IA-Sen: Strengths and weaknesses of Mark Jacobs

Catching up on news from last week, former energy company chief financial officer Mark Jacobs is now an official candidate for the U.S. Senate. His campaign is on the web here, on Facebook here, and on Twitter here. Scroll to the end of this post to read his announcement speech in full, or listen to it at Radio Iowa. The key excerpt: “Jobs are my top priority. In fact, you can’t spell Jacobs without jobs. And if you send me to the United States Senate, I will make jobs for Iowa my number one priority.”  

Here’s my first take on Jacobs’ strengths and weaknesses in the crowded Republican field. Any comments about the Senate race are welcome in this thread.  

Mark Jacobs’ case to voters

The Jacobs message is simple. Because I’ve been successful in the business world, I know how to get things done, whether that means creating jobs, solving a “fiscal mess,” or fixing our broken tax code. Many candidates have used a similar script to win Republican primaries around the country. In Iowa, Mike Whalen played on his business experience to win the GOP primary to represent IA-01 in 2006. (Whalen later lost the general election to Bruce Braley.)

Jacobs laid out “five priorities for job growth” in his announcement speech: education, expanded domestic energy production, fewer “costly Washington regulations,” tax reform to promote business, and true health care reform. Few Republicans would disagree with any of his policy prescriptions, so Jacobs cited his resume to set him apart from other candidates in the Senate race. He also alluded to a difference in style from combative politicians:

Jobs are my top priority. In fact, you can’t spell Jacobs without jobs. And if you send me to the United States Senate, I will make jobs for Iowa my number one priority.

The problem with Washington is not a lack of ideas, but a lack of results. Too many folks talk about the issues, not enough leaders get things done.

As a business leader, my entire experience is getting things done.

When I was brought in to become the CFO of Reliant, it was a company in dire straits. They owed over $6 billion to 23 of the world’s largest banks. All of which were convinced they would be able to take over.

I said, “not on my watch.”

On two points I would not negotiate: I would not cede control of the company to banks, and I would not settle for a short-term solution.

I listened to the banks and heard their concerns. And then we came up with an alternative plan that was better for the company…and ultimately good for the banks, because we repaid them every penny owed within two years

When it comes to principle…I will always stand firm. But it is not enough to have the right principles…the art of leadership is knowing how to build coalitions to deliver results.

I know what it’s like to inherit a fiscal mess. And I have proven I can bring people together to solve problems in the private sector, and that’s exactly what I will do in Washington. I will work with leaders of both parties to take on deficits, and the debt crisis in America.

And I will set a new tone that brings people together. We have had enough of the politics of division in America, we need leadership by inclusion. After all, it’s not the Divided States of America, it is the United States of America.

When I became CEO of Reliant, I brought people together, and I started by listening.

As I discuss below, that “new tone” could be a plus or a minus for the Iowa GOP base.

Jacobs’ strengths as a Republican candidate

Just as “location, location, location” are the three most important factors in real estate, “money, money, and money” are the most important ingredients in a strong statewide campaign. Jacobs’ ability to self-fund his campaign would be an asset in any race, but particular in this one, where none of his rivals for the GOP nomination has raised an intimidating amount of cash.

Jacobs doesn’t have to worry about being able to pay for statewide direct mail next spring. He’s already sent out an expensive piece to thousands of Republicans and can pay for many more. He doesn’t have to choose between a field program or paid radio and television. He can cover all bases before the primary.

A few of the other IA-Sen candidates have raised six-figure amounts, but David Young and Matt Whitaker have struggled to keep up their fundraising pace. State Senator Joni Ernst may have the same problems in the fourth quarter.

A self-funding candidate doesn’t have to worry about one gaffe or a few bad media cycles driving donors away. If Jacobs has a rough week or two on the stump, he can ride it out.

Support from the Republican establishment will also boost Jacobs. Craig Robinson wrote at The Iowa Republican blog,

Rich Schwarm, a personal friend and business partner to Governor Terry Branstad, has helped guide Jacobs through the Iowa’s political waters.  Schwarm has also involved another friend and business partner, Des Moines attorney Doug Gross, who himself has been a statewide candidate and consultant.

