How vulnerable is Culver in 2010?

David Yepsen published a weird column in the Des Moines Register about Culver’s vulnerability in the 2010 election. Excerpt:

Culver’s been weakened by his handling of the state budget crisis, including the recent fiasco over the sale of the lottery. The state’s financial problems are only going to get worse, and that’s only going to make Culver’s re-election challenge more difficult.

Even before the lottery flap, Culver’s job-approval rating in the Iowa Poll was stuck at 60 percent. His disapproval rating has increased to 32 percent. (By contrast, Tom Harkin’s approval rating is at 70 percent, while Chuck Grassley sets the gold standard at 75.)

One gets a sense that Culver’s in over his head, and that there’s disarray in his administration.

Last year, he floated the idea of a pop-can tax. It bombed. This year, he floated the idea of selling the lottery. That flopped. His relations with the labor movement soured over his veto of their pet collective-bargaining bill last year and his handling of it.

Culver’s replaced some staffers to fix his problems, but glitches remain: For example, his Department of Natural Resources floated the idea of raising hunting and fishing license fees. Huh? How does that square with the governor’s position of not raising taxes in a recession? I thought we were trying to encourage those sports and related tourism. For sure, this alienates some hunters and fisher-persons, largely male constituencies the Democratic Party doesn’t have.

Yepsen makes it sound like an approval rating “stuck” at 60 percent (with only 32 percent disapproval) is a bad thing. Any campaign operative will tell you that an incumbent is considered vulnerable only if his or her approval rating drops below 50 percent.

Also, Culver did not “float” the idea of selling the lottery. He listened to other people floating that idea and waited too long to issue a statement ruling out the proposal.

Look how Yepsen glosses over his own incorrect prediction that the lottery sale was “a done deal”:

Culver’s troubles over the lottery got so bad his office issued a statement that, in part, blamed us pundits for their problems. Ah, shoot the messenger. Punish the pundit.

It may make a politician feel better to blame those of us in the media chattering class, but it wasn’t any of us who took thousands in campaign donations from the gambling industry. Nor did we meet with them in our office to talk about selling the lottery. Nor did we say for days the sale of state assets was under consideration.

Look, I wanted Culver to rule out the lottery sale a month ago, but it was Yepsen who went out on a limb last week and claimed the fix was in.

As for the bad blood between Culver and organized labor, I think most of that will dissipate if the governor signs one or more good bills on labor issues this year. (Sarah Swisher makes the case for “fair share” here.) I sincerely doubt labor will sit out the 2010 election if an anti-union Republican challenges Culver.

It’s really reaching for Yepsen to suggest Culver may be vulnerable because the DNR is considering raising hunting and fishing license fees. A declining number of Iowans are part of the “hook and bullet crowd” anyway.

Culver has several big advantages going into 2010:

1. He’s an incumbent. It’s been many decades since Iowans voted an incumbent governor out of office.

2. Since Culver won the 2006 election by a 100,000 vote margin out of 1.05 million votes cast, Iowa Democrats have opened up a large registration edge. There are now approximately 110,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Iowa.

3. He already has about $1.5 million in the bank, and even some Republican businessmen have cut him large checks.

Here are the danger signs for Culver:

1. The economy is lousy and could get worse before 2010. There’s plenty of time for Culver’s approval rating to drop into the danger zone. Poppy Bush had 70 percent approval ratings in early 1991.

2. The first midterm election is often tough for the president’s party. Democrats control the legislative and executive branches in Iowa as well as Washington, and voters may punish Culver if they don’t like what they see. The governor is presiding over budget cuts that may be unpopular.

3. Turnout will be lower in 2010 than it was in the 2008 presidential election (about 1.5 million Iowans cast ballots for president). Traditionally, lower turnout helps Republicans, although that didn’t prevent Iowa Democrats from winning gubernatorial elections in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

4. Culver’s campaign committee burned through a lot of money in 2008, spending more than half of what was raised. If the burn rate stays high in 2009, that war chest may not be big enough to scare off a serious Republican challenger.

Who might that challenger be? Yepsen thinks Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey might have a shot. He’d certainly be a stronger candidate than three-timer Bob Vander Plaats. (Vander Plaats thinks Republicans lost recent elections because they moved too far to the middle and can win again if they “effectively communicate a compelling message of bold-color conservatism.”)

I still think it would be tough for the low-profile Northey to beat Culver. He doesn’t have a base in any of Iowa’s population centers. If the state budget outlook continues to worsen, I’d be more worried about State Auditor David Vaudt, who warned that last year’s spending increases would be unsustainable.

What do you think?

  • Everyone's vulnerable

    I think if the Great Recession continues through 2010, as it very well could…then everyone’s vulnerable. 2010 has the definite possibility of becoming as ragbrai suggested, a “pitchforks and torches” election.

    Danger sign 1 is absolutely critical, but 2 remains to be seen. It all depends on whether the Republicans can come up with a unified message a la “Contract with America”. 4 is also very troubling, as it makes me question the campaign leadership if they spend so much on consultants, as well as their money management skills.

    Culver needs a “big hit”. He needs to come up with one big policy or program to hang his hat on. The Rebuild Iowa commission could do that for him, but not with the level of progress it’s made so far. The $700 million could do it for him, if “packaged” well and some projects get completed by 2010.

    So far he’s been a terribly mediocre governor, and in extraordinary times people reject mediocrity. They’ll turn to someone with big plans, a big personality and big ideas, even if those ideas aren’t feasible or even good ideas.

    • that's assuming the GOP

      can find someone with big plans, a big personality and big ideas.

      I think Iowans don’t vote out an incumbent governor unless circumstances are extraordinary.

      But I agree with you that Culver could seal the deal with a “big hit.” It seemed like he was trying to do that with the bottle bill expansion, but that’s not big enough, and it wasn’t well-conceived.

      I believe it would have to be something politically risky, though (like local control), and I don’t think he will attempt it without feeling sure he can get it through the legislature.  

      • Bingo.

        That’s the key. Finding the right person. I think the extraordinary circumstances are already here.

        Culver’s got the majority to pass his grand slam, but so far all his ideas have been either bad (selling the lottery, 8-cent bottle bill) or badly packaged (the $700 million, budget cuts (which while not good, are necessary))

        • if Culver's approval rating is still above 50

          18 months from now, the GOP can forget about it. They are not going to beat him.

          Of course, a lot can happen between now and then.

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.