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Cover Story

The undefeated governor


In 1982, at the age of 36, Terry Branstad became the youngest governor in the history of Iowa. Now, 32 years later, he stands to become the longest-serving governor in the history of the United States.

The Iowa Democratic Party establishment has long been perplexed with Branstad — at first salivating to run against him, then infuriated that he could be re-elected, and then mystified at how he could continue to stay in office for so many years.

The activists who control the party have consistently underestimated Branstad’s political acumen and fail to understand his appeal with Iowa voters throughout the past four decades. They have enabled Branstad’s success by nominating the wrong candidates to run against him, promoting campaign issues which are not popular with Iowans and attacking the Governor with critiques which have never resonated with voters.


The perfect record

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Terry Branstad has never lost an election for public office. He has a perfect electoral record of 18-0, and it is difficult to find many people who don’t believe he will run that figure to 20-0 after being re-nominated in June and re-elected in November. He has proven to be a master politician, winning and holding office with few equals. Even Bill Clinton lost two elections in Arkansas, and Ronald Reagan failed in his first two attempts at the White House.

At his political core, Branstad believes in hard work and self-reliance. In the public sector, that translates to less government. When it comes to nominating gubernatorial candidates, the Democratic Party has been controlled by liberals who press for expansive government with increased taxes, borrowing and spending. But Iowans fundamentally do not support that approach — something Branstad understands.

Coupled with these fundamental beliefs, Branstad has been successful because he runs extremely effective campaigns. He focuses on the ultimate goal of winning and devises an effective campaign strategy that plays to his strengths and hammers away at his opponent’s weaknesses. He has a deft political instinct and an ability to conveniently summarize the essence of a political contest into a bumper sticker slogan — and one which always seems to prove fatally effective.

When it comes to governing, Branstad believes less government is better while at the same time focusing on and promoting the strengths of Iowa — agriculture, business and the state’s education system. As Governor he has managed the bureaucracy like he learned to run his farm: Work hard, don’t waste money and produce a quality product that will return a profit. Anything else is non-essential. Democrats have a long list of complaints about Branstad from his five terms, but most boil down to the non-essentials of government. At the end of the day, most Iowans have not been moved by the criticism.

While Branstad has been successful in urban areas, he exemplifies rural Iowa and is unrelenting in his support of Iowa agriculture — helping earn him support from a majority of Iowans. When the “lean finely-textured beef” controversy arose (he refused to call it “pink slime”), he led a nationwide effort to attack the misrepresentation and reassure Americans the meat was both safe and healthy. When animal rights groups posted videos purporting the mistreatment of farm animals in livestock facilities, he pressed for a law to criminalize undercover photography and videotaping of livestock facilities. He constantly promotes Iowa agriculture in Washington, D.C., and around the world and has been an effective spokesperson in support of ethanol production, bio-fuels and wind energy.

He rejected political support from Ronald Reagan when the President was lax on supporting solutions to the farm crisis in the 1980s, and he criticized the last two GOP presidential nominees on agriculture issues, chastising John McCain for his opposition to ethanol production and giving Mitt Romney an earful about opposing wind energy tax credit.


A hard-working farm boy from Winnebago County

Branstad was raised on a family farm near Leland where he developed his work ethic. While his parents were Democrats, the young Branstad converted to the GOP after reading Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative.” He graduated from the University of Iowa and then Drake Law School and did a stint in the U.S. Army as a military police officer. While on duty, Branstad once arrested actress Jane Fonda at an anti-war protest at Arlington National Cemetery. After his service was complete, he returned home to farm, marry, raise a family and begin what would become an unlikely political career.

In 1972, at age 25, he won his first race for the state legislature in a heavily conservative district. He served three terms before winning the office of Lt. Governor and then captured the governor’s office for an unprecedented four terms. After choosing to leave elective office, he became president of Des Moines University before returning to Terrace Hill following the 2010 election.

Not unlike many successful politicians, Branstad benefited from fortuitous timing. When the popular Governor Robert Ray decided to step down in 1982, Branstad was finishing his first term as Lt. Governor and was in an ideal position to win the GOP nomination, having already established a statewide organization and a reputation as a solid and authentic conservative. Remarkably, he was able to avoid a primary challenge.

Roxanne Conlin

Roxanne Conlin

The Democratic primary featured three candidates: party insider Ed Campbell, 1978 gubernatorial nominee Jerry Fitzgerald and former U.S. Attorney Roxanne Conlin. Fitzgerald had a better chance of defeating Branstad, but liberals thought they were about to elect the first woman governor of Iowa, even though voters had just rejected ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment two years earlier.

Conlin called for raising the income tax on higher-income Iowans and pressed for a $300 million bond issue for government spending, an ideological pattern the Democrats would continue to repeat through the years.

When it became public that Conlin and her husband had legally not paid any state income tax in 1981, the Branstad campaign pounced on the issue. The bumper sticker “Taxanne” was born, and the race was effectively over.

