A closer look at the Rod Roberts campaign for governor

I expected Terry Branstad to drive all of the lesser-known Republicans out of the governor’s race. To my surprise, State Representative Rod Roberts has not followed the lead of Paul McKinley, Christian Fong, Jerry Behn and Chris Rants. Roberts told WHO’s Dave Price last weekend that he is staying in the governor’s race all the way to the June primary.

Roberts acknowledges the other two men have raised a LOT more money and are better known. After all, Branstad has been governor 4 terms before. [Bob] Vander Plaats has run for governor 3 times. Roberts plans on not just going after typical Republican primary voters to make up for his lack of recognition (he also added that he will just have to outwork the other 2). He plans on getting Democrats and Independents who are unhappy with the money Governor Chet Culver has spent since he took over and who are also unhappy with the overall direction of the state. Roberts told me this will be the year for the outsider. And he said he will be the outsider.

Join me after the jump for closer look at Roberts and his campaign strategy. I doubt he has any chance of winning the primary, but his presence in the race will probably help Branstad.

Rod Roberts faces long odds in the primary, having much lower name recognition than Branstad or Vander Plaats, less cash on hand for his campaign, no paid campaign staff and not much support from the GOP activist base. He started running radio ads last month in order to boost his name recognition. You can listen to the ads on his campaign website, but I decided to transcribe them as well. In this ad, Roberts reads the entire script himself:

This is State Representative Rod Roberts, Republican for governor. I’m running for governor because I think our state needs new leadership. State government is spending taxpayer dollars at record highs. Next year’s budget gap could run over one billion dollars, and over 100,000 Iowans are out of work. The Roberts for Governor campaign is about using common-sense conservative values to solve these problems. As a five-term state representative, I have real experience being both a fiscal and a social conservative. As governor, I promise to restore fiscal discipline and to stop out-of-control state spending, and I will continue to be a strong advocate for policies that are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage. The Roberts for Governor campaign is about building a better Iowa. It’s time for new leadership, a fresh face, and a new direction for the state of Iowa. Visit www.robertsforgov.com to find out more about me, Rod Roberts, Republican candidate for governor. Paid for by Rod Roberts for governor.

The second ad features male and female voice-overs:

Man: Iowa needs leadership from their next governor. Over 100,000 Iowans are currently out of work. State spending is at a record high, and the state could face future budget deficits of one billion dollars or more. Who can Iowans trust as their next governor?

Woman: Rod Roberts, the conservative Republican choice for governor. Rod Roberts is a state representative. He has a record of being both a fiscal and a social conservative. Rod Roberts has fought for lower taxes, less spending and he has led efforts to give Iowans the right to vote on the definition of marriage.

Man: Rod Roberts will use common-sense conservative values to build a better Iowa. He doesn’t just talk the conservative talk, he walks the conservative walk. As governor, Roberts will work for everyday Iowans by creating new jobs and fighting for traditional family values.

Woman: Visit www.robertsforgov.com It’s  time for new leadership, a fresh face, and a new direction for the state of Iowa. Rod Roberts, Republican for governor.

Man: Paid for by Rod Roberts for Governor Committee

This generic Republican message is designed to help Roberts position himself as a unifying figure for the Iowa GOP, where social conservatives have clashed with establishment figures in recent years. Last May, Carroll-based journalist Douglas Burns depicted Roberts as a strong candidate for governor because he could appeal to both Republican camps. Even with four-time former Governor Branstad in the race, some analysts see Roberts as the candidate with more potential to unite the party.

Republican moderates as well as some conservatives in the business community don’t care for Vander Plaats. Key donors recruited Branstad back into politics in part because Vander Plaats was the heavy favorite for the nomination among the declared candidates last summer.

Meanwhile, many social conservatives do not trust Branstad, partly because of his record as governor, partly because he is not emphasizing social issues on the campaign trail, and partly because his backers include Doug Gross, a longtime nemesis of the religious right wing. Some Republicans view Gross as “baggage” for Branstad.

Roberts doesn’t have much baggage and seems to have made no enemies during five terms in the Iowa House. In keeping with his nice guy reputation, he is mostly spreading a positive message at his campaign stops. He talks about creating a friendly business climate and advocates eliminating the state corporate income tax. He talks about the need to reduce spending and supports a constitutional amendment to “limit state spending to 99 percent of projected revenue.” Like most Republicans, he supports “the traditional definition of marriage” and promises to give Iowans the right to vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. He has pointed out his ability to win votes from independents and conservative Democrats in the Carroll area.

During this year’s legislative session, Roberts has introduced a bill to abolish the state corporate income tax as well as a bill that would increase the number of Iowa Supreme Court justices and require them to represent different regions in Iowa.

It’s fine for candidates to be positive, and I’ve never heard a Republican say anything bad about Roberts, but I don’t see how he breaks through in the primary campaign without making a more direct case against Branstad and Vander Plaats. It’s not enough to be a fresh face; Roberts has to explain why he would be a better governor and/or better general election candidate than the better-known candidates. So far he has criticized some of Branstad’s decisions as governor, but that hasn’t been a focus of his campaign speeches or press releases. Kathie Obradovich suggests the “nice-guy candidate” with a “vanilla ice cream” demeanor could “appeal especially to older Iowans, who in recent polls have been the least supportive of Branstad but still tend to be the most reliable voters.” For that to happen, Roberts would need to draw more contrasts with Branstad. But he’s not an attack-dog type like Chris Rants, and I doubt he will spend his campaign’s limited resources to go negative on Branstad.

