Wrong time, wrong place for a Democratic primary

Ed Fallon confirmed this week that he is trying to recruit a primary challenger against Governor Chet Culver. Fallon has been sounding the alarm about Culver's re-election prospects for some time. He now believes Culver will lose to Terry Branstad, and Iowa Democrats would have a better chance nominating someone else for governor.

I voted for Fallon in the 2006 gubernatorial primary and wrote a short book's worth of posts at this blog on why I supported his 2008 primary challenge to Congressman Leonard Boswell.

This time, I think his efforts are misguided, and I explain why after the jump.  

As a general rule, I like competitive Democratic primaries. When we are trying to win an open or Republican-held seat, I'd much rather have a large group of Democratic voters select the nominee than leave the decision up to a few party insiders. Even though my favored candidates have never won any of the gubernatorial primaries I've voted in, at least the campaigns were more than a coronation for whoever felt it was his or her "turn" to run for governor. (Side note: I still think John Chrystal could have denied Terry Branstad a third term in 1990.)

I also believe primary challenges against Democratic incumbents can be valuable in some circumstances. Elected officials must be accountable to the voters of their own party as well as to the general electorate. Rank and file Democrats should not keep rubber-stamping officials who don't stand up for their values. For that reason, I strongly supported Ned Lamont's 2006 primary challenge to Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Donna Edwards' 2008 campaign against Al Wynn in Maryland's fourth Congressional district.

It's fine for conservative Democrats to represent conservative districts, but Democratic voters in solid districts should not have to settle for less than a strong advocate. For that reason, I was happy to learn last year that Ed and Lynn Fallon were trying to recruit primary challengers against some Iowa House incumbents. I wouldn't target everyone in the "six-pack" who have stood in the way of good legislation, but three or four of them deserved to be challenged.

In fact, I decided to donate less to the Iowa Democratic Party after party chair Michael Kiernan announced on television last September,

I'm going to make something very clear here today -- the Iowa Democratic Party does not support primary [challengers] and we're going to protect our incumbents and that is our position. We're going to protect our incumbents and if there are some that aren't happy about that well then that's tough but we are a family and we're going to stick together.

If Kiernan would rather protect insiders than accomplish what the Democratic Party supposedly stands for, he can do that without my money. Moreover, Kiernan was giving wavering statehouse Democrats every reason not to be team players during the 2010 session. Why help your caucus by casting a tough vote when you know you'll face no consequences for letting them down?

Although the Fallons were unable to recruit primary challengers in the House districts they targeted, I think it was worthwhile for them to try. Even challengers who lose can influence Democratic incumbents for the better, as we saw with Boswell's voting record in 2008 and more recently with Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Turning to the governor's race, I understand why many Democrats are frustrated with Culver. He didn't do enough to mend fences after narrowly winning the 2006 primary, and to this day many people who voted for Mike Blouin or Fallon feel they have no stake in the Culver administration. Labor activists, most of whom backed Blouin, were enraged when Culver vetoed a bill on collective bargaining in 2008. The following year, Culver expressed support for prevailing wage legislation but didn't go to the mat to get it through the legislature the way he fought to get the I-JOBS infrastructure bonding program approved.

No one expected Culver to be a progressive champion, but he could have won over more Fallon supporters by embracing real campaign finance reform or going out on a limb to tackle some of this state's big environmental problems. When Fallon criticized Culver last spring, the governor's office could have addressed the substantive issues Fallon raised. Instead, a Culver staffer responded by ridiculing Fallon.

More broadly, Culver has been a poor coalition builder. He and the Democrats in the state legislature have not worked together as well as they should. Compared to Tom Vilsack's administration, Culver's staff is slow to respond to inquiries. In some cases, Democratic activists who found Vilsack willing to hear their concerns have been unable to get a meeting with Culver or his senior staff.

Despite Culver's faults, I don't think his record warrants a primary challenge. Tens of thousands of Iowa families have benefited from the minimum wage increase, improved health insurance coverage for children, and expanded access to pre-school.

The Power Fund and I-JOBS infrastructure program will leave a lasting and positive mark on this state. Perhaps Culver should have called a special legislative session to deal with the 2008 floods, but I-JOBS included hundreds of millions of dollars toward flood recovery and allowed Iowa to obtain about $500 million in federal money, which will help rebuild the University of Iowa campus.  