It turned out that 1982 was a strong year for Democrats, as they captured control of both houses of the general assembly and the offices of Lt. Governor, State Treasurer and Attorney General. The Conlin campaign, which had blossomed in the liberal Democratic primary, was a general election disaster, and Democrats had lost their chance to stop Branstad before he started.

Lowell Junkins

Lowell Junkins

Branstad’s first re-election effort in 1986 offered Democrats their next best chance of defeating the young governor. The farm crisis had wreaked havoc on the economy in nearly every corner of the state, and Iowans were unhappy with nearly every elected official.

Democrats once again had a three-person primary featuring legislator and golf-store owner George Kinley, Lt. Gov. Bob Anderson and state senate Majority Leader Lowell Junkins. Anderson likely would have run well against Branstad, particularly after having already won a statewide race, but the Democrats chose Junkins, who represented the party insiders and espoused their same failed message.

The centerpiece of the Junkins campaign was a plan to kick-start Iowa’s economy by borrowing $400 million to spend on government programs. Branstad quickly labeled the idea “Junkins’ Junk Bond Plan,” which effectively defined the race in yet another made-to-order bumper sticker, and the Governor was re-elected.

Don Avenson

Don Avenson

In 1990, Democrats had another three-person primary chasing after Branstad — farm activist John Chrystal, four-term Attorney General Tom Miller and Iowa House Speaker Don Avenson. Miller would clearly have fared far better in the general election, but party liberals attacked him for his then pro-life stance, and Avenson prevailed in the primary only to become a sacrificial lamb for Branstad.

The Governor enjoyed his largest margin of victory, winning blue collar, union household and Catholic voters. In what was a dagger to the heart of the Avenson campaign, Branstad received the endorsement of the Democratic-leaning Iowa State Education Association. At one point, Avenson attempted to make the race a referendum on abortion rights, saying the issue was his “three-point shot” that would carry him on Election Day. But his shot didn’t hit the rim, and Branstad didn’t even need a bumper sticker to rack up a 61-39 cake-walk victory.

Fred Grandy

Fred Grandy

Branstad sought a record fourth term in 1994 but faced a fierce primary challenge from four-term Congressman Fred Grandy, who called Branstad the “MasterCard Governor,” alleging he was cooking the budget books, had been in office too long and had failed to work with Democrats in the legislature. Despite the sharp attacks and interest in a fresh face, Branstad gutted out a primary victory.

For the fall contest, Democrats again nominated a party insider, Bonnie Campbell, whose husband had lost an earlier bid for Branstad’s job. Campbell continued to promote the failed Democratic message of more government and higher taxes, while Branstad focused on crime, reduced taxes and less government. “Don’t Gamble on Campbell” was the bumper sticker, and the Governor breezed to victory, winning 94 counties, including Democratic stronghold Polk County.

After serving out his term, Branstad retired from politics. The Democrats won the governor’s office in 1998 behind Tom Vilsack, and Chet Culver won the open seat in 2006 after Vilsack chose not to seek a third term. But when the state budget surplus began to disappear and Culver became plagued by questions about his managerial competence, several key Republicans began to approach Branstad about a comeback. As rumors persisted that Branstad might enter the race, many Democrats scoffed at the idea that Branstad could return, believing Iowa voters would never go down that path again.

Bonnie Campbell

Bonnie Campbell

On his return trip to Terrace Hill, Branstad had to fight through a primary challenge from Christian activist Bob VanderPlatts and moderate legislator Rod Roberts. After handling the primary, he was ready for Culver.

Promising a return to fiscal stability and economic growth, Branstad attacked Culver for poor fiscal management, including the passage of a $750 million bonding bill. The bumper-sticker slogan was back — “Big Debt Chet” — and Branstad handily defeated Culver, 53-43. It was the first time an incumbent Iowa governor had lost re-election since 1962. Remarkably, Branstad carried 90 counties.

The 2014 race is shaping up as a contest where Branstad will face Democrat Jack Hatch, who has already proposed increasing taxes, raising the minimum wage and more regulation of hog confinements. Hatch fits the failed Democratic gubernatorial model nearly perfectly — a liberal Des Moines politician proposing increased taxes and expanded government. A longtime Des Moines developer, Hatch is only one shady-looking real estate deal away from a newly-minted Branstad campaign bumper sticker.

Chet Culver

Chet Culver

The 2014 Democratic nominee will lack the confidence of his or her own Party, as most Iowa Democrats now believe Branstad cannot be beaten. With Tyler Olson’s unhappy exit from the race and Tom Latham’s shocking retirement, Democratic money is bolting the governor’s race with the focus clearly on winning the open Senate and House seats of Tom Harkin, Bruce Braley and Latham.

