Tell us something we don't know about Bob Vander Plaats

You don’t have to be a “friend and former adviser on three of Bob Vander Plaats’ campaigns” for governor to know what Dan Moore writes in a Des Moines Register guest editorial today. But the assessment packs more of a punch coming from a former close associate:

Bob is obsessed with the gay-marriage issue. He is so obsessed that he would rather see the Iowa judicial system destroyed, instead of pursuing a change in the law within the channels provided (a constitutional amendment).

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Republicans waging war against judicial independence in Iowa

Bob Vander Plaats announced at a press conference today that he will not run for governor as an independent but will lead a public campaign against retaining the three Iowa Supreme Court justices whose names are on the ballot this November. Vander Plaats didn’t say who will fund the campaign, but promised more details on his “grassroots” effort next week. James Lynch reported yesterday that the Republican Governors Association will fund Vander Plaats’ crusade, which RGA officials consider “a model to be duplicated in other states.”

It’s been obvious for weeks that Vander Plaats wasn’t planning an independent bid for governor. The only question was what kind of face-saving deal would be struck between the bitter Republican primary rivals. The rumor mill suggested Vander Plaats might endorse Branstad in exchange for a promised future job. Instead, we have a different truce: Vander Plaats formally stands true to his principles by not endorsing Branstad. In return, the RGA (Branstad’s largest campaign donor by far) will pay for Vander Plaats’ revenge mission against Iowa judges.

Branstad has avoided publicly urging Iowans to vote against retaining the Supreme Court justices, and he didn’t have the guts today to take a stand for or against unseating them over a political dispute. In a written statement, Branstad said, “This is an issue on which Bob has often spoke with great passion and I understand his desire to pursue this path.”

How different from the Branstad of May 2009, who said “I do respect the existence of the separation of powers” when asked whether he regretted appointing two of the current justices, including Mark Cady, author of the Varnum v Brien decision.

The old Branstad wasn’t planning to run for governor again. The new Branstad doesn’t mind exploiting resentment over same-sex marriage for his own political gain. If that ends the careers of three good judges while elevating demagogues who don’t understand judicial review, so be it. Branstad appointee and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus has said this year’s retention elections will test Iowans’ commitment to an impartial judiciary. Branstad won’t join the right side in this fight.

On the contrary, Branstad has endorsed changing Iowa’s highly-regarded merit-based system for selecting judges. He has an interest in creating vacancies he could fill if elected governor, and he would rather pander to the religious right than allow judicial selection commissions to keep doing the job they’ve been doing for almost four decades. Some Iowa Republicans have advocated bringing back judicial elections or extremely stupid new restrictions on judicial deliberations. Branstad should know better than to play with fire on this issue.

Iowa House and Senate Republicans are probably overjoyed by today’s news. Vander Plaats will be working to turn out social conservatives who might not be thrilled with the party’s nominee for governor. That has to help GOP candidates in some of the battleground legislative districts. On the other hand, moderates may be turned off by the campaign against the judges. A Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa Republican primary voters taken in June by Selzer and Associates found that 35 percent of respondents said some Iowans had “overreacted” to the gay marriage issue. The same survey found that 45 percent of likely Republican primary voters were against voting to remove Supreme Court judges because of their decision on marriage.

I’m concerned about the retention elections, because the judges are unable to campaign on their own behalf. Those who support judicial independence, such as the State Bar Association, are unlikely to match spending against the judges by conservative groups and the Republican Governors Association. Fortunately, Governor Chet Culver made his position loud and clear today:

“I support Iowa’s Supreme Court justices and more importantly, I support our judicial nomination and appointment process as it stands today.

“Iowa is known for having the fairest judge selection system in the country. We oppose efforts to make choosing our judges more political, more ideological.

“Terry Branstad and his running mate Kim Reynolds have made it clear that they want to change our system. Branstad has gone so far as to highlight Reynolds’s support for changing the state’s constitution, allowing the governor to reject all nominees sent by the judicial nominating committee, requiring the committee to send names again and again until the governor finds an appointee that supports a certain political agenda.

“This campaign is about the future of our state and about choosing to move forward, instead of backwards. The best way to do that is not to focus on ideological battles but to bring Iowans together by investing in our future to create jobs, continue our national leadership in renewable energy and build 21st Century schools.”

John Deeth seems optimistic that the Vander Plaats crusade will fail. He makes a good point today:

Just for the record, here’s how the math usually works out on these things: the judges almost always win [retention] by an 80%-20% margin, with 40% or so of voters just skipping the contests entirely. I don’t see BVP swaying a typical independent voter. If he has any impact it’s on the margins, lowering that undervote percentage.

In [the] 1992 ERA vote, I learned a tough but basic lesson: Loudly reminding your people to vote Yes in an otherwise low-profile race simultaneously reminds the other side to vote No. The polarity is reversed here but BVP faces the same dilemma.

