Branstad underwhelms and other highlights from the GOP fundraiser

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty headlined the Republican Party of Iowa’s fall fundraising dinner on Saturday night, but I was more interested in the remarks by Republican candidates for governor. O.Kay Henderson and Craig Robinson live-blogged the proceedings, and the video is available at C-SPAN’s site.

Former Governor Terry Branstad wasn’t at the top of his game, stumbling at times, reading from notes and messing up his applause lines. Kathie Obradovich observed,

The audience of about 500 at the Republican Party of Iowa’s “Leadership for Iowa” dinner was polite. But there was no sense of excitement for the candidate who many believe is the favorite for the nomination.

Follow me after the jump for highlights from the candidates’ pitches, along with a little commentary and fact-checking.

UPDATE: Also read John Deeth’s take:

Terry Branstad’s first appearance as an all but official candidate fell flat on Saturday night, and illustrates one of the dilemmas he’ll face going forward. He’s now competing with all the other gubertatorial candidates on the same level, instead of as an above the fray Dream Candidate.

Sometimes, dream candidates turn out to be All That, as Barack Obama illustrated. But more often, the dream turns into an awkward and embarrassing morning after, as the one-time next best thing takes the walk of shame off the political stage. […]

Branstad has the worst of all worlds: he’s a dream candidate with a long record.

State Senator Jerry Behn was first up, and he still looks like a candidate for lieutenant governor to me. He wants to create jobs, get back to basics in education, and remove the Supreme Court justices who cleared the way for same-sex marriage in Iowa. What makes him different from the other Republicans in this race? Why should anyone believe he would be the best candidate to beat Governor Chet Culver?  

This part of Behn’s speech caught my attention:  

People on Iowa’s boards are pushing an agenda, not doing what is best for Iowa.

points out the proposed clean-coal plant in Marshalltown.

State board of unelected people pulled the rug out from under that project.

this was a $1.75 billion project, bigger and more impactful than I-Jobs

The Iowa Utilities Board’s decision on ratemaking did contribute to the utility company’s decision not to build a Marshalltown plant. What Behn didn’t mention (doesn’t understand?) is that the high rate of return the utility wanted on this project would have increased electric bills for thousands of Iowans. The Office of Consumer Advocate, among others, hailed the IUB’s ratemaking decision because it was in the public interest.

As for the Marshalltown coal plant being “more impactful” than Culver’s I-JOBS state bonding program, give me a break. The coal plant would have created around 1,000 temporary jobs but only 85 permanent jobs. Meanwhile, we would be making a 50-year investment in the wrong direction on energy production, which would also result in more respiratory illness, mercury pollution and carcinogenic coal ash waste. In contrast, many of the I-JOBS projects will improve the environment and public health.

Branstad spoke after Behn. He needs more practice giving his stump speech and probably a new speech-writer too. He should be able to do better than “my fervor has not waned,” the “fire in my belly is still burning bright,” “let’s roll,” etc. Some Republicans weren’t impressed with the speech either.

Branstad emphasized his conservatism and said he’d try to get the legislature to let Iowans vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. When he announced his plans to explore a gubernatorial bid last month, he avoided taking a position on the marriage amendment.

Branstad promised to honor Ronald Reagan’s so-called 11th commandment by not attacking other Republican candidates. (Tell that to Fred Grandy.) If any polls show Branstad in danger of losing the GOP nomination, I expect his campaign to go brutally negative.  

I think Branstad’s setting himself up for trouble when he says, “Too much debt is bad and those that create it should be thrown out of office.” Branstad used state bonding for projects of less lasting value than what I-JOBS is funding.

Bob Vander Plaats went next, welcoming Branstad to the race before hitting several recurring themes of his campaign, like the need to stand for conservative values instead of moderation. He is the only candidate promising to halt same-sex marriage by issuing an executive order on his first day as governor. Vander Plaats also mentioned Democrats who support him, including the head of Iowa’s NAACP chapter. He’ll need to convince voters that he has enough crossover appeal to beat Culver.

Vander Plaats validated home-schooling parents, saying “the first priority” in education should be to recognize that parents (not the state) are responsible for educating their children. No doubt thousands of Republican primary voters are part of the growing home-schooling movement in Iowa. This kind of rhetoric will also appeal to conservatives who believe that Branstad didn’t do enough to take on the teacher’s union when he was governor.

Finally, Vander Plaats made this argument:

He concludes by returning to the idea that Branstad’s candidacy has been pushed by party insiders.  “If we’re going to win, it needs to be about ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Establishment,'” Vander Plaats says.