To my mind, having Roberts in the race is great for Branstad, the clear favorite in the primary thanks to his campaign cash and establishment connections. The best hope for Vander Plaats would be to unite social conservatives who distrust Branstad. But Roberts is competing for the conservative niche, as this February 22 press release indicates:

The Roberts for Governor Campaign announced today that current State Representative Jason Schultz and former State Representative Dan Boddicker have endorsed Rod Roberts’s campaign for governor. Schultz, who is a seven-year veteran of the Iowa National Guard, is from the western Iowa town of Schleswig and represents Iowa House District 55. Boddicker, who served in the Iowa House from 1993-2005, lives near the eastern Iowa town of Tipton and represented Iowa House District 79.

“Iowa needs new leadership, and I believe that Iowa needs Rod Roberts as its next governor. In my time in the Iowa House, I have found Rod to be a strong advocate for the common-sense, conservative principles that are important to me and my fellow Republicans,” said Schultz, who currently serves on the Economic Growth Committee and the Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee in the Iowa House.

Boddicker echoed Roberts’s conservative credentials.

“Rod is the type of man we can count on to fight for conservative values, and I strongly believe he should be Iowa’s next governor,” said Boddicker. “By supporting limited-government policies, Rod will be a fresh face to take Iowa in a new direction.”

Jason Schultz doesn’t impress me, to put it mildly, but he may have clout with some conservative activists. He co-sponsored a bill this session to “remove sexual orientation and gender identity as definitions used for purposes of protecting students in public and nonpublic schools from harassment and bullying.” Schultz also co-sponsored a bill that would bring back elections for the Iowa Supreme Court justices.

Also on February 22, Republican activist Shane Vander Hart, who blogs about political and religious topics, announced that he is endorsing Roberts:

Rod Roberts is a fiscal, small government, pro-life, and pro-family conservative.  He is the complete package.  I don’t want to have to choose.  He has demonstrated competency.  He understands how state government works, and how it can be better.  He knows what he will do on day one, but also knows how he’ll govern on day 2 and 100.  He is a man of integrity.  He is a servant-leader and has demonstrated not only in the Iowa House, but also in his role with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in Iowa.  He is a humble man, but confident that he can lead Iowa competently.  He also isn’t overly partisan, and is genuinely likeable.  He has also run a very positive campaign.  I think he’s set up well to be competitive and end up being a surprise in June.

I am proud to know him and consider him a friend.  I hope that my fellow Iowans will join me to support his candidacy.  Let’s help him become better known.  I believe that when Iowans get to know him they’ll like what they see.  I also encourage all conservatives to consider financially supporting the Reagan conservative in this race.

Vander Hart alluded to the fact that Roberts is an ordained minister. He hasn’t been playing that part of his resume up in this campaign, but it can’t hurt him with social conservatives.

Without Roberts in the race, the Republican primary for governor would be a clear choice between the old establishment and the more consistently conservative Vander Plaats. Roberts gives Republicans who are unsure about Branstad another place to go, which may be particularly appealing for those who doubt the wisdom of Vander Plaats’ promise to issue an executive order on day one halting gay marriage.

Roberts lacks the money to run a significant statewide paid media campaign, so I would be surprised if he won more than 5 or 10 percent in the primary. That said, every vote he gets will make it that much harder for Vander Plaats to upset Branstad.

I wouldn’t claim Roberts is merely a stalking horse for Branstad, but if he didn’t exist, the Branstad campaign might have reason to invent him.

Final note: despite his recent comments, Roberts could still change his mind about the governor’s race. Chris Rants indicated that he would stay in the governor’s race just a few weeks before he dropped out. But time is running out for Roberts to shift gears to a re-election campaign for the Iowa House. The filing deadline for primary candidates in Iowa is March 19.

Alternatively, Roberts may end up as Branstad’s running mate. His presence on the ticket might reassure social conservatives who are still upset that Branstad picked moderate Joy Corning to be his lieutenant governor in the 1990s.

UPDATE: Looks like I’m not the only one who thinks Roberts will help Branstad win the Republican nomination.

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  • Roberts would make a lot of sense as Branstad's running mate

    He needs a social con on the ticket, and Roberts is more palatable than most of them.

  • The way Roberts wins....

    is mutual nuclear destruction by Branstad and BVP.


    • that seems like a far-fetched scenario

      First, BVP does not have the money to wage all-out war. Second, we’ve all heard his arguments against Branstad, and I don’t think they will be persuasive enough to drive Branstad below 50 percent, let alone low enough to put Roberts in contention.

      Roberts doesn’t even have enough cash for a week of statewide television/radio.

      I would love to see Branstad lose the primary, but it is very hard for me to see that happening.

      • Implausible, not impossible

        I don’t think BVP has enough cash to win a war against Branstad…but I think he has more than enough cash to start one. And although we’ve heard all his arguments, I still think there’s enough in Branstad’s past to make hay out of. He could launch a nasty statewide Joy Corning or tax hike ad, for instance.

        You’re right that Roberts doesn’t have enough cash for much of a media buy, but if he has a campaign manager worth anything…he’ll milk free media appearances and debates for all they’re worth.

        It could happen, but it’s unlikely.