The economic recession has sent most states into fiscal crisis, and of course Republicans are quick to blame all of Iowa's budget problems on Democrats. The truth is that Iowa is in much better fiscal shape than most states. Unlike many states, we fully utilized federal stimulus funds available for unemployed Iowans. Culver's administration turned around stimulus funding for transportation quickly. Iowa is one of the few states with a rock-solid credit rating. I would have liked to see more leadership from Culver a year or two ago on curtailing expensive tax credits, but his draft budget for the coming year is a step forward in this respect.

Even though Culver wasn't out in front praising the Iowa Supreme Court's Varnum v Brien decision, he did take the right position eventually. I could live without the occasional pandering to religious conservatives, but Culver rejected political pressure in favor of a constitutional amendment on marriage.

I would have liked to see more action on climate change, but the Power Fund has supported many renewable energy projects since 2007. Culver has advocated for more passenger rail as well. When Congress was debating a climate change bill last year, Culver went to Washington to lobby for a stronger renewable electricity standard. Culver has made some excellent appointments in the environmental area too. Perhaps most important for the long term, the governor stayed out of the public disputes over building new coal-fired power plants in Waterloo and Marshalltown. Many environmentalists were disappointed that Culver didn't publicly fight the coal plants like Governor Kathleen Sebelius did in Kansas. However, if Culver had been a cheerleader for more coal combustion the way Vilsack was in his day, I am convinced we would have two more major air polluters in this state.

In fact, looking at the totality of his record, I would argue that Culver has been a better governor than Vilsack. (Someday I'll flesh out that argument, at the risk of starting a flamewar here.)

Sometimes an incumbent is such damaged goods that a new face would have a better chance of winning the election. That's why many Democrats are hoping that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will run against that Governor David Paterson, and it's the driving factor behind Fallon's effort:

"I'm doing the Democratic Party a favor," he said in an interview with The Iowa Independent. "Gov. Culver is going to lose, that is becoming more and more clear." [...]"I think someone with elected experience but who is a fresh face in Iowa politics," he said. "Someone who is willing to advance a progressive, populist agenda."

Recent polls indicate that Culver has a lot of work to do against Branstad, but I would not count him out of this campaign once Branstad's record comes under more scrutiny. No one has campaigned against Branstad in 16 years. The Republican primary will bring out some of his weaknesses, including his poor record of fiscal management, his incoherent position on gay marriage and his tendency to be against things he used to be for.

In addition, Branstad just admitted to Todd Dorman that he has no idea how he will cut state government by 15 percent over five years, even though that's a central promise of his campaign. Once the budget for the 2011 fiscal year is finalized, let's see what Branstad proposes to cut from it. He won't be able to keep his campaign promise just by eliminating the voluntary pre-school program.

The weak economy and state budget problems have brought down Culver's approval ratings. His numbers could bounce back in the spring and summer, especially if the job market improves and state revenues are close to current projections (meaning no more across-the-board budget cuts). More Iowans will see the results from I-JOBS projects in their communities.

I don't know whom Fallon is recruiting, but I have a hard time believing a different Democrat would do much better against Branstad. This isn't like Connecticut, where Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is obviously a much stronger contender than retiring incumbent Senator Chris Dodd. Jason Hancock's article at Iowa Independent mentions Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie. I respect them both and would give them serious consideration if they run for higher office someday, but I doubt they would stand a better chance against a former four-term governor than Culver would. I also agree with John Deeth that it's too late to put together "a credible primary challenge to a sitting governor." That would split the party and drain resources that we will need for the general election campaign.

If Fallon does talk someone into running against Culver in the primary, I hope that candidate will agree to support the winner of the primary. Iowa is one of the few states without a "sore loser" law, meaning that an unsuccessful candidate from the primary can run in the general election as an independent. Jonathan Narcisse is considering a gubernatorial bid and may run in the Democratic primary. However, Narcisse has made clear that he will run as an independent candidate this fall even if he starts the campaign as a Democrat. You can learn more about his agenda at his website, An Iowa Worth Fighting For.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Republican insider Doug Gross is trying to spread rumors that "prominent Democrats have explored the idea of having the governor get some kind of job in Washington so they would have a different candidate this fall in the general election." I haven't heard anything about that. Culver brushed off a reporter's question about a possible primary challenge.