In 2004, activists on the religious right “mounted an unsuccessful campaign to oust Woodbury County District Court Judge Jeffrey Neary in 2004 based on Neary’s decision to grant a divorce to two lesbians who had entered into a civil union in Vermont.” Here’s hoping Vander Plaats fails too.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread. Do you think Branstad can get by with weasel wording on the retention vote for the rest of the campaign? Or will he be forced later to come out explicitly for or against keeping Justices Ternus, Michael Streit and David Baker on the high court?

UPDATE: A statement from the American Judicature Society is after the jump. Iowa’s judiciary has been recognized as among the best in the country.

AUGUST 11 UPDATE: How cowardly is Terry Branstad?

“This is a ballot issue, and Gov. Branstad believes this is an issue on which people need to decide for themselves,” spokesman Tim Albrecht said today. “He respects the secret ballot and believes people should vote their conscience.”

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Early reaction to Branstad's choice of Kim Reynolds

A string of prominent Iowa Republicans spoke out today praising Terry Branstad’s choice of State Senator Kim Reynolds for lieutenant governor. IowaPolitics.com posted the Branstad campaign’s press releases with encouraging words from Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, Iowa House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen, former Congressional candidate and tea party favorite Dave Funk, former gubernatorial candidate Christian Fong, and Iowa’s representatives on the Republican National Committee, Steve Scheffler and Kim Lehman. Scheffler heads the Iowa Christian Alliance, and Lehman is a past president of Iowa Right to Life.

The Branstad campaign is anxious to avoid an embarrassing display of support for Bob Vander Plaats at this Saturday’s Republican state convention. Today they hit convention delegates with an e-mail blast and robocalls stressing Reynolds’ “conservative credentials.” The strong words from Scheffler and Lehman in support of the ticket may prevent any media narrative from developing about religious conservatives rejecting Branstad. The Iowa Family Policy Center (viewed by many as a rival to the Iowa Christian Alliance) backed Bob Vander Plaats in the Republican primary and vowed not to endorse Branstad against Democratic Governor Chet Culver. That group recently affirmed that Branstad would need to undergo a “fundamental transformation” to win their support in the general election campaign.

Lehman wrote at the Caffeinated Thoughts blog today that Reynolds’ “record speaks for itself.” Lehman’s long list of conservative bills co-sponsored by Reynolds in the Iowa Senate impressed Caffeinated Thoughts blogmaster Shane Vander Hart. He supported Rod Roberts for governor and was a leader of the petition drive lobbying Branstad to choose Roberts as his running mate.

To my mind, Reynolds’ record in the Iowa Senate says only that she sticks with the consensus in the Republican caucus. She has not taken any unusual positions or been outspoken on any major issues under consideration. An acquaintance I spoke with today, who spends a lot of time at the capitol every year during the legislative session, had not even heard of Reynolds before this week. That’s how low her profile has been during her two years at the statehouse. Reynolds may be a reliable back-bencher for conservatives, but I don’t see her as a strong advocate for the religious right. She doesn’t have the stature to drive the agenda if Branstad is elected. Like Todd Dorman wrote yesterday, the lieutenant governor gets to do “whatever the governor lets you do. And in a Branstad administration, if the past is an indicator, his mate will be the special director of the Department of Not Much.”

Nor is there any indication that Reynolds would urge Branstad to make social issues a priority. I think this pick indicates the business wing of the Iowa GOP is fully in charge–or at least one faction in that wing. Others in the business community appear to have been pushing for Jeff Lamberti or Jim Gibbons to be selected as Branstad’s running mate.

Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge spoke about Reynolds today on behalf of the Culver campaign. She suggested that Reynolds may not help Branstad with the social conservatives who supported other candidates for governor, because she “comes out of the same camp as Terry and Doug Gross rather than out of the camp of Bob Vander Plaats or Mr. Roberts.” In a press release and news conference, Judge also emphasized that we don’t know much about Reynolds’ views on key issues, and that her learning curve will be steep, because she has relatively little experience at the statewide level: “It will take a lot of study on Kim’s part. […] If [Branstad] keeps her in the basement in a small office as he did [former Lieutenant Governor] Joy Corning, then she’s not going to have much of an opportunity to know what’s going on.” Say what you will about Patty Judge (I’m not a fan), but she did have a strong legislative record and eight years of holding statewide office going into the 2006 campaign. She has had real influence on policy in the Culver administration.

Being a blank slate may have its advantages, however. Iowa State University Professor Steffen Schmidt thinks Reynolds was a good choice because she is so unknown that she won’t turn voters off or take attention away from Branstad.

Share any thoughts about the Branstad/Reynolds ticket in this thread.

UPDATE: Jason Hancock pointed out at Iowa Independent:

Kim Lehman, another member of the Republican National Committee and formerly president of Iowa Right to Life, praised Reynolds’ selection and her legislative record, ticking through each of the bills she has sponsored since entering the state Senate in 2008 and concluding, “Reynolds went into office and took the bull by the horns and got busy.”