According to Vander Plaats, the “tea party” movement that held a state convention in Des Moines on Saturday does represent the people.

State Representative Rod Roberts was up next and also gave a nod to conservatives who reject the public school system, saying his daughter runs a private school. He promises to work hard and be careful with the people’s money, but he doesn’t explain what budget items he would cut. Roberts also said Republicans need a candidate who can appeal to different parts of the electorate, the way he has won votes from independents and conservative Democrats in his legislative district (Carroll).

Roberts told the crowd on Saturday that we need to invest in infrastructure, like Highway 20 and Highway 30 in northwest Iowa. Where will he get the money for that? I don’t hear him calling for a gas tax increase (the traditional way to raise road funds), and like the other Republicans, he opposed the I-JOBS infrastructure bonding program. He also wants to eliminate the business income tax instead of rewarding certain industries through tax credits. Again, where will he find the money?

Like Behn, Roberts brought up the Marshalltown plant, saying there was “no excuse” for not allowing it, and promising that a plant will be built there when he is governor. The truth is, utility companies have dropped plans to build coal-fired power plants in several states, including South Dakota, where the whole political establishment was behind the project. Alliant is reportedly considering a natural gas-powered plant for Marshalltown, but whether they move forward will depend on market conditions and demand for electricity, not on what the governor does.

Christian Fong spoke after Roberts, and he began with a little family history. As he has been doing in other campaign venues, Fong mentioned his father’s immigration from China before saying that Chinese Communists came in “offering hope and change” instead of telling the truth about their agenda. Any book about Chinese history will confirm that contrary to Fong’s ridiculous claim, Mao Tse-tung was explicit about his Marxist-Leninist ideology going back to the 1920s. I’d be happy to loan Fong our copy of Immanuel C.Y. Hsu’s “The Rise of Modern China.”

Fong spends more time on immigration in his stump speech than any other gubernatorial candidate. He insists that Iowa should not be “a sanctuary state” for illegal immigrants but urges Republican audiences to “celebrate” legal immigrants.

Personal history has always been at the heart of Fong’s campaign narrative, and he told the crowd on Saturday that he grew up poor and is the only candidate to have received welfare. Most of the candidates highlighted their opposition to abortion rights, but Fong added that he takes the issue personally, because “a third of my generation is gone” due to Roe v Wade.

As usual, Fong highlighted his own flood recovery work in Cedar Rapids and blamed the governor and Democratic-controlled legislature for not helping Iowans in need. I am still waiting to hear how Fong would have secured $45 million for flood recovery in Linn County alone without the I-JOBS program.

Fong said Iowa can be the “greatest economic engine” of the Midwest, and his road map for getting there reads like the wish list of his patrons at Iowans for Tax Relief. He doesn’t want the government to “pick winners and losers in businesses,” which is usually code for reducing all corporate taxes. He repeated his call to limit lobbying by public entities, which would clear the field nicely for well-funded private and corporate interest groups. He wants to cut the size of state government by 5 percent in his first year and eliminate the state income tax by 2020. In his view, that would allow all 99 counties to gain jobs and population.

Fong would have you believe that our economy would boom without a state income tax, but the states that don’t have an income tax are suffering from the national recession, just like Iowa. States with no income tax tend to have either high property taxes or lousy schools and public services.

Rants spoke last, and he hammered on a recent campaign theme: Patty Judge giveth, and Chet Culver taketh away. He mentioned an I-JOBS grant of $250,000 to help remodel Sergeant Bluff’s city hall, claiming that project would have happened anyway. Meanwhile, Culver’s recent across-the-board budget cut will reduce funding for Sergeant Bluff’s school district by $655,000.

Rants believes that Iowa’s property taxes are the “biggest impediment to growth in this state.” He has been warning that state budget cuts will lead to property tax hikes, which probably will happen in a lot of communities. Rants claimed on Saturday that Iowa has the third-highest property taxes in the country, but I would like to see his support for that claim. This ranking of state property tax rates puts Iowa 26th in terms of the median property tax burden, 12th in terms of property tax as a percentage of home value, and 26th in terms of property tax as a percentage of the homeowner’s income.

Rants silenced the room by reminding the audience of 500 that the Tea Party event drew a bigger crowd. Robinson paraphrased this part of Rants’ speech:

We need to talk about how we are going to win. Went to tea party today. There were more people in Hy-Vee Hall for Tea Party than are in this room tonight. We’ve lost those people, and we need to bring them back.

