Bob Vander Plaats was the clear front-runner in the Republican field of gubernatorial candidates a few months ago. He's been campaigning for the job longer and more actively than anyone else. He had contacts statewide from his 2006 campaign for lieutenant governor, and from Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign. He also had several endorsements from state legislators and a big lead in a Republican poll taken in July.
During the past six months, various potential Republican candidates have ruled out a campaign for governor, including Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and State Auditor David Vaudt. Efforts to recruit a business leader (like Mary Andringa) failed too. Some Iowa politicos believe that these people backed off not because they thought Governor Chet Culver was unbeatable, but because they couldn't see a way to defeat Vander Plaats in the Republican primary.
Most people would now agree that Vander Plaats is an underdog. Branstad will have more money, more media coverage and more support from Republican power-brokers. He'll be able to cite last week's Research 2000 poll, showing Branstad narrowly ahead of Culver, but Vander Plaats way behind the incumbent.
Vander Plaats won't give up without a fight, though. He has promised to stay in this race through the June primary, and he has some strong cards to play, as I'll discuss after the jump.
I see four ways Vander Plaats can convince Republicans to support him instead of Branstad.
He won't let conservatives down. Of all the Republican candidates, Vander Plaats takes the most extreme position against same-sex marriage, saying he will stop it with an executive order. Watch Vander Plaats talk about the marriage issue at a recent house party (beginning about two and a half minutes into this video):
This part starts around the 4:50 mark:
"I'm willing to die on the marriage hill. I'm willing to die on the separation of powers hill. [...] The reason why you need a governor to issue the executive order goes way beyond marriage. If you continue to allow a Supreme Court to drive a car without a license, every one of your freedoms is up for grabs. Private property. Free enterprise. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom of assembly. [...] You need to have an executive who's willing to hold a court system in check, otherwise you'll get tyranny, not liberty."
Vander Plaats makes similar points in the cover story of Citizen magazine's November issue. That publication of Frank Dobson's group Focus on the Family reaches a large national audience and highlighted Vander Plaats as a player in a "marriage showdown in Iowa."
Toward the end of the house party video clip, Vander Plaats cites Newt Gingrich's support for his executive order idea. I'll be interested to see whether Gingrich uses his huge fundraising operation to help Vander Plaats in this primary.
Socially conservative Republicans carried Branstad to victory in the three-way 1982 primary and helped him fend off Congressman Fred Grandy in 1994. But many feel that Branstad did not deliver on issues of critical importance to evangelicals, even when he had a GOP-controlled legislature toward the end of his tenure.
Vander Plaats can exploit any doubts religious conservatives have about Branstad's commitment.
He has promised to choose a running mate who also opposes abortion rights. He also opposes "the relentless expansion of gambling across our state, which started in the 1980s and continues today."
No matter how strongly the Vander Plaats stump speech resonates with Republican base voters, he can't stay relevant without convincing many people that he can beat Culver.
Last week's Research 2000 Iowa poll is a blow to Vander Plaats, as it shows Culver ahead of him 55 percent to 33 percent. However, Vander Plaats can still hang his hat on last month's Rasmussen poll, which showed him leading Culver, 43 percent to 39 percent. He can cite the endorsement of Reverend Keith Ratliff, head of the Iowa/Nebraska NAACP, as proof of his potential crossover appeal. He can also claim that the state of the economy and the impact of budget cuts will make Culver increasingly vulnerable over the next year.
Vander Plaats has one electability argument that works against Branstad: he is better positioned to keep the campaign focused on Culver's record. At a Polk County Republican Party event earlier this month, Vander Plaats said bluntly,
"When I get this nomination, I will defeat Governor Culver," said Vander Plaats, citing a Rasmussen poll. "The only way that Governor Culver has a chance of re-election is if we offer up a nominee with a significant political record, where that political record becomes the issue of discussion, versus Culver's record being the discussion. One of the benefits of my candidacy is I don't have a record."
Although I think Vander Plaats has zero chance of winning a general election, the dynamics of this year's governor's race in New Jersey support the point he is making here. Governor Jon Corzine, a Democratic incumbent in much worse shape politically than Culver, has relentlessly attacked Republican Chris Christie, making the campaign about his opponent's record as much as his own. The race is a dead heat going into the final stretch, even though Corzine's campaign looked like a hopeless cause in the summer.
Finally, Vander Plaats can claim to be a better fiscal manager than Branstad. A co-chair of the Vander Plaats campaign is former State Auditor Richard Johnson, who backed Grandy in the 1994 primary and said plenty about Branstad's handling of state finances. Branstad may tout the reorganization of state government in 1985, but critics will note that the overall size of the state budget greatly increased while he was governor.
Rival Republican candidate Chris Rants has complicated this line of attack for Vander Plaats by slamming the way Vander Plaats managed the Sioux City-based non-profit Opportunities Unlimited.
I'd like to hear from other Bleeding Heartland readers about the best case Vander Plaats can make against Branstad, and whether you think he has any chance to pull off an upset in this primary.
Final note: Vander Plaats will be the guest tonight (October 20) on The Fallon Forum from 7:00 - 8:00 pm on 98.3 FM. Even if you don't live in central iowa, you can live-stream Ed and Lynn Fallon's show at www.983wowfm.com. To call in, dial (515) 312-0983 or (866) 908-TALK.
LATE UPDATE: From the Des Moines Register on October 22:
Vander Plaats noted that Branstad hosted a fundraiser for Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, a longtime friend, in 2000, the year Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate.
"That gives us Harry Reid. That will be an issue," Vander Plaats said, referring to the U.S. Senate majority leader from Nevada.
Vander Plaats also noted Branstad's naming of Joy Corning, a moderate Republican who supports abortion rights, as his running mate in 1994.
"His choice of a running mate who doesn't line up with the core values of the Republican Party. That will be an issue," Vander Plaats said.