Brad Zaun higher ambition speculation thread

What’s going on with Brad Zaun? This month he’s stuck his nose into two Republican primaries that should be of little concern to a state senator from the Des Moines suburbs.

Zaun is up for re-election this year in the new Senate district 20, covering Urbandale, Johnston, and Grimes in Polk County. As in 2008, Democrats did not field a candidate against him. Without a competitive campaign of his own, I would expect Zaun to focus on helping Republicans win back the Iowa Senate majority. He has served as an assistant Senate minority leader since 2009 and was elected minority whip last November.

There are ten competitive Republican primaries for Iowa Senate seats this year. Click here (pdf) for the full candidate list. Two or more Republicans face off in the open Senate districts 4, 6, 10, 14, 42, and 48. In Senate district 22, two-term incumbent Pat Ward faces a primary challenger, Jeff Mullen. In Senate district 36, two Republicans are competing to face Democratic incumbent Steve Sodders. In Senate district 50, two Republicans are competing to face Democratic incumbent Pam Jochum. Republican incumbents Shawn Hamerlinck and Jim Hahn were thrown together into the new Senate district 46.

To my knowledge, Zaun has not endorsed a candidate in any of those Iowa Senate primaries. That makes sense, because a whip wouldn’t want to burn bridges with anyone who might be in the caucus next year. Senate district 22 is unusual, in that one would typically expect the whip to support a fellow incumbent facing a primary challenge–all the more so since Ward and Zaun have served together as assistant minority leaders for years. On the other hand, both Zaun and Mullen endorsed Michele Bachmann for president in the summer of 2011. Side note: kudos to Zaun for sticking with Bachmann when her campaign was sinking, unlike State Senator Kent Sorenson, who bailed less than a week before the Iowa caucuses.


This month, Zaun took a stand in two Republican primaries far from his home base in northwest Polk County. He endorsed Ben Lange for Congress in Iowa’s new first district. From a May 7 Lange campaign press release:

“At a time when so many Iowans are becoming disillusioned with the current crop of politicians in Washington, along comes a new breed of conservative leader like Ben Lange,” Zaun said. “Ben has the political guts that the times require and Iowans are fortunate to have someone from a new generation who can bring a fresh perspective to Washington, something our country desperately needs.”

“Ben works day in and day out with small business owners and he understands what it takes to grow the private sector economy. His principles haven’t changed with the times and he hasn’t been planning a run for office for his entire adult life. Ben is as authentic as they come and he’s running for the right reasons. As we continue the fight for individual liberty in the Iowa Senate, we need more men and women like Ben Lange to carry the fight to Washington DC.”

Lange expressed gratitude for Sen. Zaun’s endorsement and his continued public service in the Iowa State Capitol. “I’m grateful to have Senator Zaun’s voice of support as we continue our march towards fixing the national debt crisis, growing the private sector economy, and getting big government off our backs. He’s been a consistent voice for common sense solutions and I hope to partner with him and other state legislators in the future to help solve problems that exist at the federal level.”

In 2010, Zaun won a hotly contested primary election in Iowa’s old 3rd congressional district. Four of the counties in the old IA-03 are included in the new IA-01, including Benton, Iowa, Poweshiek, and Tama counties. Zaun currently represents Iowa Senate district 32 in the Des Moines area.

Recap: Zaun defeated six other Republican candidates while winning the 2010 primary in Iowa’s third Congressional district by a comfortable margin. The runner-up in that primary, Jim Gibbons, had raised more money (including from various major Iowa GOP donors), run more television commercials, and gained the confidence of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Ironically, Gibbons won far more votes than Zaun in Benton, Iowa, Poweshiek and Tama counties. Zaun won by dominating Polk County, the population center of the old third district. Click here (pdf) for the 2010 primary results by county. In the general election, Zaun outpolled incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell in Benton, Iowa, and Tama counties (but not in Poweshiek).

Lange is up against Dubuque businessman Rod Blum in the first district primary. I find it hard to imagine that Zaun’s support will be very significant, given that other counties in the new IA-01 have far more registered Republicans than Benton, Iowa, Poweshiek, and Tama.

At first glance, it’s not clear why Zaun would want to get involved in the IA-01 race. Maybe he feels a bond with Lange, as both were GOP Congressional candidates who couldn’t win in the massive 2010 wave.

Or perhaps Zaun wants to tap into the establishment support lining up behind Lange. Quite a few state lawmakers have endorsed Lange (though unlike Zaun, they live in the new IA-01). Lange has topped Blum in fundraising, a big reason the National Republican Congressional Committee deemed Lange a “contender” last week.