They are looking for leadership. This means being honest, not about talking the talk, but rather about walking the walk.

That’s why we’ve lost in the last couple election cycles.

We shouldn’t be afraid to say what we want to cut out of the budget.

By all means, Republicans, please focus your energy on winning back Iowans on the far-right.

But I do give Rants credit for one thing: unlike the other Republicans, he offers some specifics about what he would cut from the budget. He would save $53 million by eliminating state funding to help families send four-year-olds to pre-school, for instance. Rants says churches and private schools “do fine” for pre-school. I know many families who could never have afforded private pre-school for their kids. Their kids wouldn’t have received any pre-primary education without this state program. Cutting off pre-school aid would put lower-income children at a disadvantage when they start kindergarten. It would also hurt kids with developmental delays, who might have benefited from early intervention therapies.

Rants mentioned streamlining local government, and I would support combining more county-level services to help reduce property taxes. Too many Republicans focus on state government alone, ignoring the waste of having 99 separate county departments handling various functions.

Rants reminded the audience that when he was speaker of the Iowa House, the chamber approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Republicans should have done the same in the Iowa Senate, he said. (Their effort failed by one vote.)

Finally, Rants pushed his website,, saying campaigns should be about ideas and not personalities. Sounds like a swipe at Branstad to me. No one ever called Branstad an idea man.

If you want to read about Pawlenty’s speech, The Iowa Republican thread about it is here. Mark Halperin summarized Pawlenty’s message here. According to Obradovich,

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty delivered a spirited performance, but it didn’t automatically scream “presidential candidate.” It was more of a pep talk and rally than a self-promotional stump speech. […]

Pawlenty attended a gathering at Des Moines businessman Doug Reichardt’s house before the GOP dinner and stayed until the bitter end of the evening event. (Believe me, people noticed.)

Pawlenty undoubtedly scored even more points by arriving fresh from a deer stand near the Canadian border.

He likely didn’t knock Republicans’ socks off, but he’ll likely find plenty willing to look him over the next time he ventures across the border.

I’m more interested in the gubernatorial campaign, but I do think Pawlenty could do well in the 2012 caucuses, especially if Mitt Romney skips Iowa.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread. Can Vander Plaats or Rants gain traction against Branstad with the “people versus the powerful” argument they hinted at on Saturday?  

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  • Tea Party

    I’ll be interested to see if Club for Growth or any Tea Party leaders (Dick Armey) try to get involved in the Governor’s race.  Any support they would give would eliminate any financial advantage Branstad may be starting with.  Those groups seem to hate even a whiff of being moderate and with Branstad’s record on raising taxes that probably won’t sit well with them.  

    • hadn't thought about that

      I know BVP will get support from the Focus on the Family type groups. I see Rants as more of a Club for Growth type candidate, and he is such a longshot. But maybe they will decide to get involved in lots of primaries next spring.  

  • Great report

    So far, I am not seeing anyone that can beat Culver.

    • my biggest concern

      is not the GOP field, but the prospect that the economy may still be losing jobs a year from now. That will hurt lots of incumbents.

    • Branstad can

      Branstad can beat Culver, numerous polls have showed that.

      I think Branstad will beat Culver, as long as his performance at this event is just evidence of a rusty candidate and not a broken candidate.

      • we've got a long way to go

        and Branstad is going to get beaten up a lot during the GOP primary. Some candidates come out of a tough primary stronger, but that’s no guarantee. He might not be able to mend fences with people on the right who feel betrayed.

      • slight correction

        Three polls have suggested that Branstad the dream candidate leads Culver in a head to head matchup. That’s different from the real, existing Branstad voters will get to know during the next year.

        The biggest threat to Culver is a lingering recession/jobless recovery.

  • wow.

    What a great rundown! This is just what i needed! Great Job!

    I had only caught a few glances at C-SPAN this weekend.  And the few bits i did see, it got me all sorts of fired up!!  This event, and more like it, may be a big motivational boost for a depressed D-base thirsting for something to cheer about. Hearing just what exactly the other side has planned could grant some disaffected Dems and Indys to rethink a R vote.

    I’ll of course cheer for Vander-crazy but, the danger in that is, that the might just win, and THAT would be beyond the apocalypse bad for Iowa. My moderate friends both young and old do have a peeked interest in Terry… if he keeps pulling a Fred Thompson, and a lil effort by Culver and Dems could pull them back over.

    • Hehe

      Fred Thompson….that’s a good one, hope it catches on.  In other news, it’s pretty sad when Rants is the class of your primary.