Handling Jacobs’ mail and fundraising is Nick Ryan, a veteran of Jim Nussle’s congressional campaigns and the manager of his 2006 campaign for governor.  Ryan also played an integral role in Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, first by helping Santorum get introduced to Iowans, and later by operating a Super PAC, which helped him win eleven different states, including Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation caucuses.

On the campaign side, Jacobs has obtained the services of Victory Enterprises, a Davenport based political firm owed by Steve Grubbs that has long been involved in Iowa politics.  […]

The company’s eastern Iowa roots and involvement in congressional campaigns as well as its history of being involved in a number of presidential caucus campaigns for years, should benefit Jacobs.  Having a seasoned veteran like Brain Dumas at the helm of the day-to-day operations of the campaign is also a benefit.

Governor Terry Branstad is unlikely to endorse a candidate before the IA-Sen primary, but he has given his public blessing to Ernst directly and through Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds. Surely Ernst was hoping to capitalize on the perception that she is the governor’s candidate. The support of other Branstad insiders improves Jacobs’ ability to keep major Republican donors from consolidating around Ernst. In addition, Jacobs’ resume is more likely to appeal to the business wing of the GOP than Ernst’s.

Nick Ryan’s backing of Jacobs will be disappointing to Sam Clovis, another big Santorum supporter who is embracing a Santorum-style grassroots campaign. Ryan has worked closely with major Branstad donor Bruce Rastetter as leader of the American Future Fund, a 501(c)4 group funding many Republican candidates and causes. Rastetter has indicated that he leans toward Ernst, but I suspect that could change if her campaign stumbles in the coming months.

Ernst seems the most worried about Jacobs, with good reason. She’s a relative newcomer to politics, and hasn’t built up a strong constituency in the GOP activist base. She’s an inexperienced public speaker and comes across as more programmed than some of her competitors (the answer to every question begins with, “As a mother, a soldier, and a conservative…”). Her best bet for winning the nomination is to clear the 35 percent threshold in the primary, rather than trying to win over diehard activists at a statewide convention. Last Tuesday, the Ernst campaign “welcomed” Jacobs to the race with this statement:

“We welcome Mark Jacobs to the Republican Party, to Iowa and now the race for United States Senate. While his announcement may cause a bit of noise, it changes very little about the race. As a mother, a soldier and a proven conservative, Joni Ernst remains the candidate best able to defeat Bruce Braley and bring Iowa values to Washington. That was true before Mark Jacobs moved to Iowa to run for senate, and it’s still true today.”

On one level, Ernst’s statement comes across as weak and defensive. However, she has hit on some real vulnerabilities for Jacobs.

Jacobs’ weaknesses as a Republican candidate

Although I consider such attacks to be a cheap shot, Jacobs’ long residence outside the state of Iowa could make some Republican voters wary of him. He will face pressure to prove he never lost his “Iowa values.” Most recently, he worked outside the state as a senior executive for Reliant Energy in Texas, but before that he lived in (shudder) New York.

Jacobs wasn’t a Republican activist through all those years living out of state either. He wrote plenty of checks to GOP party committees and PACs, but as Jennifer Jacobs (no relation) reported for the Des Moines Register last week,

Jacobs was an unaffiliated voter for the decade he lived in Texas. Texans don’t register by party, but they acquire a party profile by voting in either the Republican or Democratic party, Texas Secretary of State spokesman Jeff Hillery told the Register on Monday.

Records show Jacobs didn’t vote in any GOP primaries until June 2012, shortly before he returned to Iowa in late 2012 and began footwork for a potential political future. […]

Jacobs said Wednesday that he recalls voting in the GOP primary in Texas in 2000. Texas Secretary of State officials said their records show only one primary vote, in 2012. Jacobs provided the Register with a screenshot from a private database called Aristotle that indicates he voted in 2000. It’s unclear which record is accurate. The Aristotle data can’t be independently verified. Government elections records are generally considered the authority on voter history.

