Christian Fong dusts off Obama's playbook

Given Barack Obama’s Iowa caucus breakthrough and convincing general-election victory here, it was only a matter of time before someone else built an Iowa campaign around his strategy. I didn’t count on a Republican being the first person to try, though.

Enter Christian Fong, who made the Republican race for governor a lot more interesting last week.

Some early impressions of Fong’s personal narrative, political rhetoric and electoral prospects are after the jump.  

How Fong is adapting Obama’s playbook

If you felt a sense of deja vu while reading or listening to Fong last week, you’re not alone. He sketched his core values in an interview with Radio Iowa (audio here):

I grew up in western Iowa, the son of an immigrant who came to Iowa, came to America because of the American dream, the Iowa dream. It’s opportunity. It’s hard work. It’s respect for your neighbors.  He came to Iowa and found all those things. As I’ve grown up, now that I’ve got my own kids, I’ve got neighbors that I care for.  I’ve got a city that I’ve cared for through disaster recovery over the past year. In my own generation and the next one, I want to see that dream restored. I see it slipping away, sometimes being actively torn away by policies, by a government that starts to lose touch with its own people. I want to see all those things restored.

In his first television commercial for the general election, Obama used similar language to describe the lessons he learned as a child:

I’m Barack Obama. America is a country of strong families and strong values. My life’s been blessed by both. I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. We didn’t have much money, but they taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up. Accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses. Treating your neighbor as you’d like to be treated. It’s what guided me as I worked my way up – taking jobs and loans to make it through college. It’s what led me to pass up Wall Street jobs and go to Chicago instead, helping neighborhoods devastated when steel plants closed. That’s why I passed laws moving people from welfare to work, cut taxes for working families and extended health care for wounded troops who’d been neglected. I approved this message because I’ll never forget those values, and if I have the honor of taking the oath of office as President, it will be with a deep and abiding faith in the country I love.”

Obama’s commitment to serving others was a running theme of his campaign. In his stump speeches during the Democratic primaries, he often mentioned that he “walked away from a job on Wall Street” to be a community organizer in Chicago and “turned down the big money law firms” to be a civil rights lawyer.

Fong also has chosen public service alongside his day job in real estate finance for AEGON. He has served on the Generation Iowa Commission and stepped up to be a “flood recovery leader” in Cedar Rapids.

Another crucial element in Fong’s life story is that he returned to work and raise a family in Iowa, even though he could have chased the dream anywhere after finishing second in his class at Dartmouth business school. As Bleeding Heartland user ragbrai08 has noticed, Iowans love affirmation that this state has something of value to offer. While living elsewhere for 15 years, I felt proud when others shared positive impressions about our state. I felt stung by references to “flyover country” or insults like, “You don’t sound like you’re from Iowa” (translation: You don’t sound dumb). Fong is living proof that the best and the brightest still belong in Iowa.

Then there’s the “vision thing.” Obama let everyone know that

the next president has to have a broader strategic vision about all the challenges that we face.

That’s been missing over the last eight years. That sense is something that I want to restore.

Fong asserts that “the uniqueness of my story and the uniqueness of my vision” will set him apart from the other Republican gubernatorial candidates. His allies have been pushing this talking point as well. For instance, “Age shouldn’t be a factor, Fong’s fellow Generation Iowa Commission member Mitchell Gross said. ‘It should be about vision.'” The conservative Hawkeye Review blog told its readers is bold type,

Christian Fong is a brilliant man with incredible skills, VISION and wisdom.

When you consider the attributes you wish to have in our state’s highest elected official and CEO, aren’t these exactly the benchmarks we seek?  Christian has a VISION for our state and combined with his economic expertise and real world experience in the business community, we may just have the dynamic governor to lead us back to prosperity on many levels here in the Hawkeye State.