  • Cownie?

    I to this day still keep wondering why Frank Cownie's name would come up for ANY upwardly mobile position, when he has yet to prove himself at this level.

    DSM is a city that can't pay it's sewer bills even with incredibly high property taxes, took unearned utility money (and still won't give that back)...not to mention Cownie is now involved in "travelgate" and NO one will ever let Cownie forget his sad leadership in Project Destiny....(at least the 90% that voted against that really poorly thought out proposal).

    Cownie is going nowhere.

    • Ed Fallon

      Ed Fallon is out for Ed Fallon, why doesn't he run against Grassley if he wants to be involved in the debate or run against Vaudt if he wants to focus on these matters? Ed Fallon doesn't speak for me in the Democratic Party.  I'm not out to punish big employers by getting rid of their tax breaks so they can offer jobs.  Ed doesn't understand that the ball is always in the employer's court and we have to play by their rules or else they are going to leave.

       Culver is governing from the center and he has done things for labor like the executive order mandating that all state contracts be given to union laborers.  Culver/Judge 2010! Period.  

      • a lot of economists

        disagree with you about the value of different states and cities competing against each other to offer more and more tax breaks. Those incentives often don't pay for themselves.

        At least Culver's economic development strategy is broader than that. Vilsack seemed to focus on corporate welfare to the exclusion of most other things.

        • I know they do

          That's fine, I don't know if they'd leave or not really, but I'm not going to risk it.  You can't force unions on people, mandate high wages, get rid of tax breaks/incentives and expect people to come here, at least not to Lee County.  We've had the same leadership here for decades and very little ever changes.  I don't see how putting more pressure on employers is going to help.  I support repealing the Bush tax cuts, but Fallon and Narcisse's ideas are anti-growth in my estimation.  

  • I dunno, DmD...

    Chet has not played the game well.  Our friend Ed aside, Chet blew off a lot of people when he got elected.  People who understand one absolute rule of political life.

    One hand washes the other.  

    Policy decisions aside, you cannot forget who your friends are and expect to survive, let alone thrive, in office.  

    I definitely do not want another Bransted administration during economically volatile times, but I do not see Culver playing this game to win.

    I guess I'm just going to come right out and be honest here.

    In many elections, I have seen the choice as being between the lesser of two evils.

    Seldom do I see an election as being the choice between two utter idiots.  

    • I agree in part

      He blew off a lot of people, and that's one reason many Democrats don't like him/aren't inclined to support him.

      The more relevant questions (in my opinion) are, is his record bad enough to warrant a primary challenge? Is there someone else who would be a stronger candidate against Branstad? I have to say no and no.

      I get a little tired of the Vilsack partisans in the Democratic Party dumping on Culver. Vilsack's record is not as wonderful as they would have you believe, and he played a significant part in the budget problems that are being blamed on Culver. Vilsack signed a lot of permanent tax cuts, and business tax credits we can't afford increased dramatically during his tenure.

    • Chet knows who his friends are

      That's why he hangs with lobbyists and big donors, and installed a lobbyist's wife as a department director.

      • don't know which department you're referring to

        I have a friend in state government who says the person Culver put in charge of that department is much more competent than the previous Vilsack appointee.

  • Ed Fallon Is Right

    As a person who campaigned enthusiastically for Culver he not only has failed to keep his core promises he's betrayed every major constituency that supported him - labor, teachers, people of color, the poor, elderly.

    Only the vested political class has done well under his administration.

    Beyond that he has yet to provide even a hint of understanding the pain Iowans have not only suffered in these economic times but that his misguided policies inflicted on them.

    The only real advantage Culver has is that a faction of loyal Democrats are still willing to make the lesser of two evils argument in support of Culver and refuse to put for viable progressive alternatives that clearly serve working Iowans and Democrats much better.

    Complicating the matter is the fact there are no real differences between Culver and Branstad except age, appearance and competence. Both fill the trough of corporate welfare and exploitation and the same lot feeds from it.

