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Vilsack’s political future

11/28/2012

Seconds after Christie Vilsack’s seventh and final congressional debate this fall, her husband turned left from his front-row seat in Mason City and said to the writer Chuck Offenburger that the former Iowa first lady now officially had more stage experience than Tom Vilsack, a former two-term governor.               

Yes, Mrs. Vilsack lost the 4th District race to U.S. Rep. Steve King, a conservative firebrand. But as I wrote in a January column, Christie Vilasck was in reality running against math itself.             

Here is that analysis: So let’s say Republicans and Democrats hold their ranks, or that Republicans voting against Steve King for his provocative comments and a budget vote that would have changed Medicare cancel out Democrats voting against Christie Vilsack because she inhabits the same party as President Barack Obama or out of sheer anger over the economy. That would give Republicans a 42,320-vote margin in King’s race, which means Vilsack would need 73 percent of independents to go her way to defeat King.               

I covered all six of the King/Vilsack debates where there were audiences, travelling to Orange City, Sioux City, Mason City, Hampton, Spencer and watching the IPTV session in my hometown of Carroll. Many narratives emerged as King and Vilsack battled to a collective draw in the debates. But at the end of the day, no story mattered more than that one penned early in the year on the overwhelming advantage King enjoyed. King produced canyon-sized margins over Vilsack, winning with a whopping 83 percent of the vote in Sioux County, 76 percent in Lyon County, 68 percent in Plymouth County and 67 percent in Ida County.                

Christie Vilsack is a like a football team that played virtually all its games on the road. Her loss, rather than diminishing, should be viewed as lifting, as positioning her well for a next move.               

Iowans should hope it’s here.                 

Back in 1994, GOP Congressman Fred Grandy lost a primary battle to Gov. Terry Branstad. After the votes were counted, The Ames Tribune editorialized that, sure, Grandy fell short. But he demonstrated great intelligence, a supreme capacity to give to his state. The Tribune hoped he’d find another way to do it.                

Anyone who saw Christie Vilsack’s performance should come to the same conclusion.                

Near the end of the campaign, I spent an afternoon with Mrs. Vilsack in Jefferson, at Caleris, a tech support company that has contracts with a number of Internet companies and other firms in emerging fields. Vilsack made my job easy that day. She asked all the right questions of the Caleris leadership. Vilsack typed their answers into her keypad-enabled electronic tablet. She conveyed a deep understanding and genuine passion about rural economic development. I remember thinking at the time that if she loses (which I figured was imminent in spite of the political game theories I’d spin out to the contrary), Christie Vilsack deserves another outlet for her abilities.                

So let’s look down the road.             

I fully expect U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to seek re-election to a sixth term in 2014. Having spent the better part of two days with Harkin this past summer in Washington, D.C., I see not a hint that he won’t run. He’s healthy and enthusiastic and the leader of one of the more muscular political organizations this state has ever seen.                

So eastern Iowa congressman Bruce Braley is likely going to have to wait at least until 2016 when U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley faces his own choice about re-election.                

Braley could return to Iowa and run against Branstad for governor in 2014, but it makes more sense for Braley to continue to build seniority in the U.S. House.                

The only other Iowa Democrats with enough battle-tested standing for a race with Branstad are named Vilsack. For his part, Tom Vilsack is doing a remarkable job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Iowans need him there as long as possible.                

What’s more, Tom Vilsack ran statewide against Jim Ross Lightfoot, who made some of the largest strategic blunders in Iowa political history in 1998, and Doug Gross in 2002. They were fights to be sure, but along the lines of welterweight bouts. Mrs. Vilsack, by contrast, entered an octagon and went right at a political animal with fierce natural skills in King, an ideologue with an unshakable worldview and a deadly combination of smile and snarl.                 

Mrs. Vilsack, who played to jeering crowds of King partisans at the Clay County Fair, has earned a statewide race, a contest where she’d have some home games along the way in Iowa City or parts of Polk County and eastern Iowa.                 

Of course, in Branstad she would be facing more than a man. Like Harkin, Branstad sits atop a formidable machine greater than the sum of its parts.                 

No other Democrat in Iowa is more ready for the challenge than Christie Vilsack.                 

If you doubt that, name anyone other than Braley who could beat her in a Democratic primary for Terrace Hill? CV 

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview. 

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