Fong’s vision includes standard Republican elements like cutting government spending and being “pro-marriage” and “pro-family”, with a couple of Obama-like twists: empowering individuals to effect change and rejecting intense partisanship. I heard echoes of Obama’s “We are the change we’ve been waiting for” in Fong’s first interview with Radio Iowa:

I’m a Republican because I’m optimistic about the future. I’m optimistic that grassroots power of the individual has the power to change our state.

Fong went on to say that he’s not advocating change “for the sake of change,” but “restoration” to a government that “reflects the values of hard-working Iowa families.” That may sound like a standard-issue Republican promise to you, but Fong promises to get there by reaching across party lines. That’s quite different from Chris Rants’ way of relating to Democrats in the legislature and Bob Vander Plaats’ assertion that Republicans can win by embracing “bold-color conservatism.”

Fong testified at a contentious public hearing on tax reforms earlier this year and claimed not to be a partisan. When Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson asked him why, Fong explained,

When I stood up at that hearing I was speaking to friends that I have on both sides of the aisle.  If Iowa wants somebody that has spent the last 10 years, 15 years just living within their party, just soaking in the ideas that come out of one faction of Iowa, I’m probably not the guy.  I do — I have friends across the aisle that we share ideas with each other and we find common causes that rise above party labels. […] Here in Cedar Rapids I’ve always been a coalition builder…It’s coalition leading that is my vision and really my strength as my leadership style.

Again, I hear echoes of Obama, who used to tell Democratic voters during the primaries,

There’s no shortage of anger and bluster and bitter partisanship out there. We don’t need more heat. We need more light. I’ve learned in my life that you can stand firm in your principles while still reaching out to those who might not always agree with you.

Fong has put his money where his mouth is, and his small campaign contributions to personal friends who are Democrats have outraged some Republicans. Henderson asked Fong about his donations to State Representatives Tyler Olson and Elesha Gayman, and Fong turned a political faux pas into an expression of his values:

I had served with them on a commission and I wanted to support them as one friend to another. Again, if somebody’s looking for somebody who’s been running for governor for the last 10 years, who has shaped their life that way, I’m probably not the guy. If they want someone who is loyal, is looking for ways to partner with others, then I’m going to be a good candidate for them.

You know, would I do it again? Look, I will always be loyal and I will always support my friends. In hindsight, look, they represent things and they represent votes that I don’t support and, you know, it was probably a mistake to give money to those causes, but I’ll never apologize for being loyal to my friends and being loyal to fellow Iowans.  I think loyalty and neighborliness is a core value that all Iowans celebrate and share.

As a candidate, Fong shares a weakness with Obama: he has much less experience in government than some of his rivals. Obama dealt with this question in two ways. He defended the value of his life’s work outside government: “It’s experience rooted in the real lives of real people, and it’s the kind of experience Washington needs right now.” As for why he didn’t wait another election cycle or two before running for president, Obama cited the “fierce urgency of now”:

At this defining moment, we cannot wait any longer for universal health care. We cannot wait to fix our schools. We cannot wait for good jobs, and living wages, and pensions we can count on. We cannot wait to halt global warming, and we cannot wait to end this war in Iraq.

I chose to run because I believed that the size of these challenges had outgrown the capacity of our broken and divided politics to solve them […].

Fong made the same kind of case with every reporter he talked to last week. James Lynch wrote at Covering Iowa Politics,

He’s ready to stack his 13 years of experience in the private sector, his service on the Generation Iowa Commission and work as CEO of Corridor Recovery and chairman of its small business task force up against the “experienced governmental officials who have given us $1 billion deficit, the experienced politicians trying to borrow their way out of a recession, the experienced politicians that denied Iowans the right to vote on marriage.” […]

Besides, Fong added, holding elected office isn’t always an asset.

“The experience I bring is not the experience of elected office, not the experience of government that is broken and doesn’t reflect the values of its people,” he said.

Speaking to Radio Iowa, Fong said

I’ve got the life experiences that understand what Iowa families are going through right now. Really, this is about looking toward the future and saying, “Who has the skill set and the experiences to get Iowa through the recession, a budget crisis, an out-of-touch government?”

