Time for another look at Culver's re-election chances

In January I went over some of Governor Chet Culver’s strengths and weaknesses looking ahead to the 2010 campaign. Click the link for the analysis, but to make a long story short, I saw three big pluses for the governor:

1. He’s an incumbent.

2. Iowa Democrats have opened up a large registration edge since Culver won the first time.

3. He has at least $1.5 million in the bank.

I saw his problem points as:

1. The economy is lousy and could get worse before 2010.

2. The first midterm election is often tough for the president’s party.

3. Turnout will be lower in 2010 than it was in the 2008 presidential election.

4. Culver’s campaign had a high burn rate in 2008, so may not have a commanding war chest going into the next campaign.

A lot has happened since then, so let’s review after the jump.

Last month Bleeding Heartland user American007 expressed concern about Culver’s re-election prospects in light of a Survey USA poll showing Culver at 46 percent approval/47 percent disapproval.

However, the most recent Des Moines Register poll by Selzer and Associates measured the governor’s approval rating at 55 percent. That’s down from 60 percent in the Register’s polls from September 2008 and January 2009, but much better than the approval ratings many other governors currently have (like New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine or California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger).

The poll also revealed some reservations by Iowans about Culver, as the Democrat looks toward mounting a 2010 campaign for a second term.

Just 35 percent said they would definitely vote to re-elect Culver, while 28 percent said they would consider an alternative and 18 percent said they would definitely vote for someone else. […]

Iowans also appear to be split on Culver’s effectiveness in some key areas.

Almost six in 10 say they are either very or reasonably satisfied that Culver presents himself as a strong leader, while a slightly smaller majority say they are satisfied that he has a vision for what Iowa could and should be.

Only 36 percent say they are satisfied that Culver has the right priorities for the budget, while 54 percent say he could do better.

If you assume Survey USA is correct, Culver is below 50 percent approval (never a great place for an incumbent). More worrying from American007’s perspective was that SUSA measured Culver’s support among Democrats at only 59 percent. I was less concerned about that number, because I believe lots of Democrats who might tell you they don’t approve of the job Culver is doing will certainly vote for him in 2010 against any Republican.  

If you believe Selzer’s poll numbers, Culver looks to be in a relatively strong position with 55 percent approval. A lot of governors around the country would love to trade places with him. While Selzer found that only 36 percent of Iowans are satisfied with Culver’s priorities for the budget, I wouldn’t draw many conclusions from that number. Again, plenty of liberal Democrats and environmentalists might tell you they’re not satisfied with Culver’s approach to the budget, but they’re going to vote for him in 2010 anyway.

Looking back at Culver’s strengths, as I saw them in January,

1. He’s still an incumbent, and we Iowans like to re-elect our incumbents.

2. Iowa Democrats still have a large registration edge, although I am concerned that turnout in 2010 could be much lower if Democrats don’t have enough big achievements to show for their years in power.

3. I have no idea how much Culver’s campaign committee has in the bank or how their fundraising has been going this year. However, he still has more money in the bank than any Republican who currently seems likely to run against him.

What about Culver’s problem points?

1. The economy is not getting better yet. Iowa and the nation continue to lose jobs every month. More people are losing health insurance as well. Many people believe the economy will start to turn up by next year, but job losses in this recession are worse than in any recession since the early 1980s.

If the $700 million infrastructure bonding package gets approved by the Iowa legislature, which seems possible but not guaranteed, then Culver will be able to travel the state for the next year and a half touting projects funded thanks to his leadership. Republicans have taken the position that we shouldn’t be spending money we don’t have, which sounds good in an abstract way. But people like to see things getting built or fixed in their own communities. I believe the infrastructure bonding program will garner more public support than the recent Selzer poll suggested. But first Democrats have to pass it.

2. The first midterm election is often tough for the president’s party. It’s way too early to know whether this will also be the case in 2010. A lot depends on the economy and what President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress can deliver by then. I get a steady stream of press releases about money from the stimulus bill being spent on this or that program in Iowa.

3. Turnout will be lower in 2010 than it was in 2008. That’s a given, but we don’t know by how much, or which voters won’t show up.