Endorsing Lange could help Zaun mend fences with other important voices in the Iowa Republican establishment. American Future Fund founder Nick Ryan did some work for the Gibbons campaign in 2010, and Gibbons raised money from Bruce Rastetter, one of the largest financial backers of Iowa Republicans as well as the American Future Fund. That 501(c)4 group spent around $1 million targeting Lange’s opponent Bruce Braley in 2010, and will likely repeat the performance this year. Nick Ryan is from northeast Iowa and used to work for Representative Jim Nussle.

Along those lines, the Iowa Republican blog’s coverage leans strongly toward Lange in the current IA-01 primary. That blog’s publisher Craig Robinson was all-in for Gibbons and skeptical of Zaun during the 2010 IA-03 primary campaign.

Iowa House district 50

Zaun’s latest foray into GOP primary politics happened last week, when he backed State Representative Annette Sweeney over fellow incumbent Pat Grassley in the new House district 50. That race will be the most closely-watched Iowa Republican primary next month. Sweeney’s campaign sent out this e-mail from Zaun on May 17:

Iowans across the state will be heading to the voting booths in less than 3 weeks. We as a state face some very challenging times, and leadership is needed in Des Moines now more than ever. This is why I am writing you today, I have personally seen that leadership by Annette Sweeney.

I began working with Annette in 2009, when she was a freshman Representative and I was in State Senate. At the time Republicans were in the minority, and the Democrats controlled both chambers with sizeable majorities and the Governor’s office. Yet during that time I witnessed Annette Sweeney’s ability to work both parties in each chamber and the governor’s office to pass some very important legislation that helped Iowa veterans apply and receive home loans. That legislation passed the Iowa House 100-0 and the Senate 50-0.

Annette’s leadership and passion for this state is on display everyday when she is in Des Moines, at work in the district or leading a trade mission to South Korea and China. Annette saw an opportunity for Iowans and she took it. That trade mission led to the opening of those markets to Iowa’s farmers and manufactures.

When House Republicans took the majority after the 2010 elections, we saw Annette become Chair of the House Agriculture Committee were she worked to promote rural Iowa and its family farms. She led the way to defend our farmers from some unscrupulous groups and actors. Annette’s bill the Ag Protection Act not only passed both chambers with large bi-partisan support and signed into law; it has been duplicated and passed by 8 other states. 

However the most important achievements of Annette Sweeney happened this year. During the budget debates, Annette submitted an amendment that would end state funding for abortions and defend the unborn. This amendment became known as the Sweeney Amendment. Many in the past have tried to take on this challenge and they failed. Yet Annette was the only one in recent memory to have her Pro-Life amendment pass the Iowa House with bi-partisan support and force the Democrats who control the Senate be on record on this extremely important issue.

This is why I am endorsing Representative Annette Sweeney in this primary race. She has demonstrated over her career the leadership, passion and effectiveness that Iowans so desperately need. Annette just isn’t going to Des Moines to pass the time, Annette Sweeney is going to Des Moines to make a difference. Annette wants to make Iowa great again, and with your support we will. I urge you to vote for Annette Sweeney on June 5th for House District 50.

Brad Zaun is former 2010 Republican nominee for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District and currently serves as State Senator from Urbandale, and is the Senate Republican Whip.

Bleeding Heartland has discussed the so-called “ag gag” bill here and here. The initial version pushed by Sweeney had obvious constitutional problems.

Sweeney and Grassley have strong anti-abortion voting records. For example, both supported an Iowa House vote on “personhood” in 2011. Sweeney’s amendment to the health and human services appropriations bill did pass the Iowa House last month, but the restrictions on Medicaid coverage of abortion in cases of rape or incest was dropped in order to reach consensus with the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate.

Incidentally, both Sweeney and Grassley supported the bill to ban traffic cameras in Iowa, an issue of particular importance to Zaun.

Getting involved in the House district 50 primary is not an obvious play for the Senate Republican whip. Very few GOP elected officials have endorsed a candidate in that race. Still, I can think of a few reasons Zaun might favor Sweeney over Grassley.

For one thing, Sweeney and Bruce Rastetter are old childhood friends. If I were an Iowa Republican politician, I’d rather not annoy a major donor. Senator Chuck Grassley is a powerful figure in Washington, but Rastetter gives far more money to GOP state legislative campaign efforts. Anyway, it’s not as if the elder Grassley lifted a finger for Zaun during his 2010 campaign against Boswell.