So, the Republican race for governor now includes a fresh face with a compelling life story, a thinker in his party’s mainstream but not closed to perspectives from the other side, a high-achiever with a commitment to public service and experience outside the typical political channels. You’re probably all wondering the same thing I am: will Iowa voters buy what Fong is selling?

Can Fong win with Obama’s strategy?

The short answer is that it’s way too early to tell, but if you’ve made it this far into this post, you’re not looking for short answers. Let’s examine Fong’s strengths, in addition to the personal narrative I discussed above:

Geography. It’s been a long time since eastern Iowa Republicans had one of their own in a competitive gubernatorial primary (Jim Nussle cleared the field early in 2006 by choosing Vander Plaats as his running mate). There are a lot of Republican votes in that part of the state, enough to win a primary if western Iowa conservatives are split and Fong can overcome concerns about his short political resume. I’ll be surprised if Fong does not dominate Linn County and Johnson County. Then again, other GOP candidates from eastern Iowa may join the race. Iowa Senate Minority leader Paul McKinley is forming an exploratory committee, and I’ve heard speculation about Quad Cities businessman Mike Whalen.

Fundraising. The Cedar Rapids/Iowa City corridor has a a lot of wealth for Fong to tap. Also, he has Ed Failor of Iowans for Tax Relief in his corner, which will help him raise money across the state. The question mark is whether central Iowa business-oriented Republicans will embrace Fong as their best shot against Chet Culver. As American007 wrote in her excellent review of the Republican field (before Fong’s announcement), Doug Gross and others have been trying without success to recruit a moderate alternative to Rants and Vander Plaats. If that community gets behind Fong, big money will come his way. If a more experienced candidate from the Des Moines area joins the race, he or she could cut into Fong’s potential fundraising.

A political niche. For now, Fong looks like the most moderate voice in what may become a crowded field of conservatives. Some may discount his inexperience, but Terry Branstad triumphed over two older hands in the 1982 Republican gubernatorial primary because they split the moderate vote and he had conservatives to himself. Fong should do very well among younger Republican voters, although it will be a lot of work to mobilize them for a primary.

Some of Fong’s weaknesses include:

Inexperience. Republicans aren’t known for choosing fresh faces; they like politicians to wait their turn. Many may agree with Krusty Konservative that Fong should be running for mayor or state legislature instead of trying to jump to the head of the line.

On a related note, because Fong hasn’t run for office before we don’t know how he will do on the stump or under pressure from rivals. If he doesn’t have Obama’s communication skills, he may stumble when he starts speaking to Republican audiences.

Taxes. Fong supported the local-option sales tax initiative Linn County residents approved in March to help fund flood recovery. Most statehouse Republicans opposed the bill that allowed that tax, and many rank and file Republicans voted against it in the referendum. Fong has also said he would consider ending federal deductibility if basic tax rates were lowered enough. I expect Republican rivals to make taxes an issue against Fong. He’ll need Failor to help defend him.

Not strident enough. Fong says he is “100 percent pro-life” and opposes same-sex marriage, but he has criticized fellow Republicans for “raging against” the Iowa Supreme Court ruling and making “frantic calls” for amending the constitution. If social conservatives line up behind one other candidate, they could sink Fong’s chances. He needs that part of the Republican base to be divided among several alternatives.

Too close to Democrats. Other Republican opponents, as well as conservative radio hosts and bloggers, will be sure to remind social conservatives of Fong’s donations to Gayman and Olson. Furthermore, he has criticized the I-JOBS borrowing to fund infrastructure projects without (so far) commenting on the Linn County projects that have received I-JOBS money.

A few wild cards could either help or hurt Fong in the GOP primary. First, as the candidates become better known, there will be opinion polls showing how each of them would match up against Culver. Those polls could show Fong in a stronger position than other Republicans, or they could indicate that Iowans are looking for someone a little more seasoned.

