Could Vander Plaats pull off an upset?

I’ve been assuming for the past few months that there’s no way Bob Vander Plaats can defeat Terry Branstad in this year’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Branstad’s statewide connections from his four terms as governor and his support from major donors should give him an insurmountable edge, especially in the eastern Iowa counties. While Vander Plaats would have a great shot at winning a caucus or a statewide convention, I didn’t see any way he could keep Branstad below 50 percent in the primary, especially with Branstad likely to raise far more money.

I’ve started to rethink my assumptions as conservative Republicans have spoken out against Branstad.

Everyone knew the Iowa Family Policy Center’s political action committee would endorse Vander Plaats at some point, but their statement yesterday went far beyond expressing a preference for Vander Plaats. The IFPC made clear that they will not support Branstad in the general election if he wins the GOP nomination.

Follow me after the jump for more on the IFPC’s endorsement and how Vander Plaats could win the primary.

You can read the IFPC’s press release here and watch videos from yesterday’s rally outside the capitol against same-sex marriage rights. The group judged the candidates on the following criteria:

The Iowa Family PAC’s evaluation of the candidates was designed to seek out and promote a statesman and public servant who would commit to uphold the Biblical principle of individual responsibility, who recognizes family as the foundational unit for a stable social structure, who will boldly defend the sanctity of human life and of marriage, commit to limiting the size and cost of civil government, promote high quality education under the authority of parents, encourage an ethical free enterprise system, defend the Constitutional separation of powers, and like our Founding Fathers be guided by the absolute moral truth that comes from a regular reading of the Bible. We believe that Bob Vander Plaats is the candidate who best meets those requirements. We are especially pleased with his pledge to stand up to the Iowa Supreme Court and stay their effort to unconstitutionally legislate same sex “marriage,” until the Iowa Legislature and the people of Iowa act on the Iowa Marriage Amendment.

They like Representative Rod Roberts but consider him “to have more of a legislator’s temperament than that of an executive.” The IFPC PAC also sounds concerned that Democrats could win Roberts’ Iowa House district in the Carroll area; they want Roberts to run for re-election there “for the greater good of the State.”

They like the way State Representative Chris Rants pushed for an Iowa House floor vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage last year, and they praised his “spirit and enthusiasm,” but they withheld their endorsement because of “his lengthy legislative record, his history in House leadership, and his past willingness to pursue questionable political pragmatism.”

The IFPC saved its harshest words for Branstad:

With a 16 year record as Iowa’s Governor, much is known about who he is and how he would govern. For instance, Iowa faced financial challenges similar to today’s when Branstad first became Governor. His answers to those problems included growing government, raising taxes, legalizing gambling, and keeping what State Auditor Dick Johnson referred to as “two sets of books.” He did demonstrate pro-family support at times, like helping to de-criminalize home schooling, fighting rampant “no-fault” divorce, and helping produce pro-marriage public service announcements. Still, significant portions of his record cause Christians serious concern, such as approving immoral “Human Growth & Development” sex education (which is used by Planned Parenthood and others to promote abortion and homosexuality), allowing homosexual advances in his Dept. of Human Services, appointing pro-homosexual Supreme Court Justices who unconstitutionally try to legislate from the bench, and opening Iowa to the ravages of gambling.

Branstad also brings with him a loyalty to long term political partners that seems to trump his loyalty to Biblical principles and the people of Iowa. He continues to refuse to publicly distance himself from his former Lt. Governor Joy Corning, even when she blatantly promotes and defends abortion on demand, state sanctioned sodomy, and the evil that has been loosed on the state as a result. When his former Chief of Staff, Doug Gross, chastised those of us who desire to see Biblical principles promoted in politics and public policy, Terry Branstad was silent. He needs to understand that Christians are tired of being poked in the eye by political elites and then being told to “go along and get along.” He appears to lack an understanding of the deeply important principles that current policies threaten, or at the very least seems to lack the fervor necessary to address them.

Traditionally, most issue driven special interest groups wait until after the primary to engage in an election. Pragmatists will argue that should Branstad win the primary, he will be better than the current Governor, and that we ought to position our organization to support anyone but Culver. As a Christian organization we will always be ready to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit, and we believe that God can change anyone. However, should Branstad become the Republican nominee, apart from clear evidence of a fundamental transformation, the Iowa Family PAC will not endorse either Terry Branstad or Chet Culver in the general election.

Last week State Representative Kent Sorenson endorsed Vander Plaats and vowed never to vote for Branstad, but he is relatively new in Iowa politics. Sorenson was first elected to the Iowa House in 2008, and as he likes to remind audiences, he got virtually no help from the Republican Party in that race. He has struck an outsider’s tone before, writing this open letter to Senator Chuck Grassley last summer.