Jacobs is touting his work toward building a stronger education system. He backed charter schools in Texas and even created his own non-profit to promote education reform upon returning to live in Iowa. But conservative blogger Shane Vander Hart has been sounding the alarm about Jacobs’ support for “Common Core” curriculum standards at the state level. That’s anathema to many social conservatives.

An even bigger problem for Jacobs will be explaining his $3,000 in campaign donations to then Senator Arlen Specter–after Specter had voted for President Barack Obama’s federal stimulus bill, and after Specter had joined the Senate Democratic caucus. From where I’m sitting, that alone should be fatal in a GOP primary. It would certainly doom Jacobs if the Senate nomination ends up being decided at a statewide convention. I doubt the base would buy his explanation that he did it because Specter opposed so-called “cap and trade” energy policies.

The only question in my mind is, will other candidates have the capacity to inform Republican primary voters that Jacobs donated to the turncoat Specter? If not, Jacobs may be able to drown out this “old news” through a massive direct mail and paid advertising campaign. Someone could create an outside group to spend a lot of money on anti-Jacobs mail before the primary, but with Nick Ryan doing work for Jacobs’ campaign, who will take on that task?

In his announcement speech, Jacobs promised to set a “new tone that brings people together.” That kind of tone may appeal to general-election voters, but the most dedicated Iowa Republicans probably lean toward a “true believer” type of conservative who will fight the Democrats at every turn. It’s no coincidence that Senator Ted Cruz received a hero’s welcome during his two Iowa visits during the past few months.

Presumably Jacobs is hoping to dominate among moderate voters in the primary, while several candidates fight over that hard-core conservative niche. I question whether he can find enough primary voters who prefer a less alienating general election candidate.

Jennifer Jacobs mentioned a few more pieces of “baggage” for Mark Jacobs, but I doubt his wealth would be seen as a negative–certainly not in the primary. His late property tax payment in 2010 should be a non-issue, assuming that was a one-off mistake. Likewise, Jacobs’ drunk-driving arrest during the 1980s probably won’t be a factor during the Senate primary. Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, the most prominent Ernst endorser, has two drunk driving arrests more recent than that. Similar incidents have not ended other Iowa political careers on both sides of the aisle.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

P.S. – I’ve never seen a candidate use YouTube the way Jacobs does, with so many very short videos (under 20-30 seconds). I understand the value of traveling around Iowa networking with business owners, but I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish with YouTube clips such as,

Good morning from Marshalltown. I’m here at Emerson process, looking forward to a good plant tour and learning how Emerson helps businesses be more efficient.

It’s a beautiful day here in Boone. I’m here to meet with a group of business leaders, and understand how issues are impacting their businesses.

Mark Jacobs’ stump speech during this announcement tour, as prepared and posted on his campaign website, November 19:

Over the past few months I’ve traveled all over Iowa, meeting and hearing from a lot of great people.

I have listened to Iowans who farm our fields…who teach our children…who tend to the sick and elderly…who work with their hands and hearts.

What I have taken away from Iowans is this: like me, you are concerned the opportunity to live the American Dream is slipping away, and our leaders in Washington are incapable of solving problems. You are tired of being force fed false choices, such as we must choose between reforming health care or a keeping the government open…between reaffirming the full faith and credit of the United States or enacting sensible spending reforms.

The true choice we face is either electing another politician, and expecting a different result, or choosing someone with a business perspective who will build coalitions to enshrine our conservative principles into law. We are drowning in debt and dysfunction in Washington, and we need a different type of leader.

I also heard from many of you who said something along the lines of, “Mark, why would a business guy ever want to go that snakepit in Washington.”

It would be easy to throw up my hands, and leave these great problems for others to solve. But that is not the Iowa way. And the Iowa values that brought me success in the business world compel me to enter the political world.

I will not stand idly by as the American Dream becomes obsolete for Iowa’s families. Washington needs an infusion of common sense. Leadership instead of brinksmanship. Business sense, not political calculation.