Jack Hatch

Jack Hatch

Campaign finance reports are due on Jan. 20. Last January, the Governor reported raising $1.1 million and had $1.4 million cash on hand. By contrast, Hatch reported $7,935 in his legislative account. Hatch is indicating he will have respectable numbers this time, but loaning himself $200,000 was not a good sign. Look for an eye-popping number for the Branstad campaign — perhaps a record fundraising total for an Iowa campaign.

Most Democrats now believe a better chance to win the governor’s race will be in 2018, when Branstad will likely turn over the reins to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. Many Democrats believe is not ready for prime time, but they should be careful of what they wish. Reynolds may prove to be more formidable than Democrats believe and will benefit from the juggernaut organization Branstad is creating for 2014. Nothing would burn Democrats more than to have the first female governor of Iowa be a Republican.


Lessons for Democrats

During the Branstad era, Democrats have nominated six candidates for governor with only two taking office and only one winning re-election. Conlin, Junkins, Avenson and Campbell all promoted increased taxes and spending. Borrowing money through large bonding proposals was also a common Democratic theme. Iowans rejected them all.

When Culver became Governor, he focused almost immediately on an activist government, banning smoking in public places and pressing for a $750 million bonding measure. After a few years, it all came crashing down on him.

Vilsack is the sole Democrat to have won and remained in office. He is also the only one of the six who did not espouse big government, increased taxes and more spending. Vilsack focused more on the proper management of government and possessed a style that was more appealing to average Iowans, particularly rural voters.

Vilsack should be the model that Iowa Democrats look to in order to win back the governor’s office. Democrats should stop promoting tax increases, bonding indebtedness and more government. Instead, the focus should be on making the existing government more productive, which is best espoused by candidates who have management experience and who have clear appeal with statewide voters.


The opportunity for a new era for Iowa Republicans

It is clear that Iowa has politically shifted in electoral politics in a manner that has favored the Democrats, who have won six of the last seven presidential races and three of the last four gubernatorial contests. As Iowa continues to urbanize, Democrats have done well in creating a strong get-out-the-vote network, using absentee balloting and same-day voter registration to their advantage.

The Republicans have their work cut out for them, and it doesn’t help their situation that their state party is in such disarray. Republican efforts to win control of the legislature and make a run at the open federal offices are severely hurting.

But the dysfunctional state central committee could help both Branstad and the Republican Party in the long run, because it has required the Governor to forgo the state party structure and create his own independent organization. By most accounts, the Branstad campaign is becoming a highly-organized operation. One goal is to re-take control of the Party apparatus from the libertarians who hijacked it after the 2010 caucuses. But it also allows the Governor to create a far more expansive organization with a keen focus on turnout, and it may end up resembling the network Barack Obama created for the 2008 caucus.

If the burgeoning Branstad campaign apparatus is successful, it could lead to increased turnout for many statehouse races and provide an opportunity to retake the state senate and thus control of both houses of the general assembly. If Branstad can bring a Republican majority to the legislature, it will allow him to press an agenda that could help set the stage for a resurgent statewide GOP.


If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Heavyweight Democratic bankroller and realtor Bill Knapp stunned political observers recently when he said he would support Branstad’s re-election campaign. Shortly after the 2010 election, Branstad had invited Knapp to meet regarding some key issues, and a series of encounters had left Knapp a changed person. Knapp stated he would support the Governor regardless of who ran against him, saying he’d never seen anyone who cared about Iowa more than Branstad.

Linda Lantor Fandel was then the editorial page editor of The Des Moines Register. When she announced she was leaving the paper for a job as the governor’s education advisor, most observers were stunned that the voice of the Register’s liberal editorial page, which had never endorsed Branstad, would jump ship to work for the conservative governor. Some thought it was unethical for her to move from the editorial page to the governor’s office, but most just thought it was unbelievable. Either way, it has become clear that some important people have been changing their assessment of Terry Branstad.

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The longest-serving governor

Terry Branstad became the longest serving governor in American Constitutional history shortly after he took his fifth oath of office in 2011, when he passed former South Dakota Governor William Janklow, who had held the record after serving 16 years and seven days in office.

Considering both Colonial and Constitutional America, former New York Gov. George Clinton has served the longest tenure as a governor. The U.S. Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, and the state of New York was admitted to the Union on July 16, 1788. Clinton served as New York Governor from 1977-1795 and again from 1801-1804. If Branstad is re-elected in 2014, about halfway through his sixth term he will surpass Clinton as the longest-serving governor when counting both Colonial and Constitutional America.

Either way, it’s a long tenure, and what most Iowa Democratic activists have never figured out is that Branstad represents the essence of Iowa — he was born and raised here, educated here and has spent a lifetime promoting the state and attempting to build it into something better. When it comes time to vote, the majority of Iowans seem to have instinctively figured that out. Some Democrats never will. CV

James Strohman has written about Iowa government and politics for 30 years. He teaches political science at Iowa State University and can be reached at

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