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.