That’s why today I am announcing my candidacy for the United States Senate! I am running to restore the American Dream, create opportunity, and bring real world, common sense business principles to Washington.

Too often Washington attacks symptoms instead of root causes. The core issue in America is a lack of good jobs. When Americans are gainfully employed, families do better, crime decreases, revenue to government increases. Deficits come down, opportunities rise.

Income disparity has never been wider, and government programs have never been larger.

For all the economic and fiscal challenges we face, if we were to grow our economy just one percent faster – just ONE PERCENT over the next decade – we would wipe out more than half the budget deficit.

I have five priorities for job growth.

First is Education.

– Many of you know that I am passionate about education-it’s how we can break the cycle of poverty.

– But K-12 education is a state and local issue, and we don’t need Washington calling the shots when it comes to our curriculum.

– But, we have a skill gap in this state. I recently toured a manufacturer in Davenport. They have openings for welding jobs at $30 an hour and can’t find people to fill the positions.

– It is the same thing I experienced at Reliant Energy – we struggled to find skilled craftsmen. And these are good paying jobs.

– We need to close the skill gap, and we can do that by giving community colleges and vocational schools the tools they need to prepare the workforce for the future.

– And we can support people who want to build their skills so that they can get a better job.

The second thing we need to do is expand energy production right here in America including renewables.

– We need reliable, affordable energy that’s developed in an environmentally-responsible way. Increased energy production can add thousands of new energy jobs and keep energy prices low.

– If you will pardon the pun, low energy prices will fuel economic recovery in other areas of the economy. And that will lead to people having opportunities for more and better jobs.

– We need to open federals lands and waters to exploration and continue development of renewable energy sources right here in Iowa.

The third thing we need to tackle is costly Washington regulations.

– I met a gentleman in Cedar Rapids who has started three successful technology companies. He told me that if he were to start another business today, it would likely be offshore because it is just gotten too hard to start a business in the United States.

– Don’t get me wrong, we need good regulations. But when overly burdensome regulations discourage new businesses from starting and strangle economic growth, that’s a problem.

– So how do we solve this challenge. Here’s one thing we can do to start. We can require any new regulation to be reviewed by an independent 3rd party to determine its economic impact.

– I have had a lot of experience with the EPA. And when they do their own cost benefit analysis, it is the fox guarding the henhouse.

My fourth priority is tax reform.

– A competitive tax policy will drive additional economic growth.

– As a CEO, I evaluated capital investment projects all the time. Some involving dozens of new jobs. Tax impacts often made the difference between a project getting the green light or getting turned down.

– Our tax code discourages investment in America, and that’s wrong. It is time to encourage new investment and bring jobs back to our shores.

Finally, we must reform Healthcare.

– Obamacare is hurting families.

– Reduced work hours, lost wages, higher employee contributions, and in some cases, outright cancellation of healthcare plans.

– All of that as Obamacare threatens to put the government right in the middle of the doctor-patient relationship.

– We all agree everyone should have access to affordable healthcare insurance, including those with pre-existing conditions, but the plan we were sold doesn’t work.

– But, one of the biggest problems we have in healthcare is ever increasing costs. And Obamacare does nothing to address this issue.

– What we should be doing is attacking costs at the provider level – by offering consumers more choice and more price transparency – free market principles like we used to change the telecom industry.

Jobs are my top priority. In fact, you can’t spell Jacobs without jobs. And if you send me to the United States Senate, I will make jobs for Iowa my number one priority.

The problem with Washington is not a lack of ideas, but a lack of results. Too many folks talk about the issues, not enough leaders get things done.

As a business leader, my entire experience is getting things done.

When I was brought in to become the CFO of Reliant, it was a company in dire straits. They owed over $6 billion to 23 of the world’s largest banks. All of which were convinced they would be able to take over.

I said, “not on my watch.”

On two points I would not negotiate: I would not cede control of the company to banks, and I would not settle for a short-term solution.

