Previewing the Vander Plaats case against Branstad

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 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.

  • BVP versus Branstad

    You make some interesting points and BVP does have some tactics that he can try, but Branstad wins this primary hands down.  With his contacts, his money raising capability and his name recognition, he will run away from BVP just as soon as he officially enters the race.

    And barring any drastic turn of events between now and election day, he will oust Culver in a landslide.


    • Branstad will win the primary

      in all likelihood, but he's not beating Culver in a landslide. I would expect the general election to be close. Branstad has never faced an electorate with 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Let's see what his favorables look like after the primary.

      • You're right about Branstad & the electorate

        Branstad last ran for office in 1994.  That makes in 16 years (in 2010) since he faced Iowa voters.  Those voters are far less Republican and far less rural than they were in his last run.  Even Grassley faces this problem, since Iowa's electoral landscape has shifted noticeably since his last run a mere six years ago.  A lot of Iowa voters won't even remember Branstad as governor.  The election will be close, but that'll be because Culver's base voters stay home, disillusioned over his inept administration, not because Branstad rides a tsunami of nostalgia or latent Republicanism to victory.

      • Fireworks & Drama guaranteed!

        BVP and Branstad will be nothing but fireworks and HIGH Drama. I agree that Branstad will ultimately out muscle BVP. Especially if turnout is up in the primary. It will be interesting to see their strategies as we go into the Winter & Spring.

        My Question/Thought is: If BVP and Terry get into a nasty & bitter struggle does BVP have enough fortitude/money/support to challenge BOTH Terry & Culver in the General Election as an Independent Tea Bag? BVP has already endorsed an Independent Tea Bag for HD 8 & Kent Sorenson who plans to fundraise with Ron Paul.

        THAT would turn the clear fissures in the IowaGOP of today into a GRAND CANNON in Nov. 2010 = Culver Win.  

        • BVP won't challenge in the general

          At least that's my reading of his recent statement:

          While those who have encouraged Governor Branstad to run have been focused firmly on Iowa's past, I look forward to continuing my conversation with Iowans about our future. Whether we go forward, as I propose, or somehow seek to return to a seemingly happier past, one thing is clear: Iowa cannot afford to remain stuck where it is right now under Chet Culver.

          However, many BVP supporters could stay home rather than vote for Branstad, or some marginal person might run as an independent, the way two social conservatives did in the House district 90 special election.

        • you're sounding quite a bit more optimistic

          than you did a couple of weeks ago!

          We have a long way to go in this campaign. My biggest worry isn't Branstad, but the chance that Iowa will still be losing jobs every month a year from now.

          • Optimistic?


            Every day it gets harder and harder to support the Big Lug or to find people that still LIKE him, let alone VOTE for him.

            Today he had yet ANOTHER debacale about his 1st pledge of the 2010 campaign. Cut his salary 10%. Not hard right? Well...he screwed it up. Only after the Reg. and AP ran the story this morning (not to mention the onslaught form the GOP) did he agree to pay the actual 10%

            I always hold out hope... but if a 3rd party that obtains roughly 3-5% in a general by a Tea Bag, a Culver victory seems at least possible at that point.

            There is no way GOP support will simply stay home even if they are depressed with Terry. Its very possible they could dump Terry. While there isn't much room for a middle of the road independent. There is ample room for a right winger to enter.

            We'll have to wait and see... I still promise Fireworks and High Drama to come... Culver is still in A LOT of trouble.  

            • GOP turnout was low in 2008

              because a lot of people weren't excited about McCain. I think a small percentage of GOP base voters could stay home. Grassley's not their hero anymore either.

              • GOP turnout was low in 08 but...

                Coming out of this summer's renewed activism and gearing up for the mid-term the GOP turn out will continue to build. There is potential for high GOP turnout if...

                Culver keeps making mistakes & anger lingers.

                Terry expands the typical electorate for GOP, while dragging the SoCons along.

                If they are both EXCITED by Terry AND Indys are ANGRY with Culver.

                A high profile senate race will get more people involved. etc

                Its hard for me to imagine Dem. voters being galvanized to the levels they had in 08. It is possible if that mystery candidate (whoever SHE is...) gets within striking distance of Grassley. Regardless that does not mean that Culver is safe even with a close Senate race. That close senate race is a long shot anyway.

                • I wouldn't say Culver is "safe"

                  but I think Branstad is more likely to go down from here than go up. I also think that the SoCons are unlikely to be "fired up and ready to go" after the GOP primary. I guess it depends how much Branstad intends to pander to them.

                  Turnout in any off-year election is much lower than in a presidential year. We can expect around 1 million voters in 2010, compared to 1.5 million in 2008. It's hard to say right now whether the proportion of Ds in the electorate will be lower than it was in 2008--I think that's a risk but not a given.

            • the biggest risk for Culver

              is that the economy may not turn around before next November. That is a bigger problem than Branstad, who has plenty of weaknesses as a candidate.

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