Democratic leaders enabled Branstad's big money haul

Until last week, the money raised to support Terry Branstad as a gubernatorial candidate was hidden in the bank accounts of two 527 groups: the Iowa First Foundation and the Draft Branstad PAC. Now that Branstad has formed an exploratory committee, I expect we’ll soon see a press release about eye-popping early money raised for his campaign. Major Republican donors were key players in the effort to lure the former governor back into politics.

While Branstad’s signing all those thank-you notes to Republicans, he may as well acknowledge three Democrats who have helped him raise the big bucks: Governor Chet Culver, Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy, and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. Branstad wouldn’t be able to accept those $25,000 and $50,000 checks if Democrats had passed meaningful campaign finance reform during the past three years.

This rant continues after the jump.

This post is not about the Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections Act, which would create a voluntary public financing system for candidates. The VOICE Act is similar to reforms that have worked well in other states, but Branstad would certainly have opted out.

I’m talking about good, old-fashioned limits on campaign contributions. For instance, candidates for federal office can’t take more than than $2,300 from any individual during a primary campaign and $2,300 during a general-election campaign. Political action committee (PAC) donations to federal candidates are limited to $5,000 during a primary and $5,000 during a general election.

Iowa has no such limits. Many individuals and PACs make five-figure donations to the campaigns of statewide candidates and legislative leadership funds.

In 2007 and 2008, Culver’s campaign committee collected $25,000 checks from several Republicans, including Jim Cownie, Bruce Rastetter, Gary Sandquist, Gary Kirke, Denny Albaugh, and Dan Kehl. Some Republican activists were not amused, but the joke’s on Culver, because many of those men courted Branstad this summer and will probably give his campaign two or three times as much as they ever gave Culver.

During the 1990s, when then Governor Branstad was certain to veto any meaningful campaign finance reform, Democrats in the state legislature supported campaign contribution limits and even spending limits for political campaigns. For instance, in 1996 Senator Mike Gronstal supported a bill that would have limited PAC contributions to statewide candidates to $5,000 and individual contributions to $1,000. That same bill would have limited PAC contributions to state legislative candidates to $1,000 and individual contributions to $500. (That 1996 bill apparently died when the House and Senate could not agree on a final version.)

Since Democrats gained control of the Iowa House and Senate in 2006, we’ve seen no effort by leadership to enact contribution limits. Democratic leaders who oppose the VOICE Act, such as House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, have sometimes claimed to support other approaches to campaign finance reform. But the only “reform” bill that made it through the legislature was a petty attempt to stick it to Ed Fallon.

Fallon has claimed that Culver promised him in 2006 that if elected, he would push for campaign finance reform. The governor’s office didn’t specifically refute that claim, but instead issued a statement mocking Fallon and claiming that Culver had signed “a significant [campaign finance] reform” this year. That was an apparent reference to the ban on candidates drawing a salary from their own campaigns, which obviously will do nothing to reduce the impact of big money in politics.

I’ve discussed Branstad’s candidacy with many politically active Iowa Democrats in recent months. Almost without exception, Democrats are not most worried about the few polls showing Branstad leading Culver. Head to head polls this far before an election aren’t particularly meaningful, especially since no one’s campaigned against Branstad in 15 years. Many Democrats think the GOP is overhyping Branstad, and that the shine will come off during the Republican primary campaign.

No, the biggest concern I’ve heard about Branstad as an opponent is that he will be able to outspend Culver. He can raise far more money than any other Republican candidate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Branstad’s exploratory committee brings in more during the fourth quarter than Culver has raised all year. He wouldn’t be giving up his current job as president of Des Moines University if backers hadn’t promised substantial financial resources for a gubernatorial campaign.

Candidates can raise lots of money through smaller donations, but if Iowa had reasonable limits (somewhat less than the current limits for federal candidates), Branstad wouldn’t be able to raise nearly as much as he will with the help of the five-figure check-writers.

Democrats squandered the opportunity to ban huge campaign contributions after 2006, and Culver’s going to pay the price next year.

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