Ed Fallon confirmed this week that he is trying to recruit a primary challenger against Governor Chet Culver. Fallon has been sounding the alarm about Culver’s re-election prospects for some time. He now believes Culver will lose to Terry Branstad, and Iowa Democrats would have a better chance nominating someone else for governor.
I voted for Fallon in the 2006 gubernatorial primary and wrote a short book’s worth of posts at this blog on why I supported his 2008 primary challenge to Congressman Leonard Boswell.
This time, I think his efforts are misguided, and I explain why after the jump.
As a general rule, I like competitive Democratic primaries. When we are trying to win an open or Republican-held seat, I’d much rather have a large group of Democratic voters select the nominee than leave the decision up to a few party insiders. Even though my favored candidates have never won any of the gubernatorial primaries I’ve voted in, at least the campaigns were more than a coronation for whoever felt it was his or her “turn” to run for governor. (Side note: I still think John Chrystal could have denied Terry Branstad a third term in 1990.)
I also believe primary challenges against Democratic incumbents can be valuable in some circumstances. Elected officials must be accountable to the voters of their own party as well as to the general electorate. Rank and file Democrats should not keep rubber-stamping officials who don’t stand up for their values. For that reason, I strongly supported Ned Lamont’s 2006 primary challenge to Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Donna Edwards’ 2008 campaign against Al Wynn in Maryland’s fourth Congressional district.
It’s fine for conservative Democrats to represent conservative districts, but Democratic voters in solid districts should not have to settle for less than a strong advocate. For that reason, I was happy to learn last year that Ed and Lynn Fallon were trying to recruit primary challengers against some Iowa House incumbents. I wouldn’t target everyone in the “six-pack” who have stood in the way of good legislation, but three or four of them deserved to be challenged.
In fact, I decided to donate less to the Iowa Democratic Party after party chair Michael Kiernan announced on television last September,
I’m going to make something very clear here today — the Iowa Democratic Party does not support primary [challengers] and we’re going to protect our incumbents and that is our position. We’re going to protect our incumbents and if there are some that aren’t happy about that well then that’s tough but we are a family and we’re going to stick together.
If Kiernan would rather protect insiders than accomplish what the Democratic Party supposedly stands for, he can do that without my money. Moreover, Kiernan was giving wavering statehouse Democrats every reason not to be team players during the 2010 session. Why help your caucus by casting a tough vote when you know you’ll face no consequences for letting them down?
Although the Fallons were unable to recruit primary challengers in the House districts they targeted, I think it was worthwhile for them to try. Even challengers who lose can influence Democratic incumbents for the better, as we saw with Boswell’s voting record in 2008 and more recently with Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Turning to the governor’s race, I understand why many Democrats are frustrated with Culver. He didn’t do enough to mend fences after narrowly winning the 2006 primary, and to this day many people who voted for Mike Blouin or Fallon feel they have no stake in the Culver administration. Labor activists, most of whom backed Blouin, were enraged when Culver vetoed a bill on collective bargaining in 2008. The following year, Culver expressed support for prevailing wage legislation but didn’t go to the mat to get it through the legislature the way he fought to get the I-JOBS infrastructure bonding program approved.
No one expected Culver to be a progressive champion, but he could have won over more Fallon supporters by embracing real campaign finance reform or going out on a limb to tackle some of this state’s big environmental problems. When Fallon criticized Culver last spring, the governor’s office could have addressed the substantive issues Fallon raised. Instead, a Culver staffer responded by ridiculing Fallon.
More broadly, Culver has been a poor coalition builder. He and the Democrats in the state legislature have not worked together as well as they should. Compared to Tom Vilsack’s administration, Culver’s staff is slow to respond to inquiries. In some cases, Democratic activists who found Vilsack willing to hear their concerns have been unable to get a meeting with Culver or his senior staff.
Despite Culver’s faults, I don’t think his record warrants a primary challenge. Tens of thousands of Iowa families have benefited from the minimum wage increase, improved health insurance coverage for children, and expanded access to pre-school.
The Power Fund and I-JOBS infrastructure program will leave a lasting and positive mark on this state. Perhaps Culver should have called a special legislative session to deal with the 2008 floods, but I-JOBS included hundreds of millions of dollars toward flood recovery and allowed Iowa to obtain about $500 million in federal money, which will help rebuild the University of Iowa campus.
