Alternate history: Jim Gibbons vs Leonard Boswell

Time for another Bleeding Heartland foray into counterfactual history, inspired by conversations with many Democrats and a few Republicans during the past week.

In early 2009, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included Representative Leonard Boswell on its list of 40 “Frontline” Democrats, incumbents acknowledged to be vulnerable. House Democrats lost more than 60 seats on November 2, with most “tossup” seats falling to the GOP. Chet Culver lost the governor’s race by more than 100,000 votes, and Democrats fared worse than expected in the Iowa House and Senate races. Yet voters re-elected Boswell in a swing district (partisan voting index D+1). Not only that, he won by a larger margin than Bruce Braley. Who would have predicted that six months ago?

All of the above raises an obvious question: would Boswell be heading back to Congress if Republicans had nominated Jim Gibbons rather than Brad Zaun?  

Zaun wasn’t the Republican establishment’s choice to face Boswell. Most of his Iowa Senate colleagues supported his candidacy, but behind-the-scenes bigwigs had a different “top-rate recruit” in mind: Jim Gibbons, the former NCAA champion Iowa State University wrestling coach. Key figures in the American Future Fund were involved with Gibbons’ campaign. Former Representative Greg Ganske and key figures in Terry Branstad’s circle also got behind Gibbons.

Gibbons’ connections helped him crush Zaun in fundraising before the Republican primary. In fact, Gibbons outraised Boswell in the fourth quarter of 2009 and nearly matched the incumbent’s fundraising in the first quarter of 2010.

Influential Iowa Republicans convinced the National Republican Congressional Committee to put Gibbons “on the radar” in February and bump him up to “contender” status in April. Had Gibbons won the primary, there’s no doubt in my mind the NRCC would have promoted him to “young gun” and spent a substantial amount on advertising in IA-03. The American Future Fund surely would have joined the fray against Boswell too; that group spent more than a million dollars against Braley.

In contrast, Zaun got virtually no outside financial help. His fundraising lagged even after an impressive primary win. He started running radio and television ads weeks after Boswell did, and his ad buys couldn’t come close to matching Boswell’s and the DCCC’s presence. Even with U.S. Chamber of Commerce spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on tv ads attacking Boswell, Zaun was outgunned.

So, Gibbons would have had the funds to run a stronger general election campaign against Boswell. But as the saying goes, money can’t buy you love. Not every Republican who outspent a Democratic incumbent prevailed last Tuesday. During the primary, Gibbons spent more than all his rivals combined but failed to demonstrate that he could use his resources effectively. Gibbons had a massive presence on central Iowa television, and his ads (see here and here) were far more polished than Zaun’s. Nevertheless, Zaun defeated Gibbons on June 8 by 39 percent to 26 percent. If Republican primary voters didn’t swoon over Gibbons’ celebrity and use of conservative buzzwords, would this message have won over moderates and independents?

Jim Gibbons’ values are hard work, honesty, and family. A champion wrestler, coach and financial adviser, he’s learned that listening to the voters is the most important part of being a leader in Congress. Above all, Jim Gibbons knows what’s important in life is being Annie’s husband and a great father to their three girls. It’s through their eyes Jim is running for Congress, to stop the out-of-control spending, cut taxes, and grow Iowa jobs. Jim Gibbons for Congress.

Don’t get me started on “Burn the Boats,” which is the most bizarre American campaign slogan I’ve ever heard.

As a candidate, Zaun had several assets Gibbons was missing. Bleeding Heartland user ragbrai08 named a few of them before either candidate officially joined the race: Zaun’s state Senate district contains about 12 percent of the IA-03 electorate; Zaun’s background as a small business owner helped him speak credibly on jobs and “main street” issues when economic insecurity was troubling voters.

Gibbons had no base in Polk County. He didn’t even live there, opting to rent a Des Moines apartment while his family stayed in Dallas County (IA-04). Heck, the underfunded tea party candidate Dave Funk won more Polk County precincts than Gibbons did. Wrestling glory supposedly made Gibbons a household name in central Iowa, but if you believe an internal poll conducted for Zaun’s campaign, Gibbons’ name ID was far lower than Zaun’s in the district.

Before the June primary, many Democrats told me privately that they considered Zaun a tougher opponent than Gibbons, despite the money lining up behind Gibbons.

Granted, that was before most of us knew about Zaun’s baggage. Boswell and the DCCC mercilessly brought to voters’ attention lots of dumb things Zaun said and did. He told a farmer he would do “nothing” to support the ethanol industry. He claimed flood victims seeking government help “forgot about personal responsibility”; he gave Iowans a lecture when they needed a hand. He got behind on his bills and was threatened with foreclosure. A police officer had to warn him to stay away from his ex-girlfriend.

