Weekend open thread: Branstad to China?

For years, I’ve predicted Governor Terry Branstad would step down before the end of this term in order to allow his chosen successor Kim Reynolds to run for governor as an incumbent in 2018. My thinking was influenced by political reality: the lieutenant governor has neither a strong ideological or geographical base nor the stature in Iowa Republican circles to win a statewide primary from her current position.

I saw two likely windows for a Branstad resignation: soon after the 2016 general election, or immediately following the 2017 legislative session. Either time frame would give Reynolds a boost on fundraising and other incumbency advantages going into a gubernatorial primary against rivals such as Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

In recent months, I’ve become convinced Branstad would serve out his sixth term after all. At least a dozen sources have independently indicated that the governor sounds open to running for re-election again in 2018. The resounding Republican victories in this year’s Iowa House and Senate races give Branstad another reason to stick around: the chance to work with a GOP-controlled legislature for the first time since 1998.

Yet President-elect Donald Trump has hinted Branstad might be his pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. Speaking to reporters before his birthday party/fundraiser last night, Branstad said, “I’m not ruling anything out.”

I don’t see it happening.

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Bruce Rastetter not on Trump's short list for agriculture secretary?

Today the New York Times published short lists for every position in Donald Trump’s cabinet, “using information from the Trump transition team, lawmakers, lobbyists and Washington experts.” The leading names for secretary of agriculture are Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, and Chuck Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Six Iowans were among more than 60 people on the “Agricultural Advisory Committee” Trump’s campaign announced in August. Governor Terry Branstad has never expressed interest in a federal government job. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey is widely expected to run for governor in 2018, unless Branstad seeks a seventh term. Sam Clovis is under consideration for deputy chief of staff for policy. Former State Representative Annette Sweeney, who leads a public policy group called Iowa Agri-Women, doesn’t have the stature for a cabinet position. The same goes for Ron Heck, a farmer and past president of the American Soybean Association.

Then there’s Bruce Rastetter, who made a fortune building factory farms and another fortune in the ethanol industry. Often described as a “kingmaker” despite the mixed results for candidates he has favored, Rastetter may soon need a new gig for throwing his weight around politically. His term on the Iowa Board of Regents, where he is nominally president but de facto the decider for the nine-member board, expires at the end of April 2017. Even after last week’s devastation, Democrats have enough votes in the Iowa Senate to block Rastetter’s confirmation, assuming Branstad renominates him to the governing board for the three state universities.

Trump is reportedly considering quite a few corporate executives for cabinet positions, so why isn’t Rastetter on the short list? He may be a casualty of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s declining influence in Trump’s inner circle. Rastetter has long been on good terms with Christie, but the governor was replaced as leader of Trump’s transition team soon after the election. (A source told Deadspin that “Trump had just picked Christie as transition chair nominally, as everyone had assumed the New Jersey governor would never actually have to do any work.”)

What will be Rastetter’s next political move if no federal job is forthcoming, and the Iowa Senate declines to confirm him to another term on the Board of Regents? Spin your own scenarios in this thread.

P.S.-Searches on the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s website indicate that Rastetter gave less money to Iowa Republican candidates and political committees during the 2016 cycle than he had during the previous several elections. His only five-figure gifts in 2015 or 2016 were $10,000 to Kim Reynolds for Lieutenant Governor, $25,000 to Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix’s committee, and several gifts totaling $40,000 to House Speaker Linda Upmeyer’s committee. That’s a significant drop from Rastetter’s large contributions to GOP candidates and committees during the 2014 and 2012 election cycles. He hasn’t given any money to Nick Ryan’s Team Iowa PAC since 2012, when his donations to that PAC alone totaled $120,000. The Team Iowa PAC ceased to be a major player in Iowa legislative races after the 2012 election. The American Future Fund 501(c)4 group, for which Rastetter provided “seed money” in 2007, spent less to influence federal elections in 2014 and 2016 than it had in 2012.

UPDATE: Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly behind the “purge” of Christie loyalists from Trump’s transition team. When Christie was a U.S. attorney, he put Kushner’s father in prison.

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Iowa House district 72 preview: Dean Fisher vs. Nathan Wrage

When the dust settled after the 2012 general election, I was frustrated to see how close Iowa Democrats came to winning back the Iowa House majority. Democratic candidates picked up seven GOP-held state House seats that year, but lost half a dozen other races by extremely narrow margins, leaving Republicans with 53 of the 100 seats in the lower chamber.

One of the “seats that got away” was House district 72, where Dean Fisher beat Nathan Wrage by only 216 votes in an open seat due to GOP State Representative Lance Horbach’s retirement. President Barack Obama outpolled Mitt Romney by about 3 percentage points among voters in the district.

