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Iowa Watchdog

Des Moines mayor considers possible bid against Iowa’s governor


DES MOINES — Democrats across Iowa have yet to attract solid candidates to challenge Gov. Terry Branstad, who is expected to announce a run for an unprecedented sixth term.

Des Moines, however, is proving to be an exception to that rule.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie has confirmed with Iowa Watchdog that he is considering a bid for the state’s top position, although he hasn’t formed an exploratory committee or started campaigning. If he does run, he likely will face cross-town rival state Sen. Jack Hatch in a Democratic primary.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie says he may run against Gov. Terry Branstad in 2014.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie says he may run against Gov. Terry Branstad in 2014.

Cownie has courted both Republicans and Democrats in recent weeks and appears ready to jump into the fray. Cownie has called Branstad vulnerable and Hatch unelectable, giving him a shot at taking over Terrace Hill.

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Cownie said he believes his record will attract Iowa voters. Hatch and Branstad are seen as state political insiders. Cownie sees himself as the person with executive experience capable of bringing something new to the governor’s office, he said.

Hatch, an all-but-officially-announced candidate for governor, held a news conference Wednesday at his Des Moines office where he detailed plans for a fact-finding tour that may lead to a formal announcement. His said his ability to raise money is part of that mission. Hatch estimated a successful race will cost upwards of $8 million, adding that his campaign will need to raise at least $1 million by the end of the year to be considered viable.

The winner of Democratic primary likely will face incumbent Branstad, a hard-running campaigner and a master fundraiser. He has never lost an election, and a recent Quinnipiac University Poll showed nearly half of Iowans polled approve of his job performance. Branstad is poised to easily raise $10 million for his campaign, according to officials.

Branstad, however, may not be Cownie’s or Hatch’s toughest obstacle. Instead, it could be the “Des Moines problem.”

Iowans rarely have elected a capital city candidate to a state post since former Gov. Robert Ray was elected to office in 1968. The political landscape has shifted since then. Des Moines’ credentials historically has been more detrimental than helpful, insiders say.

To win, Cownie and Hatch need to establish credibility outside the economic area once referred to as the golden circle.

“It’s difficult for a candidate from Des Moines to demonstrate an appreciation for rural Iowa’s agricultural tradition and economy” said Jeff Link, a political consultant for Democrats and a former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin staffer said.

Granted, Iowa’s population has become more urban since the Ray years. Hatch and Cownie say they hope to capitalize on a substantial Des Moines base and build a working coalition of others to gain the support of rural voters.

Neither Hatch nor Cownie will be able to claim they are serious candidates until they assemble campaign teams in places geographically and philosophically detached from Des Moines, political operatives said.

“As mayor, Frank Cownie has name ID and a record on which to base a statewide campaign,” Link said. “But, both Sen. Hatch and Mayor Cownie will have to show they can reach out beyond home base to get an edge statewide.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for, where this story first appeared.

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