I listened to the banks and heard their concerns. And then we came up with an alternative plan that was better for the company…and ultimately good for the banks, because we repaid them every penny owed within two years

When it comes to principle…I will always stand firm. But it is not enough to have the right principles…the art of leadership is knowing how to build coalitions to deliver results.

I know what it’s like to inherit a fiscal mess. And I have proven I can bring people together to solve problems in the private sector, and that’s exactly what I will do in Washington. I will work with leaders of both parties to take on deficits, and the debt crisis in America.

And I will set a new tone that brings people together. We have had enough of the politics of division in America, we need leadership by inclusion. After all, it’s not the Divided States of America, it is the United States of America.

When I became CEO of Reliant, I brought people together, and I started by listening. I started out by listening to the people on the front lines. I talked to the folks in the back office. I wanted to hear what they had to say, and their ideas. I wanted them to know I was invested in them, that I knew the success of the company rested on their shoulders and it was my charge to develop a plan with them to get us all there.

Along the way, we changed the culture, making it clear we were all in this together: from the guy who welded pipes inside a boiler, to the mother who worked in the call center, to the top leaders of the company. There was no special treatment, we all carried the load.

It’s the same message I will deliver to Washington. The days of perks for fatcats, and crumbs for our families are over. Because American families deserve better. They deserve results.

What we really need in Washington is leadership like we have right here in Iowa from Governor Branstad: a focus on getting results, without worrying about who gets the credit.

I begin this campaign with great optimism…and with great support. Joining me is the best family a man can ever have. I want to ask my wife Janet to come up here.

Janet is the love of my life. We just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I’m so grateful that God has blessed me with such a great partner.

And she has given me the greatest gift a man could have…three wonderful children. I would like to ask Clark, Christy and Sam to join us on stage.

A race like this can take a toll on a family. But we are all on board. Though Christy did say, “dad, I am taking a government class this semester, and if you run we may end up talking about you. That’s embarrassing!”

We are in this for better opportunities for all Iowans. Especially the next generation, like Charlie Comfort of Oskaloosa. Charlie is with us today.

Charlie is 20 years old, and already in elected office as a member of his local school board. I had never met Charlie, but I came home one evening and there was a letter from him waiting for me. It said (pull out the letter):

“Washington needs someone who isn’t already a politician or political insider… I believe that you will bring better ideas to the table than a seasoned political insider will. Iowa needs Mark Jacobs. I will work extremely hard to get you elected…I will knock on doors, make phone calls and do whatever else it takes to put you into office. I have never been this enthused about a candidate before. We need a senator who will put their state first… You don’t owe anyone anything.”

In truth, I owe the people of Iowa everything. Because it’s here in Iowa that I learned the values that guided me through life. And because of Iowa I was able to seize on an extraordinary set of opportunities.

So now it is my time to pay it forward as they say.

– For Charlie Comfort in Oskaloosa.

– For Samantha Welch in Waverly.

– For Brett Lilienthal in Durant.

Their potential is too great for our politics to be so small.

We need jobs and opportunities. The serious challenges our country faces require serious solutions.

I still believe in the promise of America, of a nation set apart as the envy of the world.

I believe in America, you are only limited by the size of your dreams. Where you can go as far as your work ethic and vision will take you.

That’s the America I know and experienced.

It’s the America I will work to restore in the United States Senate.

Because that’s the America our children deserve-one full of jobs and opportunity.

Thank you, God bless you, let’s get to work!

  • Jacobs

    As I have said before here, even though Specter was reportedly very demanding and difficult to work for, I liked him.  He usually watered down some bad legislation that moved the country too far from the center.

    So the donation to Specter makes Jacobs sound like a reasonable person.  It is too bad that he will have to run away from that.  

    It will be interesting to see Clovis attack Jacobs and probably paint him as some sort of leftist on economic issues.  It is kind of easy to make economic arguments behind a radio mic or in a classroom, Jacobs actually had to go implement business plans, test economic theories and people’s jobs depended upon it.  

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