    Regardless, arguments about the virtues, or lack thereof, of a second Culver administration are moot. Culver can't beat get re-elected. Period!

    The bad news isn't "One-Term's" standing in The Iowa Poll. The bad news is that the same poll that said government's too small, taxes are too low, dope should be legal and gay marraige is cool Bob Vander Plaats is better than Culver.

    Kathie O. put it best in Sunday's Des Moines Register when she suggested he update his resume, network and get on Monster.com.

    The bottom line - Ed Fallon is right!!!

    This is no longer a debate about whether Democrats should support an incompentent and uncaring Democrat who will likely accelerate his record of betrayal of working class Iowans and his most loyal supporters. This about the fact Culver can't win.

    The blindly, if not recklessly, loyal Democratic base is not sufficient to compensate for the hurt and suffering inflicted on Iowans by Culver's administration and the willingness of those same Iowans, especially labor, to say no more.

    The pain Iowans are feeling is real. Culver is unaware of that pain and could care less. If Culver really cared about the Democratic party and this state he'd step down and let an electable candidate on the ballot.

    But he won't.

    Culver doesn't deserve a real Democrat's vote. But whether he does or doesn't is again, moot.

    It's very simple - a vote for Culver is a vote for Branstad!

    • anyone who thinks he or she has a better chance of winning

      is welcome to run, as you are planning to do. That's not where I am putting my energy, but I understand your reasoning.

  • I feel like we're in a no-win situation

    Culver's first term has been a disappointment on many levels, many of which you and others have mentioned. To me it almost all comes down to poor management and a lack of leadership. His re-election does Iowa no favors in my mind.

    And on the glass half-empty side, as many of us remember, Branstad would be worse.

    So unless something changes, Culver will again get my vote - this time with resignation instead of optimism.

    • I'm not even going to respond to Johnathan's hyperbole

      Culver made tough choices, he didn't want to discriminate against one department over the other so he cut across the board.  If organized labor really believes that repealing right to work and implementing fair share is good for Iowa's economy go ahead.  I cited an example of Culver helping organized labor above, if we let Ed Fallon be Governor our unemployment rate would be three percent higher.

      If Mr. Narcisse wants to talk about real Democrats, when did real Democrats say we are going to control your lives by banning touch play machines and cracking down on gambling?  When did real Democrats criticize our prison system which is one of the biggest employers in my part of the state.

       I don't want more drugs on our streets, more rapists period.  I am glad they are in prison, there should be more.  When did real Democrats join a movement promulgated by Glenn Beck like Mr. Narcisse did with the 9/12 movement.  Ed Fallon is a joke who just has a bone to pick with rich people, same class warfare disguised as "progressive" values.

      • can't agree with you

        The United States incarcerates a far larger percentage of our population than most other countries, and it's a huge drain on our budgets. If we were serious about treating drug abuse, mental illness, etc. we would have fewer criminals requiring incarceration.

        Expanding gambling is not the right approach in my opinion either. They are now talking about internet poker, which would bring in $11 million. They could save far more than that just by restricting some of the business tax credits. To cite one example, restoring tax-increment financing (TIF) to its original intent (redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods) would save tens of millions of dollars from the general fund. However, that bill doesn't seem likely to move forward, because too many powerful people are making money off TIF.

        • I'm tired of coddling criminals

          I agree with you that we need to support people with mental illness, but these are the stances that Fallon took during the primary, we would have lost to Jim Nussle by twenty points had these stances been adopted.  I'm tired of treating pedophiles and meth dealers like human beings, they try to get other poor kids into their games and ruin their future.  Fallon is taking the same stances as Narcisse on these key issues.

          If people want to spend their money on a boat or a casino that is their business.  I would also support legalized sports gambling in Iowa.  It is about freedom.  This is different then the mortgage brokers who enticed people to buy homes they couldn't afford, this is why I was happy Alan Khazei didn't win the primary in MA.

          Fallon is trying to make the Democratic Party more like Nader, if I wanted Nader I would vote for Nader.  If I wanted Nader esqye policies in Iowa, I would vote for the Greens.  Fallon needs to leave McKinley Bailey, Larry Marek, Geri Hauser and Brian Quirk, etc. alone.  If Fallon is welcome in the Democratic Party then they sure as hell ought to be too.  

