State Representative Chris Rants will “debate” former Des Moines School Board member Jonathan Narcisse on various issues during the first half of December. The Iowa Republican blog has the preliminary schedule for the debates in Bettendorf, Ankeny, Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Waterloo, as well as footage from yesterday’s joint press conference by Rants and Narcisse.
Scheduling the “debates” is a clever move by Rants, who is running the best gubernatorial campaign in the GOP field so far. These events will not be good news for Governor Chet Culver.
Rants is a smart guy; he’s got a lot of substantive material on his campaign website, and his stump speech is getting good reviews at Republican events. He has a few big obstacles, though. Never having run a statewide campaign before, he lacks the name recognition of Terry Branstad or even Bob Vander Plaats. He has raised a lot of money for Iowa House Republicans over the years, but he can’t compete with Branstad on the fundraising front, and he may have trouble keeping up with Vander Plaats and Christian Fong.
Rants has been traveling the state more or less full-time since the legislative session ended in April, but many of his solo appearances aren’t big draws for journalists. He was a long-shot before Branstad got into the race, and he faces longer odds now. His upcoming “debates” with Narcisse are likely to generate free media in Iowa’s biggest cities.
I put “debates” in quotation marks because Rants and Narcisse are not likely to present markedly different prescriptions for the state.
I went to Narcisse’s website, An Iowa Worth Fighting For, and downloaded his manifesto. His guiding principles and policy proposals are largely conservative. For instance, he wants to drastically reduce the size of state government, phase out corporate taxes, reduce the sales tax to 4 percent, and reform property taxes. Narcisse has a lot of ideas on education reform, including taking on the main teacher’s union, opting out of No Child Left Behind, reducing education bureaucrats by 5,000 to 10,000 positions, and repealing the “Model Core Curriculum” with a view to restoring “true local control.” His views on immigration reform are also likely to appeal to a conservative crowd. He is a regular guest on right-winger Steve Deace’s WHO radio program.
Narcisse is not a closet Republican. His views on drug policy and nutrition in schools, for instance, would put him at odds with many in the GOP. I would describe him as an anti-establishment type. He certainly doesn’t espouse typical Democratic opinions.
The problem is, the upcoming debates are being presented as Republican Rants against Democrat Narcisse. By blasting the current performance of state government and calling for its radical reduction, Narcisse is more likely to reinforce Rants’ message than provide a counterpoint to it.
Some journalists have speculated that Narcisse might challenge Culver in the Democratic primary, but I think two other outcomes are much more likely. Narcisse may end up endorsing Rants and his government reform proposals. Speaking to WHO journalist Dave Price yesterday, Narcisse slammed Culver and several of the Republican gubernatorial candidates, but not Rants. He said Branstad, Vander Plaats and Fong don’t have a plan to restructure state government, for instance. Echoing talking points Rants has used, Narcisse said Culver’s across-the-board budget cut will increase property taxes. More broadly, the upcoming “debates” seem designed to raise the profile of Rants’ campaign. (UPDATE: In the comments, Narcisse says he will not endorse Rants.)
Alternatively, Narcisse might run for governor as an independent. Ordinarily, I would say a third-party candidate running on a small-government platform would help an incumbent Democrat by dividing the opposition vote. In New Jersey’s recent gubernatorial campaign, independent Chris “don’t spend money you don’t have” Daggett helped Governor Jon Corzine get back into the race against Republican Chris Christie.
However, Narcisse isn’t a typical small-government conservative. He is a registered Democrat who supported Culver in 2006, which will probably increase the media’s interest in his message. A Republican who calls Culver “a disaster for this state” might get tuned out as partisan noise. Narcisse lets journalists put a Democratic label on sentiments like these:
“Any Democrat who loves this state must call for someone to run against Gov. Culver,” Narcisse said. “He has been reckless and irresponsible in his administration and it has destabilized government in this state at every level.”
It’s worth noting that Narcisse owns The Iowa Bystander, a newspaper targeted at an African-American audience. He will consequently become the second prominent black Iowan to take an active role in campaigning against Culver. In October, Iowa/Nebraska NAACP head Keith Ratliff endorsed Bob Vander Plaats for governor.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of the Rants/Narcisse road show, but these events won’t produce any welcome publicity for Culver. The only upside I can think of is that they will bring Rants’ bashing of Branstad to a wider audience as well.
Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.
UPDATE: The Iowa Republican prominently published an open letter from Narcisse to Vander Plaats. Excerpt:
I love this state. I would sit down with you, Gov. Culver, former Gov. Branstad, or any other Iowan committed to addressing the very serious issues facing this state. The pain of Iowans is real, and that pain calls for answers and leadership.
Unfortunately, it has become obvious; you have no real interest in providing those answers or that leadership.
Mr. Vander Plaats, that’s not good enough.
The time has come for you to stop offering platitudes and promises; pandering is not leadership.[…]
Yesterday I looked at your website and found two consistent themes.
The first is pandering to issues that have little to do with the constitutional duties of a Governor. For example you talk about the need for a federal fair tax while you completely fail to offer a vision of tax reform in Iowa. If that is your plan, to neglect Iowa’s needs and debate federal matters, you should run against United States Senator Charles Grassley or United States Representative Steve King.
The second is affirmation that, with the exception of the executive order, your policies are no different than those of former Governor Terry Branstad’s, sans the experience. In many respects, your priorities are no different than Governor Culver’s.
Your site affirms government intrusion into the private business sector in multiple and unacceptable ways. Your site affirms your commitment to major expanded government. Your site affirms your commitment to a failed education bureaucracy.
In the comment thread at The Iowa Republican blog, Narcisse added:
I have been willing to work with Bob, Christian or any other Republican on developing real solutions. Infact I met with Bob the same morning I met with Speaker Rants. While Bob pitched me even offering me a job Chris actually discussed real ideas and solutions. […] I would welcome debates with any Republican. Unfortunately Chris Rants is the only one willing to really discuss ideas and solutions. That doesn’t mean I’m propping him up or planning to run with him. It means Iowans can get a real solution conversation instead of pandering. As for Bob, there was no candidate I was so willing to spend time with to develop solutions. He just isn’t interested and what he’s posted on his site is Big “G” Government to either be funded by tax hikes or debt. But I would love to have him come out of hiding and actually offer a real plan, real solutions and man up. But he is, afterall, the “turn around” ceo.
DECEMBER 6 UPDATE: Narcisse published a long open letter to Rants at The Iowa Republican blog. It isn’t quite an endorsement, but it teeters on the brink in several places.