However, a closer look at the bills Reynolds signed on to reveals she only sponsored one piece of legislation on her own – a requirement that the Department of Natural Resources develop depredation plans to fill harvest quotas of antlerless deer in each county that have not been met at the end of the last established deer hunting season each year.

Other than that, she nearly always joins with all or a large majority of the state Senate’s 18 Republicans to push bills.

FRIDAY UPDATE: Reynolds gave an interview to Kathie Obradovich and spoke about being a recovering alcoholic. This is not going to be an issue.

The Branstad campaign is trying to counter opposition to Reynolds over her support for a recreational lake project that angered some property rights advocates. Today the campaign released an endorsement from State Representative Jeff Kaufmann, who tried to intervene in that dispute on the side of property owners.

“I remain dedicated to the fight for private property rights in this state,” said Kaufmann. “The last four years of Democratic control of the Legislature has yielded no strengthening of these rights.  The Democratic majority has not allowed debate of a single property rights bill despite overwhelming support for the 2006 landmark legislation.”

“Our attempts to protect property rights will be thwarted, as usual, by Governor Culver and Democratic leadership without Republican control of the Legislature,” added Kaufmann. “To me, all other property rights discussions are secondary to that goal.  I look forward to working with Kim Reynolds in the future to protect property owners in the future.”

The Branstad campaign also sent conservative blogger Shane Vander Hart a statement from Reynolds about eminent domain:

I fully support the 2006 legislation that curtailed the use of eminent domain to take private property. I do not support eminent domain for commercial development purposes. I support eminent domain only for essential public services.

That answer satisfied Vander Hart. However, one issue with these recreational lake projects (like ones proposed for Page County, Clarke County and Madison County in recent years) is that the advocates will claim the land grab serves an essential public service, like providing more drinking water. However, analysts dispute whether the lake is really needed as a drinking water source, or whether that’s a ruse to obscure the real goal behind the project. A few people stand to make a lot of money if the farmland they own can be developed as lakeshore property. So the question is whether the state would allow other people’s farmland to be condemned in order to create a lake that’s basically a private commercial development.

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Branstad sticking with Doug Gross playbook

Terry Branstad made it official this morning, picking State Senator Kim Reynolds to be the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. Reynolds is a former Clarke County treasurer and past president of the Iowa county treasurer’s association who was elected in 2008 to represent Senate district 48 in southern Iowa. The Des Moines Register’s Tom Beaumont published more background on Reynolds here. His piece depicts her as “solid on core GOP issues” and “focused on economic development.”

Looks like Branstad has picked precisely the kind of candidate his former chief of staff Doug Gross would want on the Republican ticket.

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Dream recruit may spark Republican infighting in Senate district 45

Iowa Republicans have landed Sandy Greiner, their dream candidate against first-term Democratic State Senator Becky Schmitz in Senate district 45. The southeast Iowa district includes all of Washington, Jefferson, and Van Buren counties, plus part of Wapello and Johnson counties (map here). Schmitz defeated Republican incumbent David Miller by 184 votes in 2006, but the area leans slightly Republican in terms of voter registration.

Greiner represented Iowa House district 89, which makes up half of Senate district 45, for four terms (1993 to 2001). She then served for two years in the Iowa Senate before redistricting prompted her to return to House district 89 for another three terms (2003-2009). Consequently, she starts the race with high name recognition in the area and will be able to campaign almost as an incumbent. Republican blogger Craig Robinson sounds ready to declare this seat won for the GOP.

Greiner will be a stronger opponent for Schmitz than the three Republicans who had previously declared for the seat (Richard Marlar, Randy Besick and Dan Cesar). However, I would not assume that local Republicans will be united behind her this fall. Greiner is linked to business elites who have battled with activists on the religious right for control over the direction of the Iowa GOP.

Join me after the jump for more background on Greiner and why I suspect some social conservatives will fight her candidacy.

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A closer look at the Rod Roberts campaign for governor

I expected Terry Branstad to drive all of the lesser-known Republicans out of the governor’s race. To my surprise, State Representative Rod Roberts has not followed the lead of Paul McKinley, Christian Fong, Jerry Behn and Chris Rants. Roberts told WHO’s Dave Price last weekend that he is staying in the governor’s race all the way to the June primary.

Roberts acknowledges the other two men have raised a LOT more money and are better known. After all, Branstad has been governor 4 terms before. [Bob] Vander Plaats has run for governor 3 times. Roberts plans on not just going after typical Republican primary voters to make up for his lack of recognition (he also added that he will just have to outwork the other 2). He plans on getting Democrats and Independents who are unhappy with the money Governor Chet Culver has spent since he took over and who are also unhappy with the overall direction of the state. Roberts told me this will be the year for the outsider. And he said he will be the outsider.

Join me after the jump for closer look at Roberts and his campaign strategy. I doubt he has any chance of winning the primary, but his presence in the race will probably help Branstad.

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