Second, he could be depicted as “not Iowan enough.” I’ll never forget Tom Latham’s television commercials attacking “Massachusetts professor Sheila McGuire” in the fifth Congressional district campaign of 1994. McGuire had grown up on a western Iowa farm, received undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Iowa, and set up a practice in Boone. However, in some Republican eyes it was not enough to compensate for her grave sin of completing a three-year post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard.

Along the same lines, and I’m trying to think of a polite way to say this, the Republican Party includes some nativist types who may not appreciate Fong’s background. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a couple of “tweets,” but Fong seems to go out of his way to let people know that he can’t read Chinese or even pronounce his own name without an Iowa accent.  

I think it would be foolish for Fong’s Republican rivals to play the “more Iowan than thou” card, but it could happen if someone gets desperate. I suspect that kind of attack would help Fong’s campaign, because only an idiot thinks there’s some shame in having an immigrant father or attending an elite school before settling down in Iowa.

The last wild card is that certain conservatives with big megaphones will pounce on Fong at every opportunity. WHO radio host Steve Deace has blasted Fong’s donations to Democrats and led with that question in Fong’s first interview on his show. Krusty Konservative of The Iowa Republican blog has taken several shots at Fong already, most recently for supporting across-the-board budget cuts. (After reading Fong’s posts at the Hawkeye Review blog, I have to wonder if a little professional jealousy is at work here. In terms of writing ability and logical reasoning, Krusty kan’t hold a kandle to this guy.)

Anyway, becoming a punching bag for loudmouth conservatives could help Fong among some Republican groups while hurting him with others.

If Fong manages to get through the Republican primary, I have to agree with ragbrai08 that this would become one of the most interesting gubernatorial races in the country, because Fong will go after core Obama groups such as students and upwardly mobile suburbanites. Conservative attacks on Fong’s treachery during the primaries would help Fong in a general election campaign. I think Culver is strongly favored to beat any Republican opponent, but Fong might give him more of a race than, say, Rants or Vander Plaats.

In a general election, some holes in Fong’s vision would become apparent. He wrote that the Democrats’ bonding plan “is simply extending the pain, and delaying the inevitable.” I’d like to know how this “flood recovery leader” would pay for the rebuilding projects that I-JOBS is making possible. Where would he have found $45 million to help rebuild Linn County landmarks? Or does he not think those projects are good investments for the future of greater Cedar Rapids?

It’s easy to repeat sound bites like this:

“I’ve had to make tough calls on how to get through a recession,” he said, “and I didn’t do it by borrowing. … That is not a common-sense approach.”

But as Fong surely knows from his day job, borrowing can be necessary and even wise for businesses and homeowners during a recession. Borrowing itself is neither good nor bad; it all depends on how borrowed money will be invested and whether the borrower has the capacity to repay. When interest rates are low, borrowing to achieve worthwhile long-term goals makes sense.

Nor is Fong convincing when he complains about Democrats passing along too much debt to the next generation. Even after approving the I-JOBS borrowing, Iowa’s per capita debt load is among the lowest in the country.

I also find it amazing that Fong claims no state department (such as education) should escape an across-the-board budget cut, because “In business, that’s not how you do it.” Businesses don’t cut all departments equally when they downsize; they may deeply cut or eliminate some operations while protecting or even expanding priority areas.

I’ll end this post where I began. Whatever you think about Fong, he certainly makes the GOP field more interesting.

With that, I’m opening the floor to any comments from Bleeding Heartland readers about Fong’s candidacy or the Republican gubernatorial race in general.

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  • Good Work

    I don’t always agree with what you write but this is well written and very long.  I had my evening coffee and read this.  I even printed it off to read it next to the air conditioner.

  • Debt vs. Need for Relief

    Christian will have a tough time saying 1) Democrats are spending too much to fix the economic crisis while at the same time saying 2) more money is needed to address the flood crisis fallout in Cedar Rapids.  Both are crises.  Both require attention from the state.

    Culver and the Dems will be in the position to point out this discrepancy.  If Christian isn’t able to talk about his two planks, flood money and reducing the debt, his candidacy burns up.  Honestly, you can’t have both at the same time (fiscal restraint and massive flood relief).  I think that will sink him.