          I don't know who died and made Fallon king maker, but I assume his little "I'M for Iowa group is a little short on money so he's got to stir the pot to get a pay day.  

          This is about a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party and whether Democrats are going to try to strike a balance between being pro-labor and pro-employer.

          • "coddling criminals"

            Nice Republican talking point. As a society, we are wasting a lot of money on excessively long mandatory sentences for non-violent drug-related crimes. Meanwhile, budgets for treating drug addicts get cut. Politicians make a big deal about the sex offender residency law which does nothing to make kids safer and in fact wastes law enforcement resources.

            I would leave Bailey alone, but Mertz, Huser, Quirk and Kelley deserved to be primaried. It's too bad no one stepped up to the plate.

            • Seriously

              I wish my father had been sent to prison for his cocaine use because his heart got enlarged by it and he may not have passed away as soon as he did.  Sending him to prison may or may have cleaned him up and it may not have, but the prison system would not given him a shot, maybe.

              I oppose things like national health based on personal life experiences, it's why I take the positions that I do.  It has nothing to do with Republican talking point DmD.  I'm a Democrat because Democrats are right a ton of the time, but I will leave the party and become an independent if Ed Fallon and his "progressive" values gain ground in the party.  It's not about Republican talking points.

              As far as the usefulness of the sex offender law, I would prefer that those people just get killed in prison by other inmates because we are never going to be able to eliminate that problem through rehabilitation.  The molesters will keep molesting and Ed Fallon will continue to advocate for their rights in the name of "justice."  

              I don't support a taxpayer funded death penalty, but if inmates who are already serving a life sentence want to do society a favor, please do.  That view is way out of the mainstream, but its genuinely how I feel.  I'm tired of Democrats losing elections because we are viewed as soft on crime.

              I'm not just talking about primarying Culver, I'm talking about the people you referencing above.  Ed wants attention and he wants money, he's probably got some deals cut with some of the labor leaders to funnel money to him through I'M for Iowa in order to elect "progressives" a.k.a. to line his own pockets, which is fine.  He's a businessman and if people want to give him money, that's fine.  

              • what has organized labor ever done for Fallon?

                He had a perfect pro-labor voting record over 14 years in the legislature, and then in the 2006 primary almost all the unions endorsed Blouin, except for the handful that endorsed Culver. It was a sick joke, because Blouin would have been even worse for labor than Culver.

                Fallon voted against the sex offender residency restriction law because he knew it would do nothing to protect children. It was meaningless "tough on crime" posturing that made it more difficult for law enforcement to track sex offenders. That is why prosecutors' and law enforcement associations oppose laws like that.

                I would bet that in private a majority of legislators would agree that the sex offender law was useless. However, only Fallon had the courage to vote against it. Likewise, Fallon voted against the Defense of Marriage Act when Gronstal and others were running for cover.

                • Agree with Fallon

                  There are a lot of social issues where I agree with Fallon and a fair number of economic issues.  I certainly agree with him on gay marriage/gay rights more broadly.  

                  I don't apologize for discriminating against sex offenders, with all of the other money that is wasted within the state's budgets, I hardly consider that a problem.  I agree with him on some property rights issues especially, that whole situation was bumbled by Vilsack.  

                  The broader question for me is whether I want Ed Fallon and his more "progressive" wing of the party to take a larger role and the answer for me is no.  Mike Gronstal should just let people vote the way they want to on labor bills, this isn't a parliamentary system.  The fact that someone doesn't vote with the Democrats on all the big ticket items doesn't matter as long as they representing the majority view of their constituents.

                  You know that labor is encouraging these primary challenges of course they would endorse Fallon for Governor, because the man loves erratic theater and two he had no chance to win.  Had Fallon been the nominee I would have encouraged a write-in campaign amongst Lee County Dems.

                  • The same goes for Murphy in the house

                  • I don't think labor is encouraging the primary challenge

                    to Culver, and I don't think labor put a lot of effort into recruiting primary challengers for the House Ds. If they did, they failed miserably.