Ending the Grassley family dynasty now has other potential benefits. Someday Chuck Grassley will retire, and upwardly-mobile Republicans will want a shot at the U.S. Senate seat without the senator’s grandson in the way.

Zaun’s probably not going to get another chance to run for Congress, unless Boswell defeats Representative Tom Latham in IA-03 this year. I doubt Zaun’s looking to stage a coup in the Iowa Senate Republican caucus. He wouldn’t have been named whip if he hadn’t backed Jerry Behn in last November’s leadership election.

Could Zaun’s GOP primary endorsements reflect a desire to run for U.S. Senate or some other statewide office in the future? Or have I left out other ways Zaun might benefit from backing Lange and Sweeney?

Spin your own scenarios in this thread.

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  • Zauning

    Brad had a tough time with his Boswell defeat. Leonard carpet bombed him with those negative ads.  The whole campaign was very, very difficult on Zaun’s family, bringing some of them tears as they watched his name dragged through the mud. His concession speech election night pulled the curtain back a little on how hard it was on the family. The story circulating these days is that Brad will not put his family through that again. He could change his mind over time, I guess, but I don’t see him running for Grassley’s seat.

    Brad recently gained a little traction with that whole tuition-scholarship issue, which, according to a subsequent CityView article, was first brought to the fore by his fellow Urbandalian, the outgoing House Appropriations Chair Scott Raecker.

    Regardless how you feel about his politics, no one will outwork Brad Zaun, as EJ Giovanetti found out back in the day when Zaun came out of nowwhere to claim the Mayor’s seat on the Udale City Council. He is a very good retail politician. And kudos to him for sticking with Bachmann, tho she is one crazy lady.

    I could see him running for Governor someday, maybe even against the heir apparent, Kim Reynolds, in a GOP primary. Seems more suited to that, than a Senate seat.

  • if there was one thing that happened....

    …with the Bachman campaign, Zaun seems to have met a ton of new active political people across the state that are very impressed with him.  His name recognition now with party poo-bahs across the state is now much higher than a standard “state senator from the DSM suburbs”.

    We all have to remember we saw the dirtiest campaign ever from a well financed Boswell against a candidate that had an expensive tough primary against credible opponents, no funding from national republicans, little from PAC’s, or help from the Grassley’s of the world, yet amazingly still came within just a few percentage points of Boswell for the seat.  With any funding at all…who knows what might of happened.

    rockm is right….Senator Zaun may have one of the best ground games going and is one of the toughest workers in politics, and is clearly out meeting some new and interesting people across the state.

    Stay tuned.

    • maybe so

      He is a hard-working campaigner, no question about that. A good ground game in the Des Moines suburbs is easier to accomplish than a good ground game statewide.

      I still don’t see how someone who failed to win in 2010 can be a strong statewide candidate in the future. Lots of candidates are able to win despite tough negative campaigning against them.

      Going into the summer of 2010, Boswell was considered the most vulnerable Iowa Democrat by far. It says a lot that by election day the Washington-based forecasters thought it more likely Loebsack or Braley would lose than Boswell.

    • Brad

      His own considerable personal baggage gave Boswell plenty to work with in 2010. But in the future, I think that stuff will have long faded in the rear view mirror.  IMHO you can only roll that stuff out once. Put it out again and you risk a backlash.  Leonard covered it pretty well.

      Look what happened when the GOP floated Rev Wright out there again…even some of BHO’s strongest opponents were saying ‘Gee whiz we got enough other stuff now…we don’t need the Rev this cycle.’

      Brad Zaun will defintely be a player in future political campaigns. I have seen him campaign and he connects with people. I don’t agree with Zaun on much, but likeability is the single most important quality a politician can possess. Romney doesn’t have it.  BHO has it some, although he comes across as somewhat arrogant.  GWB had it. JFK had it. Dukakis did not have it. Bill Clinton had it in spades. Grassley used to have it, before he went round the bend.

      Brad Zaun has it.  

    • Internal Affairs

      Could it be that Zaun is gunning for some kind of party leadership role?

      The party could end up turning the knives on Jerry Behn, just like they did on McKinley…or if they became the majority, might go through a leadership shakeup. No messy public elections, no smear campaigns. If Zaun felt burned after 2010, this might be what he’s looking for.

      I’ll give you this, in any case. Zaun doesn’t strike me as a man who’s settled where he is.

      • Zaun was in Behn's camp

        when the McKinley loyalists beat back the challenge from the Bill Dix crowd. I don’t think he’s likely to go after Behn’s position.