Can Hatch dish-towel Brand Branstad?12/26/2013
He’s Uncle Ben. The rice. Charmin. Ivory soap. The Folgers in Iowa’s cup.
For about 20 years — with a clear-seas-ahead shot at 24 — Brand Branstad is the reliable reach on the Hawkeye State political shelf. Iowans don’t even put Gov. Terry Branstad on the shopping list. They instinctively toss him the basket, sometimes without even really knowing what they are doing. Routine is pure nuclear as a campaign weapon — particularly in a state where the old-old hold sway.
So how can a Democratic gubernatorial candidate be faster on the draw than the Quicker Picker Upper? Can you beat Bounty?
The sharp wits in the “Mad Men” writers’ room — with the advantages of boozy ambiences and 50 years of historical perspective — would be scrambling to topple the household-cleaning titan, the frequent flyer in American shopping carts.
You could just go after price to battle Bounty. But generic isn’t a brand. It’s the grocery-store equivalent of a third-party candidate. And America is a Coke-Pepsi world.
Maybe, just maybe, what you do, with Bounty, is change the question, shift the thinking of the shoppers in the aisle. Perhaps, you don’t really need paper towels. Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy a dozen cloth dish towels and cycle them through your household’s week, and never even buy Bounty? And then, maybe, you’re the guy selling those cloth towels.
This is Democratic candidate’s Jack Hatch’s strategy as he prepares for a general election against the most formidable politician in Iowa’s history.
The state senator from Des Moines is seeking to extract as much personality and celebrity from the governor’s race and turn it into a battle of “white papers” centered on middle-class issues like increasing the per-child state tax credit from $40 to $500 and exempting the first $1,000 of a secondary earner’s wages from the tax man to boost the livelihood of the two-income Iowa family (which we have more of per-capita than any other state).
“I have to provide an alternative,” Hatch said in an interview Saturday. “Providing an alternative, I think, it can’t be on personality alone. I think it’s gotta be on policy.”
Hatch admits he’s staring straight at Everest in the Republican Branstad. A full batting order of Iowa Democrats in the last quarter to half century (plus Republican Fred Grandy) fell under the weight of the Branstad machine before they could so much as stretch for a day dream of Terrace Hill living.
“He’s been governor for 20 years,” Hatch said. “What more of an institution incumbent do you want? People don’t like incumbents.”
Yes, that’s what Americans say — before voting for incumbents. It’s like saying you wish Christmas weren’t so commercialized — that the day would be more reflective with time and energy and resources spent on family and charity — only to inevitably succumb to the prevailing culture and binge-buy enough to wide-load the skirting of the living room tree with gifts for one and all.
Hatch is no fool. He gets this. He’s an admitted underdog.
But his instincts are right. Position yourself as but a mere vehicle for ideas — and argue that it’s positively Prince Charles British of Branstad to seek a sixth term. Is one man so essential to our state?
Then take another angle. Run with the narrative that Branstad has no intention of serving out his sixth term, that the governor plans to get re-elected, retire after two years, and hand-deliver the governor’s office to his job shadower, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
It’s common practice for politicians to ignore media questions, pretend they’re hearing a different query, the one they want, and tailor their “answers” to advance carefully crafted, calculated messages.
Hatch can take this a step further. Don’t want to run against Branstad? Ghost him. Make Reynolds your opponent — to the extent possible.
A good way to “white paper” the race with ideas — and draw Reynolds and her many deficiencies out into the scalding political sun — is with the selection of a game-changing running mate.
Hatch should go with Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy, an extraordinarily intelligent and vigorous community leader who has shepherded his entrepreneurial-minded southeastern Iowa city into what many observers call “Silicorn Valley.”
The City of Fairfield is a hive of business innovation and cultural activity boasting one of the highest-educated populations in Iowa, behind only Iowa City and Ames. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census.
Smithsonian Magazine says it’s the seventh-ranked small city in the United States to visit this year. (Gettysburg, Pa., is ranked No. 1.)
“The economy started perking in the 1980s with e-commerce and dot-coms, earning Fairfield the name ‘Silicorn Valley,’ then launched start-ups devoted to everything from genetic crop-testing to investment counseling,” Smithsonian reports.
Since 1989 the Fairfield Entrepreneurs Association has played a role in developing more than 4,000 jobs and bringing $280 million in investment capital to the city.
Malloy, who just won re-election as mayor with 85 percent of the vote and is reportedly considering an Iowa Senate bid in his southeast Iowa district, would be a formidable candidate for governor himself.
It’s unlikely Malloy makes that move, though.
So Hatch, an urban policy wonk with a street fighter’s political instincts, should recruit Malloy, a first-rate Iowa innovator and proven rural leader who is deadly with a PowerPoint, as his lieutenant governor candidate.
Then — as an Urban-Rural Iowa Ideas Team — try the seemingly impossible: re-brand the race into one that isn’t about brands in the traditional sense of who’s popular or familiar. Sell Iowans on a diet without Branstad, the ultimate political comfort food.
The easy-chair choice, the one of reflex and tradition and contentedness, is always Bounty.
Now that takes work.
“I think people want to vote on how this government, and this governor, is going to help them,” Hatch said. “It’s all individual. I think popularity makes people feel comfortable. But you know what, people don’t feel comfortable. They don’t feel comfortable with Washington. They don’t feel comfortable with this Legislature or this governor.” CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.