In contrast, the Iowa Family Policy Center’s chairman, Danny Carroll, has long been a Republican insider. He was first elected to the Iowa House in 1994 (while Branstad was governor) and represented district 75 until he lost in the 2006 election. After failing to win back his seat in 2008, Carroll fell just two votes short of being elected chairman of the Iowa GOP in January 2009. At yesterday’s rally, Carroll said, “Now is the time to put principle, biblical principle, before political parties […] I’ve been a part of that Republican machine for too many years, and where [has it] gotten us?”

When someone of Carroll’s stature comes out so strongly against Branstad, it makes me wonder how many other Republicans harbor similar feelings. The IFPC has worked closely with the Republican establishment, most recently during last summer’s special election in Iowa House district 90.

More important, the IFPC can put a lot of boots on the ground for Vander Plaats in the Republican primary. In the early weeks following the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v Brien, the IFPC circulated petitions around the state urging county recorders not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They didn’t persuade any county recorders to defy the court ruling, but one can only imagine what a list-building bonanza that petition drive was for the IFPC.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Michael Kiernan called yesterday’s endorsement “huge” for Vander Plaats:

“Branstad’s fatal miscalculation is in underestimating the Vander Plaats campaign. Bob Vander Plaats is the former Huckabee for President campaign chair, and he knows how to organize in their communities, at churches, and even at Tea Parties, like the one he’s going to tonight.

“The social conservative movement in Iowa that vaulted Huckabee to the top in the 2008 Iowa caucuses is poised to do the same for Vander Plaats.  Regardless of what the campaign finance reports show next week, it is clear that the grassroots momentum that surprised the nation during the caucuses is on the side of the Vander Plaats campaign and can spur on a legitimate third party candidate.”

Speaking of the Huckabee campaign, Vander Plaats has hired the highly-regarded Eric Woolson as his campaign manager. Woolson was Huckabee’s Iowa campaign manager in 2007 and 2008. He also ran Doug Gross’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002, when Gross narrowly defeated Vander Plaats and a state legislator in the GOP primary. Woolson helped Mariannette Miller-Meeks win a three-way GOP primary in Iowa’s second Congressional district in 2008.

Woolson is a very smart guy with lots of statewide connections. That will help Vander Plaats build on his network of support from his prior runs for office. Both Branstad and Vander Plaats have been endorsed by many Republican activists at the county level, as well as a few members of the State Central Committee.

In the coming months I expect to hear more from Vander Plaats campaign co-chair Richard Johnson. Johnson was the state auditor during most of Branstad’s tenure as governor. In the 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary, he endorsed Congressman Fred Grandy against Branstad because of the three-term incumbent’s record of fiscal mismanagement.

Going into this primary, Branstad had two trump cards: he will raise far more money than any other Republican, and he could claim to be the party’s best chance to defeat Governor Chet Culver. Next week we’ll find out how far Branstad has outpaced Vander Plaats in terms of fundraising. I expect Vander Plaats to be way behind but to have raised enough to run a credible statewide primary campaign. He should get some out-of-state money thanks to supporters like David Barton, Chuck Norris and Focus on the Family.

Governor Culver’s recent slide in the polls has severely undermined Branstad’s electability argument. Rasmussen and the Des Moines Register have released public polls showing Vander Plaats with a lead on Culver (albeit a smaller lead than Branstad). Republicans are rumored to have an internal poll showing both Vander Plaats and Branstad way ahead of Culver.

The Des Moines Register is likely to release at least two more Iowa polls before the June primary. If Culver is still underwater, Vander Plaats may be able to persuade a critical mass of GOP primary voters that they shouldn’t settle for Branstad when a more conservative option is available.

I haven’t seen any polls of the Republican primary since Branstad joined the race. Branstad recently robocalled Democrats to ID supporters willing to cross over for the primary, which makes me wonder what their internals show about his matchup with Vander Plaats.

I still consider Branstad the prohibitive favorite in the GOP primary. He will outspend the competition and should be able to roll up big margins in the populous eastern Iowa counties. However, the Vander Plaats campaign has a lot of resources at their disposal. With groups like the Iowa Family Policy Center out there making the case against Branstad this spring, it will be hard for Republicans to present a united front next fall if Branstad is the nominee.

Final note: despite the recent poll findings, I’m not the least bit concerned that Vander Plaats might defeat Culver in the general election. I believe he would get crushed in Polk County almost everywhere east of I-35.

Any comments about the governor’s race are welcome in this thread.

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