The economic recession has sent most states into fiscal crisis, and of course Republicans are quick to blame all of Iowa’s budget problems on Democrats. The truth is that Iowa is in much better fiscal shape than most states. Unlike many states, we fully utilized federal stimulus funds available for unemployed Iowans. Culver’s administration turned around stimulus funding for transportation quickly. Iowa is one of the few states with a rock-solid credit rating. I would have liked to see more leadership from Culver a year or two ago on curtailing expensive tax credits, but his draft budget for the coming year is a step forward in this respect.
Even though Culver wasn’t out in front praising the Iowa Supreme Court’s Varnum v Brien decision, he did take the right position eventually. I could live without the occasional pandering to religious conservatives, but Culver rejected political pressure in favor of a constitutional amendment on marriage.
I would have liked to see more action on climate change, but the Power Fund has supported many renewable energy projects since 2007. Culver has advocated for more passenger rail as well. When Congress was debating a climate change bill last year, Culver went to Washington to lobby for a stronger renewable electricity standard. Culver has made some excellent appointments in the environmental area too. Perhaps most important for the long term, the governor stayed out of the public disputes over building new coal-fired power plants in Waterloo and Marshalltown. Many environmentalists were disappointed that Culver didn’t publicly fight the coal plants like Governor Kathleen Sebelius did in Kansas. However, if Culver had been a cheerleader for more coal combustion the way Vilsack was in his day, I am convinced we would have two more major air polluters in this state.
In fact, looking at the totality of his record, I would argue that Culver has been a better governor than Vilsack. (Someday I’ll flesh out that argument, at the risk of starting a flamewar here.)
Sometimes an incumbent is such damaged goods that a new face would have a better chance of winning the election. That’s why many Democrats are hoping that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will run against that Governor David Paterson, and it’s the driving factor behind Fallon’s effort:
“I’m doing the Democratic Party a favor,” he said in an interview with The Iowa Independent. “Gov. Culver is going to lose, that is becoming more and more clear.” […]”I think someone with elected experience but who is a fresh face in Iowa politics,” he said. “Someone who is willing to advance a progressive, populist agenda.”
Recent polls indicate that Culver has a lot of work to do against Branstad, but I would not count him out of this campaign once Branstad’s record comes under more scrutiny. No one has campaigned against Branstad in 16 years. The Republican primary will bring out some of his weaknesses, including his poor record of fiscal management, his incoherent position on gay marriage and his tendency to be against things he used to be for.
In addition, Branstad just admitted to Todd Dorman that he has no idea how he will cut state government by 15 percent over five years, even though that’s a central promise of his campaign. Once the budget for the 2011 fiscal year is finalized, let’s see what Branstad proposes to cut from it. He won’t be able to keep his campaign promise just by eliminating the voluntary pre-school program.
The weak economy and state budget problems have brought down Culver’s approval ratings. His numbers could bounce back in the spring and summer, especially if the job market improves and state revenues are close to current projections (meaning no more across-the-board budget cuts). More Iowans will see the results from I-JOBS projects in their communities.
I don’t know whom Fallon is recruiting, but I have a hard time believing a different Democrat would do much better against Branstad. This isn’t like Connecticut, where Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is obviously a much stronger contender than retiring incumbent Senator Chris Dodd. Jason Hancock’s article at Iowa Independent mentions Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie. I respect them both and would give them serious consideration if they run for higher office someday, but I doubt they would stand a better chance against a former four-term governor than Culver would. I also agree with John Deeth that it’s too late to put together “a credible primary challenge to a sitting governor.” That would split the party and drain resources that we will need for the general election campaign.
If Fallon does talk someone into running against Culver in the primary, I hope that candidate will agree to support the winner of the primary. Iowa is one of the few states without a “sore loser” law, meaning that an unsuccessful candidate from the primary can run in the general election as an independent. Jonathan Narcisse is considering a gubernatorial bid and may run in the Democratic primary. However, Narcisse has made clear that he will run as an independent candidate this fall even if he starts the campaign as a Democrat. You can learn more about his agenda at his website, An Iowa Worth Fighting For.
Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.
UPDATE: Republican insider Doug Gross is trying to spread rumors that “prominent Democrats have explored the idea of having the governor get some kind of job in Washington so they would have a different candidate this fall in the general election.” I haven’t heard anything about that. Culver brushed off a reporter’s question about a possible primary challenge.