branstad can beat Culver, and I think he can beat Culver badly.”
Cullen said he holds no ill feelings about Roberts but doesn’t think he stands a chance.
“For people outside of Carroll County, he looks like Branstad-light,” Cullen said. “He looks like he’s a moderate even if he’s a conservative because he doesn’t say crazy things like Bob Vander Plaats does.”
There are scenarios in which Vander Plaats or Roberts get the 35 percent necessary for the nomination.
Vander Plaats says members of his party don’t have to compromise this year. They can nominate a bona fide, unquestioned conservative in the current political climate.
A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll released in February showed Vander Plaats, who has built a coalition largely with his fierce advocacy of social issues like traditional marriage, beating Democratic Gov. Chet Culver 43 percent to 40 percent.
Branstad held a much wider margin over Culver at 53 percent to 33 percent — but Vander Plaats’ camp is daily questioning whether Branstad is a true believer in conservative causes or a pragmatist who brought gambling to Iowa and selected a pro-choice lieutenant governor in Joy Corning.
In fact, in an interview at Pizza Ranch in Carroll, Vander Plaats drew a comparison with the Democrats’ nomination of President Barack Obama in 2008.
Vander Plaats said the Democrats line of reasoning was this: “Well, maybe we can go with really someone who’s going to move this pendulum way to the left. Let’s go Barack Obama.”
Iowa Republicans should use the same strategy now when choosing a gubernatorial candidate: go with a proven conservative because you can.
Vander Plaats says he’s that man.
What’s more, some prominent Iowa conservatives say they will not support Branstad if he’s the GOP’s nominee. Vander Plaats himself has declined to sign a pledge of support for the eventual nominee of his party.
Speaking last week in a Sibley city park and Rock Rapids community center, Roberts, a pastor and evangelical church organizer, made the case that he’s a bridge candidate, one who can bring together warring factions of the GOP, social conservatives and more libertarian-minded, economy-focused Republicans.
“The nominee who wins on June 8 has to be able to unite all Republicans,” Roberts said in Rock Rapids.
Roberts said the GOP can’t go into November with a divided party. He’s increasingly witnessing party infighting between supporters of Branstad and Vander Plaats. Many supporters of those two candidates say they won’t back the other candidate in the general election because of the ill will being built up now, Roberts said.
“I’ve been traveling and listening and it is there,” Roberts said of the friction between the Branstad and Vander Plaats camps.
Roberts is quick to point out that another factor is at play this year, an emerging Tea Party movement — a disparate collection of activists who generally believe government is growing too large and intrusive. No one really knows how the unpredictable Tea Party will impact the race.
One active Tea Party member says she’s supporting Roberts and bringing others along for him.
“We need somebody that is going to stick to their convictions,” said Lori Scroggin of Hartley, a 49-year-old bookkeeper for a local farming operation.
She’s heard Roberts speak three times and says other members of a Tea Party group in Spencer are backing him, too.
“He set himself apart because of his honesty and conviction,” Scroggin said.
Western Iowa Congressman Steve King, who knows Iowa conservatives as well as anyone, says a Roberts’ path to the nomination is predicated on how strong Vander Plaats remains in the race.
Do Iowa Republicans see the primary as a match-up with Branstad as the establishment candidate and Vander Plaats as the more conservative alternative? Or does Roberts edge Vander Plaats out of that role?
“That question could change if Bob Vander Plaats’ support diminished,” King said in response to a question I asked him at a recent event in Carroll.
King said Roberts’ strategy should be to position himself in a head-to-head with Branstad, a dynamic from which he could emerge.
Roberts has been running a shoe-leather campaign for the last year, hitting GOP events all over the state. Both he and Vander Plaats were pressing the flesh a few weeks ago at a major King fund-raiser just a hop south from Sioux City in Sergeant Bluff — one at which Branstad was noticeably absent. In Lyon County, Hoefert was upset with Branstad for not making a fund-raiser there, but Storm Lake’s Cullen says Branstad is among the more tireless campaigners he’s seen.
King, who is neutral in the governor’s race, said Roberts, the statewide development director for the Christian churches/Churches of Christ, has been doing the political grassroots organizing necessary for a fighting chance.
“I’ve been impressed with what he has put together across the state, the network, especially the faith community, that has been consistently behind him,” King said. CV
Former Gov. Terry Branstad campaigns in Denison. Having served four terms as Iowa governor, Branstad and his team know Iowa as well as any one.
Photo by Douglas Burns
Five-year-old Ethan Hoefert, a son of Lyon County Republican chairman Cody Hoefert, helps distribute Rod Roberts For Governor yard signs at an event in Rock
Photo by Douglas Burns
Bob Vander Plaats campaigns at a Pizza Ranch in Carroll. The Orange City-based chain is a frequent setting for the northwest Iowan and gubernatorial aspirant.