We can almost guarantee a strong turnout by the Republican base if gay marriage is one of the GOP’s main issues, and they are certain to hammer Culver for not doing enough to “protect” Iowans from same-sex marriage. However, I think Culver took exactly the right position after the Iowa Supreme Court ruling (see here and here).

I am not convinced that Culver and other Democrats will be hurt on this issue in 2010. By late next year I think a lot of Iowans will have realized that marriage equality didn’t affect their freedom in any way. (In the long term I expect marriage equality to cement Democratic dominance among younger voters.)

My biggest concern is that Democrats will have trouble inspiring our own base. Our legislature has delivered very little on the key priorities for organized labor, and has even tried to undercut the Department of Natural Resources on some environmental issues.

4. I have no idea what the burn rate has been for Culver’s campaign committee so far in 2009. I hope it’s lower than in 2008, when about half the money raised was spent.

As I wrote in the comments under American007’s diary, a lot will depend on who the Republicans put up against Culver next year. His poll numbers may not be great, and the economy may be in bad shape, but you still can’t beat something with nothing. I would put money on most dissatisfied Democrats coming home to vote for Culver in 2010, especially if he ends up running against a candidate like Bob Vander Plaats.

I believe State Auditor David Vaudt would be a stronger candidate for the Republicans than an outspoken social conservative, but I doubt he will make it through a GOP primary if he runs for governor. Earlier this year he dared to suggest that Iowans may have to pay higher gas taxes in order to adequately fund road projects. Culver killed the gas tax proposal with a veto threat, but Republican primary rivals will remember.

Vaudt also told the Iowa Political Alert blog that he hasn’t focused much on social issues in the past. He added that on abortion he’s a “pro-life person” who would make exceptions in the case of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. I believe this was Mariannette Miller-Meeks’ stand on abortion, and social conservatives savaged her for it last year when she was running against Congressman Dave Loebsack.

What do Bleeding Heartland readers think about Culver’s re-election prospects? Do they look better or worse to you now than at the beginning of the year?

UPDATE: I haven’t heard any leaked information about findings from the Republican poll on the 2010 governor’s race, which was in the field a few weeks ago. Anyone with knowledge about this poll is welcome to e-mail me confidentially at desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com.

SECOND UPDATE: For the Culver-skeptics out there, these are the kind of numbers that indicate deep trouble for an incumbent.

  • Good thoughts and data

    but, I think Culver is toast.  Too many have been turned off. A lot of people in the Ft. Dodge area come up to me and say, ” I wish Blouin would have won the primary.

    Our best hope is that Steve King runs and wins the nomination.

    Sorry to be negative, but most people I know think Culver’s not equipped for the job.

    • are they turned off enough

      to stay home next November? I don’t think Steve King will run, but whoever does win the GOP nomination is unlikely to be very appealing to a statewide electorate. The social conservatives seem to be totally in control of the Republican Party.

      Objectively, Culver’s approval rating is higher than that of many governors. I don’t think he is in the danger zone yet.

      For the record, I think Blouin would have been worse.

  • Culver-skeptic

    I’m a bit more pessimistic about Culver.

    Every time Culver’s bad poll numbers come up, you soften it by saying “Well, other Gov’s are worse!” Culver’s are still bad. Going off of the Survey USA numbers from same time as the 46% Culver poll, Sebelius and Pawlenty both rank higher than Culver and they’re in the minority party in their states!

    I think your three disadvantages are very valid and very troubling, but there’s one worse. I think the Culver administration is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Apparently, according to the Register, they’re not even talking to the statehouse any more. The public won’t stand to send Culver and the Dems back if we can’t show that our own house is in order.

    Do I think a somewhat moderate Republican like Northey, Vaudt or Latham could beat Culver? As it looks now, absolutely. Will they make it past the Steve Deace firing squad? I don’t know. I do know that King or Vander Plaats don’t stand a chance no matter how badly Culver does in the next year.

    • communication between Culver and statehouse leaders

      has been bad from the first year–that’s not new. It is dysfunctional, and I assume both sides are partly to blame.

      The biggest problem is not having a solid record of achievement to show voters next year. Democrats have done some good things since retaking the legislature, but they don’t add up to any coherent narrative about what we’ve done to make life better for Iowans.