The GOP expanded its Iowa House majority to 57-43 in the 2014 midterm election, but many state legislative seats are competitive this year, putting control of the chamber in play. As Wrage challenges Fisher again, Democrats won’t repeat their 2012 mistake of not targeting this race.

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IA-Gov: Sales tax hike for conservation may become fault line in 2018

Leaders of a campaign to provide a “permanent and constitutionally protected funding source dedicated to clean water, productive agricultural soils and thriving wildlife habitats” in Iowa touted support in the business and agriculture communities this week. You can watch Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy‘s September 12 press conference here or listen to the audio at Radio Iowa. Under a state constitutional amendment Iowa voters adopted in 2010, revenues generated by the next 3/8th of a cent sales tax increase (estimated at more than $180 million per year) would flow into a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Scroll to the end of this post for a current list of IWLL coalition members and details on the formula for allocating trust fund money.

Without knowing which parties will control the Iowa House and Senate next year, it’s hard to gauge prospects for passing a sales tax increase. Democratic State Senator Matt McCoy commented on Monday, “The best time to move on a piece of legislation is just following an election. That’s when you get your best bipartisan compromises, and I think ultimately, this is something we can find a bipartisan compromise on.”

Who might lead statehouse Republicans toward such a compromise is unclear. The GOP lawmaker most supportive of IWLL has been State Senator David Johnson. But he left the party this summer to protest presidential nominee Donald Trump and told Bleeding Heartland in a recent interview that he plans to remain an independent during the 2017 legislative session.

At least one Republican running for governor in 2018 will support the sales tax increase: Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. That stance will put him in conflict with either Governor Terry Branstad or his chosen successor, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds. In addition, support for funding IWLL among major farm lobby groups could create problems for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, also a likely gubernatorial candidate in 2018.

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Iowa Senate district 32 preview: Brian Schoenjahn vs. Craig Johnson

To win control of the Iowa Senate, where Democrats have held a 26 to 24 majority for the last six years, Republicans will need to beat at least two Democratic incumbents. One of their top targets is Senator Brian Schoenjahn, who is seeking a fourth term in Senate district 32.

Follow me after the jump for a map and details on the political makeup of this northeast Iowa district, along with background on Schoenjahn and his challenger Craig Johnson, the key issues for each candidate, and a look at Johnson’s first television commercial.

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Iowa House district 95 preview: Richard Whitehead vs. Louis Zumbach

A wave of Republican retirements created more open seats in potentially competitive state House districts than in any election since Bleeding Heartland started following Iowa politics nearly ten years ago. Most of the battleground races are in the first Congressional district, including House district 95, where state Representative Quentin Stanerson announced last December that he would not seek a third term. The high school teacher was one of only two House Republicans to request a special session last summer to override Governor Terry Branstad’s education funding vetoes.

Stanerson’s seat is probably a must-win for Democrats to have any hope of gaining control of the Iowa House (currently 57 Republicans and 43 Democrats). House district 95 covers a large area in Linn County outside the Cedar Rapids metro area, along with some rural precincts in Buchanan County. I enclose a map below.

The 2012 presidential voting in this district almost perfectly matched the statewide results. President Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in Iowa by 822,544 votes (51.99 percent) to 730,617 (46.18 percent). In House district 95, Obama won 52.01 percent of the vote to 46.69 percent for Romney. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, the district contains 6,095 active registered Democrats, 6,224 Republicans, and 7,530 no-party voters.

Neither party had a competitive primary here. Democrat Richard Whitehead and Republican Louis Zumbach have backgrounds shared by many successful candidates for the Iowa legislature. Whitehead spent a career in education, rising from social studies teacher to principal to superintendent. Zumbach is a farmer and small business owner who operates an auctioneering company with his wife. Scroll down to read the official biographies and main talking points for each candidate.

Facebook feeds for Whitehead and Zumbach show that both contenders have shown up for lots of parades and summer festivals around the district. I don’t have access to voter contact data, but Whitehead is rumored to be one of the top Democratic House candidates in terms of number of doors knocked.

Zumbach will likely be able to outspend Whitehead during the final two months of the campaign–not by virtue of raising more money, but because House Republican leaders have accumulated a much larger war chest than their Democratic counterparts. The fundraising totals for the House district 95 candidates were remarkably similar. Whitehead reported $12,480.00 in campaign contributions by early May and another $2,895.00 during the next two months. As of mid-July, he had $14,179.60 cash on hand. Zumbach’s campaign brought in $12,950.00 by early May and another $950.00 by early July. His campaign spent more than Whitehead’s did, largely on signs, merchandise, and advertising, so as of July 14 he had just $5,290.76 cash on hand.

Any comments about this campaign are welcome in this thread.

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