          • incidentally

            I seriously doubt that recruiting a primary challenger against Culver will help I'M for Iowa's fundraising.

    • Seconded

      I'm right there with ya. I don't like Culver, but I'm not wild about Branstad either.

      The only difference is that I can't imagine Branstad being worse, so (for now) I would vote for Branstad.

      I have to vote for competence, even if I disagree with some of his positions. Still, same as you, with resignation instead of optimism.

      • Branstad is far from competent

        even many Republicans will admit that in private.

      • also, it's only fair to acknowledge

        that most state budgets are in far worse shape than Iowa's. I'm not just talking about California, Florida and Arizona (the most extreme cases), I'm talking about Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Culver has made some political mistakes, but I think he is being unfairly blamed for the revenue collapse, which the recession caused.

  • Why is Kiernan still in there?

    "I'm going to make something very clear here today -- the Iowa Democratic Party does not support primary [challengers] and we're going to protect our incumbents and that is our position. We're going to protect our incumbents and if there are some that aren't happy about that well then that's tough but we are a family and we're going to stick together." ~ Mike Kiernan

    His all-but-endorsement of Conlin on Iowa Press (think Tom Cruise jumping the couch moment on Oprah), combined with the ongoing favoritism he and the staff are showing Conlin (ask about the Jefferson-Jackson reception given to her and denied to the legitimate candidates), added to his apparent disdain for the State Central Committee members (really? It takes a month to return a call on a hot issue?). No wonder the grass roots and activists are "Fed Up, Ready To Stay Home".

    • as I said in the post above

      I disagreed with what Kiernan said about primary challengers. Don't imagine this started with him, though. Under chairman Scott Brennan the IDP also favored incumbents. When Matt Ballard ran against Geri Huser in her House district in 2008, the IDP would not let Ballard buy into the VAN (voter information file).

      In fairness to Kiernan and Brennan, I think most party organizations do protect incumbents. But I don't consider someone like Dolores Mertz more valuable to the party than the thousands of activists who do the hard work.

      I understand why supporters of Bob Krause and Tom Fiegen are upset about apparent favoritism shown to Roxanne Conlin. That said, you should acknowledge that Kiernan probably wouldn't have been trying to recruit Conlin if Krause and Fiegen had demonstrated an ability to run a statewide campaign. Krause raised about $18K all of last year, and Fiegen raised less than $10K.

    • as for why Kiernan's still in there

      IDP chairs tend to serve two-year terms. I expect a new chair will be chosen in January 2011.

  • Let's Keep This Honest


    We all have a right to our opinion but not to distort the facts. I would love to sit down with you or any other Iowan and present my vision of state government, corrections, etc...

    I have found the blind partisans reluctant to create a forum for the presenting of real solutions to the pain of Iowans even as they protect politicians who are registered Democrats but exploit and crush the hopes, dreams and aspirations of working Iowans.

    I'm used to name calling. I'm used to people flat out lying about what I stand for. What I'm not used to are those people having the courage to meet me in the arena of ideas.

    Don't just make false accusations. Meet me in the arena of ideas. If your ideas are better I'll embrace them. But if you don't have real solutions to the pain of working Iowans don't attack for attack sake those of use who do.

    No personal attack ever educated a child, created a job or resulted in true justice.

    My number is 515-770-1218. My email is jon_narcisse@yahoo.com. I await your engagement in a more productive, constructive and enlightened process.

    • Where was the personal attack?

      You are a member of the 9/12 movement.  You do oppose expanded gambling in state, correct?  We disagree.  You do oppose our current prison system and presumably would not like to see another one built?  Where did I lie sir?  I am not a blind partisan sir, I am a Democrat hardly a partisan if you go back and read some of my comments on this blog you would know that.  

      I like what you call "corporate welfare" and you shouldn't insult employers as if they aren't working Iowans as well.  Same crapola about making employers who already give enough back to the economy get no assistance at all.  

      My e-mail is tmills43@mchsi.com.  I actually agree with many of your views on education, but to imply larger employers who are getting a tax break aren't helping working people is flat out wrong.  Several of the larger employers you've criticized during your travels around the state are afraid to respond because they know you are just trying to draw them in and get attention for yourself.  

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