      I am not convinced that SUSA’s numbers are more accurate than Selzer’s numbers (her approval ratings for Grassley and Harkin didn’t seem out of whack). If she is right and Culver is at 55 percent, that’s not bad at all. Even 46 percent is not that bad. George Bush had approval ratings in the 40s before he won re-election.

      I don’t think Latham will run. He’s got a safe seat now and by all accounts enjoys life as a Congressman. He’s got a decent shot against Boswell in 2012, so why give it all up to run against Culver? If he does run, we’ve got 101 unpopular Congressional votes to use to define him among eastern Iowa voters, and he’s never brought home the bacon for them.

      I can’t see Northey doing well in the population centers of eastern Iowa. I like the guy, but I just don’t think he’s that strong as a candidate for governor. I also think he wouldn’t get through the primary, having explicitly supported a gas tax hike.

      As I’ve written, Vaudt would worry me because he would have a credible message on budget issues, and we can’t pin unpopular legislative votes on him. He’s probably their best shot, but Culver would still be favored in my opinion.

      When was the last time an incumbent governor seeking re-election was defeated in Iowa? I know it hasn’t happened in the last 45 years–I don’t know how far back you have to go to find an example. We don’t see many incumbents holding statewide offices lose.

  • Whoever wins the nomination will have to appease the religious conservatives.

    Particularly by opposing the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, and I don’t think even the most reasonable, moderate Republican can do so without sounding either intolerant or insincere.  One turns off voters in the middle who the Republicans desperately need to win back; the other alienates the religious conservatives who have a stranglehold on the state party apparatus.

    I heard an interview with Terry Branstad on IPR yesterday morning (sorry – can’t remember which show), and when discussing the budget and state spending, he sounded articulate and reasonable, even if I disagreed with 95% of what he said.  Then, right at the end, he was asked about the court decision, and between his stumbling and fumbling to explain his opposition and some well-placed questions from the interviewer asking him to explain the difference between gay marriage and inter-racial marriage in respect to civil rights, he sounded like a doofus.  He knows that he has to oppose it to appease the religious right but can’t do so by bringing religion into it or he’ll alienate moderates and independents.  And really, without bringing religion into it, there is no defensible opposition.  

    That’s the conundrum the Republican nominee is going to face in the gubernatorial race as well.  Either they nominate King or Vander Plaats and continue down the road to extremism and obscurity or give the nod to a moderate who will struggle to appease the base while appealing to the middle (shades of McCain ’08).  EIther way, it will be interesting to watch, and I personally think it’s Culver’s race to lose.

    • what I don't understand

      is why someone in Terry Branstad’s position feels that he has to appease the religious right anymore. He’s not running for elective office. Why can’t he play the elder statesman?

      Incidentally, I am pretty sure Branstad’s parents had an interfaith marriage, which would have been disapproved of by an overwhelming majority of Iowans at the time they got married.

      • Do you think Branstad still considers his career in elective office over?

        Or is his chairmanship of the American Future Fund’s Conservative Lecture Series a bid to get back in the public eye and run for office again?

        From IowaPolitics.com:

        American Future Fund today announced that it will launch the “2009 Conservative Lecture Series,” inviting speakers from across the country to visit the Heartland of America to share their ideas and thoughts for the conservative movement.

        The series, chaired by former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, kicks off with former New York Governor George Pataki, who will present, “Yes We Still Can: Why Washington Has Failed and How We Can Reclaim America’s Future” on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines on Thursday, April 22, 2009.

  • 2010

    I think Culver has a pretty good chance at being re-elected. Iowans love to vote for the incumbent.

    As for Steve King, that clown has been a complete embarrassment in Washington with his antics and even if he did run I don’t believe that he would win. If King, or any Republican thinks that running a campaign based around rolling back equality for all Iowans has a chance then they are dreaming.

    When November of 2010 rolls around Iowans will have lived with Marriage equality for about a year and half. They will have realized that the sky hasn’t fallen, that God has started armageddon, and that the reality of the matter is that Same-sex marriages don’t harm traditional marriage or families and in fact strengthens family values and our society as a whole. It simply wont be of concern for the majority of Iowans.  

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