    • RE: Debt vs. Need for Relief

      In case you missed this quote, here’s what I am referring to.

      “The choice to use generational debt to borrow and spend our way out of a crisis is the wrong approach,” he [Fong] said. “To deliberate and delay on flood recovery is the wrong approach.”

      These two statements contradict each other.

      • I agree with you

        That’s a big weakness of his “vision.”

        And although he won’t be called on this in a GOP primary, it’s ridiculous to be hand-wringing about crushing generational debt when Iowa’s debt load is small in relative terms, and our state retains the highest credit rating there is.

    • even David Yepsen

      who hated deficits and railed against government spending, recognized right away last summer that Iowa would need to borrow money to finance flood recovery. There’s no way you could finance these projects without borrowing.

  • Excellent Analysis

    Fong is such an interesting candidate. He is in the unusual position where all of the things that would make him a strong candidate in the general (young, bi-partisan, open to new ideas, Eastern Iowa perspective, etc.) handicap him in the primary. He’s the complete opposite of, say, Bob Vander Plaats, whose qualities make him unelectable in a general election (rank stupidity, blind party allegiance, theocratic approach to government, etc.) but endear him to the primary audience.

    If Fong is the candidate of Gross and Co, (as mentioned in your “fundraising” section) then he’s got a good chance at winning the nomination. He’ll get access to the big Republican money, key endorsements, and have a fighting chance. If he isn’t, and someone else is (say Branstad) then Fong will have to settle for the Lt. Governor nomination (a position he would be very well suited for, regardless of the Gov. candidate).

    • I am hoping for John Deeth's pet theory

      to pan out: Vander Plaats wins the nomination at a state convention.

      I just can’t see Republicans going back to Branstad as a nominee. He was not particularly beloved, and someone would be sure to bring up the funny games played with budget numbers during the 1980s.

      • Deeth's theory

        Deeth’s theory is pretty much the worst case scenario for the Republicans.

        I wouldn’t be surprised to see the scenario avoided via something similar to the Culver-Judge tag-team he described. If Rants could bring Fong aboard, he could consolidate the Anyone But Bob vote. Conversely, if Fong could bring McKinley aboard early, he could pick up a few percent boost–just enough to clear the bar.

        Given that the Republican winner wins in the primary and not the convention, and barring any Ensign-Sanford-Larry Craig style shenanigans, I see the potential matchups working like this:

        Fong v. Culver: Tossup

        Rants v. Culver: Likely Dem

        BVP v. Culver: Safe Dem

        • Fong v Culver is not a tossup

          in my opinion–that race strongly leans D unless Culver’s numbers go much lower than they are now. A lot of people are going to like Fong but feel he’s not ready yet.

          I am having a hard time seeing a path to the nomination for Rants, but if he did win the nomination I think he would lose to Culver for sure.  

        • Fong would

          Do better than either BVP, Rants or McKinley in general election, but he WONT win the nomination. And even if he was able to, I see him losing to Culver by at least 8 points.

          Culver has too many pluses. His numbers could be in the Low 40’s, High 30’s and he would still win.

          *Iowa has the largest Democrat Registered voters they have ever had.

          *Culver has a huge war chest that is growing

          *Culver has a statewide campaign team that is top notch

          *No one on the Rep. side has appeal statewide

          *Iowas have not voted out an incumbent running for re-election in over 50 years.

          But most importantly, if this race was going to be close, the big fish would have stepped up. King wanted it, just like he wanted to take on Harkin, and I think someday he will try for a higher office, but he obviously didnt think it was right this time. I know Latham isnt looking forward to redistricting, and there were rumours about Nussle making another run as well.

          • I agree with everything you wrote

            You might want to publish all this in a separate diary sometime to get a discussion going. Some Iowa Democrats are way too pessimistic about this race. Outside observers and political commentators, like the Swing State Project blog, don’t see this as competitive compared to a lot of other 2010 gubernatorial races.