Silver linings of a Branstad candidacy

Terry Branstad is kicking off his “official” candidacy for governor today, launching a tour around the state. His campaign announced fairly strong fundraising numbers last week and just leaked an internal Republican primary poll showing Branstad leading Bob Vander Plaats by 63 percent to 18 percent.

It’s conceivable that Vander Plaats’ campaign could take off in the coming months. Right-winger Marco Rubio is now considered likely to defeat Florida Governor Charlie Crist in that state’s U.S. Senate primary, despite commanding leads Crist had in polls a few months ago. However, I assume Branstad will lock up the Republican nomination with little trouble.

Branstad will undoubtedly be a tough general-election opponent for Governor Chet Culver. The biggest hurdles for a challenger are usually name recognition, fundraising, and getting voters to imagine the challenger doing the job he’s seeking. Branstad is well-known, has done the job before, and has wealthy donors behind him. Frankly, I’d rather not have him in this race.

But my mother taught me not to focus too much on the negative. After the jump I offer some silver linings of a Branstad candidacy.  

1. Branstad’s candidacy will exacerbate tensions within the Republican Party.

Branstad’s major supporters are elite business Republicans. They are happy to use social conservatives as foot soldiers to win elections, but delivering on issues of concern to the religious right isn’t their priority. When Danny Carroll of the Iowa Family Policy Center denounced the “people who sit in high buildings downtown and tell you what you ought to think and how you ought to vote,” he was talking about the people who recruited Branstad back into politics.

If Branstad stumbles and loses the primary, his supporters and major donors may be so disgusted that they close their wallets to Republican candidates.

If Branstad wins the primary, some conservative Republican activists will feel angry and disenfranchised. A few will follow Kent Sorenson’s advice and refuse to support Branstad in the general election. A depressed Republican base could hurt the party’s candidates up and down the ticket.

Even if Branstad beats Culver, the stage will be set for long-term resentment and frustration in the Republican base. Branstad can’t deliver on most of the promises he’ll make to social conservatives, especially if Democrats retain control of the Iowa House and Senate.

2. A win for Branstad in the primary would indicate that Iowans don’t consider overturning same-sex marriage rights an urgent issue.

Vander Plaats is the only candidate who has pledged to issue an executive order halting same-sex marriage on day one if he is elected governor. That’s a central argument behind his campaign, and the main reason the Iowa Family Policy Center endorsed him last week. If Vander Plaats can’t ride that horse to victory in a Republican primary, where more conservative candidates usually prevail, then it will be clear that only a small minority of Iowans demand to ban same-sex marriage immediately.

Some commenters on the right, like Craig Robinson and Shane Vander Hart, have already expressed fears that the religious right has tied itself too closely to Vander Plaats, which could set back self-styled “traditional marriage” defenders if Vander Plaats loses the primary.

Additionally, I expect the Iowa Family Policy Center to lose some long-time donors who support Branstad for governor. They will be angry that the IFPC won’t support Branstad in the general election campaign.

3. Branstad’s campaign has drained talent from the Republican Party of Iowa.

Jeff Boeyink, who has 20 years of experience in Iowa politics, was getting some things done as the Iowa GOP’s executive director, but he left that position after less than a year to manage Branstad’s gubernatorial bid. Boeyink’s replacement is Jim Anderson, who has much less experience here and in politics generally. Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn can talk up Anderson’s skills all he wants, but Anderson’s only previous job in Iowa was helping with John McCain’s GOTV effort in 2008. We all saw how well that worked out. The GOP’s turnout operation this fall may be weaker under Anderson’s leadership than it would have been under Boeyink’s.

4. Branstad’s candidacy short-circuits efforts to develop a new generation of Republican leaders.

It’s obvious that Branstad had no strong desire to get back into politics. He even ruled out running for governor last May. Recruiting him was an act of desperation by Republican elites who knew that no one on the party’s bench had a chance to beat Culver. The message to Iowans is that the GOP has no credible new faces or new ideas, unless you count Branstad’s 180-degree turn away from policies he supported when he was governor.

Branstad may be able to win this year in a bad environment for incumbents, but at some point Republicans have to find new leaders. Current members of their Iowa House and Senate caucuses haven’t gotten traction in the governor’s race and don’t seem to have a lot of future potential.

5. Greater risk can yield greater rewards.

If Culver had faced Bob Vander Plaats or Chris Rants and won, Republicans could have consoled themselves by saying their problem was a flawed candidate. That’s what they did after Doug Gross lost to Tom Vilsack in 2002.

But this year they are putting up someone with four terms as governor under his belt. If Branstad can’t beat Culver (and remember, Democrats still have a fairly large voter registration edge in Iowa), Republican morale will be crushed. Republican ideas will have been repudiated. The Iowa GOP will be consumed by anger and finger-pointing for quite some time.

6. In the worst-case scenario, if Branstad wins, it won’t take long for his flaws to be revealed (again).

It still blows my mind that as a three-term incumbent governor, Branstad nearly lost his own party’s primary in 1994, with various elected Republican officials backing Fred Grandy. That just does not happen, especially in the absence of a personal scandal. You have to be really incompetent to have your own party nearly abandon you. Branstad’s not the strong leader his advocates are making him out to be; if he wins and faces bumps in the road, some Republicans will regret putting him back in charge.

Feel free to argue with me or add to my list in this thread.

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  • Branstad

    I agree with all of these silver linings except #4. I think, if Branstad wins the primary, that pretty much shuts the door on BVP running again ever. Win or lose, Branstad won’t run again…which pretty much clears the slate for 2014. Nature hates a vacuum, so some young Republicans will just have to step up.

    Also, a lot depends on who Branstad picks as his running mate. Branstad has the McCain-like potential to catapult someone into the limelight just by picking them up as a running mate. He could make the most of this by picking up some rising star like Christian Fong or he could squander it by picking up someone like Doug Reichardt. It’s all up to him.

    I think, more than anything else though, the biggest silver lining of a Branstad candidacy is that I think most people could live with him as governor again. He doesn’t have that terrifying “I will seriously mess this state up” vibe that Vander Plaats reeks of.  

    • well, he will mess things up

      but I get your drift.

      Latest rumor I hear is that Doug Reichardt turned down Branstad’s offer to be on the ticket, but who knows if that’s true. I see the logic in picking Fong, but Fong hasn’t endorsed Branstad yet. Maybe he will pick some other young Republican, like Isaiah McGee.

    • regarding new leaders

      what if the Republican business elites had gotten behind Rod Roberts in a big way last summer? Maybe they could have propelled him to the nomination, and if he had beated Culver he could have served more than one term. As things stand, Roberts will be out of the House soon and probably out of politics unless Branstad wins and appoints him to some position.