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Political Mercury

Branstad could seek two offices in ‘14


Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds recently held a series of town-hall meetings, including this one in Jefferson. Photo by Douglas Burns

Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds recently held a series of town-hall meetings, including this one in Jefferson. Photo by Douglas Burns

Let’s play a word-association game. When you hear “governor,” what’s the first word your mind summons?

Come on, Democrats, admit it, “Branstad” is likely in the category advertising professionals term “top of mind.”

The five-term governor’s name is mentally fused with the office. The Des Moines Register’s recent Iowa Poll tells us as much with 58 percent of Iowans expressing approval of Branstad’s performance. He holds a commanding lead over State Sen. Jack Hatch of Des Moines, a likely Democratic contender for governor, 55 percent to 27 percent.

There’s a lot of time between now and November 2014, as Iowa Gov. Jim Ross Lightfoot can tell you in an email from Texas. (The congressman squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead over the much-less-well known Tom Vilsack in 1998). But at this point, what are the animating issues for the Democrats in a race against Branstad?

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Sure, there has been some silliness with Medicaid expansion. Hardly a boot-the-bum motivator, though. Environmental activists and educators always seem to be outraged about something.

But for Iowa’s independent voters, what’s a Democrat’s winning message in a Terrace Hill bid? Branstad’s been there too long? See Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley.

Yes, Branstad is getting credit for much that’s out of his control, not in the governor’s portfolio. But politics is an upstream business.

The question for Branstad is how to spend this king’s ransom of political capital. All indications are he’ll seek a sixth term — and the distinction of being the longest-serving governor in the history of the United States.

But he’ll have campaign change to spare, which is why he should run for two offices in 2014: governor and U.S. Senate, with his surrogate, Lt. Kim Reynolds, on the ballot for the latter.

Reynolds has ruled out a Senate run. And Political Mercury has made the case that former western Iowa State Rep. Rod Roberts, now the director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, is the strongest Republican candidate for the office. Political Mercury stands by the opinion on Roberts — who is considering a bid for the Senate seat.

It does make all the sense in the world for Reynolds to continue her protégé role, learning from Branstad and emerging in 2018 — or dare this column suggest 2022 — as the leading contender for governor. That’s the smart-money play for her.

But the governor is in a terrifically powerful place right now, and winnable U.S. Senate seats in Iowa come along only slightly more often than small-town sesquicentennial celebrations.

The state is ready, really ready, far past Go, for a woman to ascend to higher office. Iowa joins Mississippi — two words we’d like to never see follow each other again — as the last holdouts in never having elected a woman to the governor’s mansion or Congress. It’s shameful.

Team Branstad’s case would be straightforward: “We’ll take what we’ve done in Iowa to Washington. Kim Reynolds is our ambassador. Got a problem with a woman?”

Reynolds is still in the training-wheels stage for statewide politics. She’s OK scripted, albeit a little forced.

She’d need to be heavily staffed and carefully managed during exchanges with the media, because follow-up questions are fraught with trip wires for Reynolds, whose worldview can most charitably be described as developing. She’s no movement conservative either.

But she’s charismatic and likeable and disarming and possibly even genuine. She’d do well in town-hall settings with just-folks interactions in rural Iowa, where her “boots-and-blue jeans gal” image is a winner. Also, no follow-up questions at town halls.

When Branstad sees eye-popping Iowa Poll numbers, it’s fair for him to think about legacy. Shepherding the state’s first female U.S. senator through a campaign would be a remarkable achievement — and one well within his wheelhouse.

If Branstad and his advisors aren’t taking stock of his approval ratings and favorable potential gubernatorial match-ups and reconsidering Reynolds’ career path, someone should be charged with political malpractice. 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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