Zaun may have been an unusually flawed candidate, but we don’t know what kind of opposition research the Boswell campaign had compiled on Gibbons. If they had a videographer following him around during the spring, they probably caught him saying stupid things too. Remember, Gibbons was a rookie candidate. His understanding of key issues was just as shallow as Zaun’s. Some of his policy ideas were laughable.

Gibbons could have been painted as a hypocrite. For instance, he attacked Boswell for being supported by DC insiders right after having former House Speaker Dennis Hastert headline a fundraiser for him.

Gibbons worked for several different firms as a financial advisor after leaving his coaching position at Iowa State. Who knows, maybe disgruntled former clients or business partners would have come out of the woodwork against him. The Boswell campaign didn’t pull any punches against Zaun and would have used the same “winning ugly” strategy against Gibbons. The difference is, Gibbons would have had more money to hit back.

What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers? Would Gibbons be joining the huge GOP freshman class of 2010, or would Boswell have foiled the best-made Republican plans?

LATE DECEMBER UPDATE: After Gibbons was picked for a top position in the Secretary of State’s office, Cityview’s Civic Skinny published some information that surely would have come out if Gibbons had been the GOP nominee in IA-03:

Jim Gibbons has signed on as chief deputy and director of business services in the office of Secretary-of-State-elect Matt Schultz. The former Iowa State wrestling coach brings some unusual credentials to the job.

Credential No. 1: Gibbons worked for Edward D. Jones & Co., the brokerage house, from April 23,1996, until August 6, 2004, when he resigned without notice and, according to court documents, “immediately joined a competitor,” Wachovia Securities. According to a lawsuit filed against him by Jones, Gibbons, “while still employed by Edward Jones, conspired with Wachovia to wrongfully convert Edward Jones’ records and to secretly divert Edward Jones’ customers to Wachovia,” which allegedly violated the terms of his employment contract. Neither Gibbons nor his attorney showed up for a court hearing, and on Sept. 21, 2004, the Dallas County district court found that Gibbons “has breached and continues to breach” his contract with Jones, and the court “enjoined and restrained” him from using Jones records or soliciting Jones customers. Perhaps because of a settlement, the case was dismissed two-and-a-half years later.

Credential No. 2: In 2009, the estate of Lester D. Gardiner Sr. sued Gibbons and others for negligence and breach of duty, saying that Gibbons “knew or should have known” that two aged clients of his “were not competent” to change the beneficiary on an account at Jones with $200,000 in cash and securities. The “dementia and confusion were obvious to persons having contact with them,” the suit notes. The suit was part of a family dispute. It appears to have been settled without further court action. […]

[Gibbons] showed interest in returning to Iowa State as coach in 2009, following Cael Sanderson’s widely lamented decision to quit and go to Penn State, but by then he had some detractors. Among them was former ISU wrestler Frank Santana of 7 Flags fitness in Clive. In a long and widely circulated e-mail to Gibbons (with a copy to ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard), Santana cited “five reasons we cannot support you in your quest for this position.” Among them:

“Your actions taken toward the former ISU wrestling alumni upon your first ISU coaching go-around made you a divisive and polarizing figure within the ISU wrestling family and gave clear evidence of your lack of the appropriate personal and business maturity. We see nothing in your recruiting and coaching record…which merits another consideration….”

Playing up his wrestling career in his Congressional campaign could have backfired if enemies within “the ISU wrestling family” had come out against Gibbons.  

  • Zaun/Gibbons

    Zaun did not look for very healthy during the campaign, he looked impatient and easily irritated.  I really thought he was going to be able to draw on the issues and his past experience and possibly win the race given the struggles that so many in the 3rd are going through.

    I still contend that Gibbons didn’t really know the issues well at all, but I didn’t see a lot of substance in many campaigns this year so it may not have been that necessary to actually know the issues.  Gibbons was a manufactured candidate, Zaun in my view had the true resume.

    As popular as the Tea Party was for getting conservatives excited, it may have been smart to nominate Funk.  Funk was a candidate who fit better on the federal level in my view, kind of like Virg Bernero in Michigan if I was to compare it to another Midwestern state.  

    • they didn't bring their A team

      to this race. I think they thought beating Boswell would be easy in a Republican year, so putting up a puppet like Gibbons was preferable to nominating a guy with his own base and ideas.

      Zaun has a resume, but for whatever reason he didn’t have credibility with most of the major Republican donors.

      I don’t know about Funk. He was a real loose cannon–probably they would have been able to caricature him easily. But he had an excited group of volunteers. He didn’t beat Hockensmith, but some of his organizing on the east side probably helped Kim Pearson knock off Geri Huser.

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