Will elite support translate into Iowa Republican caucus-goers for Chris Christie?

From a liberal’s perspective, Bruce Rastetter is the closest thing Iowa has to a James Bond villain. After making his fortune off a polluting industry (large-scale hog confinements), Rastetter provided the “seed money” for the 501(c)4 group American Future Fund, which quickly became one of the most influential conservative dark money groups, a “prolific funder” of negative ads often “deemed false.” In 2009, Rastetter played a key role in coaxing Terry Branstad out of political retirement. He then parlayed his status as the top donor to Branstad’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign into an appointment to the prestigious Iowa Board of Regents. Thanks to a little intervention from the governor, Rastetter moved quickly into a leadership position on that board, where he “blurred the line” between business and board work, hoping to expand one of his corporations’ land holdings on another continent. Last month, Rastetter made news as the apparent mastermind behind hiring business executive Bruce Harreld as president of the University of Iowa, over strong objections by stakeholders on campus.

A certain type of Republican is as attracted to Rastetter’s power as many Democrats are repelled by it. The “quiet but fierce” Rastetter is a top donor to GOP establishment candidates and committees in Iowa. He dislikes the “kingmaker” label often attached to him, but who else could get the governor, lieutenant governor, both U.S. senators, three U.S. House members, and nine presidential candidates to show up for an event in its first year, the way Rastetter did for his Iowa Ag Summit in March?

Rastetter says he donates to candidates to “make a difference,” not to “get access.” Whatever his motives, he has tremendous influence. Governor Branstad said earlier this year that he keeps in touch with Rastetter “at least once a week” and “greatly” values the businessman’s opinions. So do some other high-dollar Republican donors, who flew with Rastetter to New Jersey in 2011, hoping to recruit Governor Chris Christie to run for president. Last week, most of those business leaders stood with Rastetter again to endorse Christie’s presidential bid. The event in Des Moines capped a good couple of months for Christie here in recruiting backers from the Iowa GOP establishment.

How much will those endorsements help the New Jersey governor win over rank and file Iowa Republicans who show up at precinct caucuses?  

Who’s who among Christie’s establishment supporters

Joel Aschbrenner published all the names on Christie’s Iowa leadership team in this story for the Register on October 1. I’ve enclosed the full list at the bottom of this post, but let’s review the most noteworthy supporters.

Outgoing Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen will serve as state chair. For now, the only other sitting state lawmaker backing Christie is first-term House Republican Norlin Mommsen. Several former state legislators are on Christie’s leadership team, including former Senate Majority Leader Stew Iverson.

Although the governor will officially remain neutral before the caucuses, some people with close ties to Branstad are on the leadership team. They include his daughter-in-law Adrianne Branstad (married to Eric Branstad) and Jeff Boeyink, the governor’s 2010 campaign manager and chief of staff for two and a half years. Boeyink is now a senior vice president of the the LS2group lobbying firm. He told NJ.com’s Matt Arco in 2014 that he was “personally very committed” to Christie, having first spent time with him when the New Jersey governor came to Iowa to raise money for Branstad’s 2010 campaign.

Two other former Branstad staffers are working for Christie’s Iowa caucus effort, though not listed on the leadership team. The Iowa campaign director is Phil Valenziano, who worked on Branstad’s 2014 re-election bid. Jake Ketzner is now a senior Christie adviser, having quit as Branstad’s legislative liaison in August. Along with Boeyink, they will be “working to convert the Branstad network into a Christie organization for the Iowa caucuses.”

The endorsement by Rastetter and five fellow business leaders generated a lot of attention for Christie last week. Those veterans of the 2011 recruiting trip to New Jersey are Mikel Derby, Denny Elwell, Jim Kersten (also a former state senator and Branstad staffer), Gary Kirke, and Michael Richards.

The seventh person on the 2011 trip was Cameron Sutton, a retired insurance company executive who has served on the board of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. Sutton won’t endorse before the caucuses, because he is now Senator Joni Ernst’s lead staffer in Iowa.

Christie worked hard to get Rastetter and the gang back in his corner, Jennifer Jacobs reported for the Des Moines Register on September 26.

Christie has scheduled at least four visits to Iowa this year to court Rastetter, most recently at the Iowa State Fair, when he bartended at Kirke’s fairgrounds pub, Jalapeno Pete’s, and stopped by Rastetter’s fairgrounds campsite for a private party.

In an interview with Jacobs on September 28, Christie said he was able to get the businessmen’s support by recounting all he had done to raise money for Branstad’s campaigns, and also by reassuring Rastetter “that I was going to spend the time that was necessary out here and compete hard in Iowa.”

I wonder whether Christie also reminded Rastetter that last year he vetoed a state ban on gestation crates for sows. More than 90 percent of Christie’s constituents supported that bill, which the New Jersey legislature had approved with bipartisan support. Branstad–not shy about using his own veto pen–was pleased by Christie’s action.

Trip Gabriel reported from the September 29 event where Rastetter and others formally endorsed Christie,

The governor brushed off the reversal of roles in the political courtship. “I don’t really care who chases who as long as we wind up being married,” Mr. Christie said. “And today’s the ceremony.”

Mr. Rastetter, one of Iowa’s biggest Republican donors, said Mr. Christie’s record of governing with a Democratic Legislature meant he could break through Washington dysfunction better than Republicans who just want to “burn the place down.”

At the same event in Des Moines, the New Jersey governor promised,

“This is an impressive team of people,” Christie said. “They have a plan for me to do very well in the Iowa caucuses, and my job is to execute that plan and that means being here, and I will be here frequently. …

“By the time you get to February, you will be tired of seeing me.”

Retail politics has always been important in Iowa, but spending lots of time here is no guarantee of success in the caucuses. Just ask former Senator Chris Dodd, who moved his family to Iowa for several months before the 2008 Democratic contest. Or ask 2012 Republican caucus winner Rick Santorum, who is near the bottom of polls now despite 24 visits to Iowa, entailing all or part of 54 days here since 2013. Donald Trump and Ben Carson have not spent substantially more time here than Christie, but they poll much better among likely Republican caucus-goers.

Christie faces major obstacles as he tries to improve his standing with the Iowa GOP base.

Iowa conservatives a lost cause

Christie has been on friendly terms with Iowa’s ultimate right-wing hero, Representative Steve King, ever since King had his back during a tricky House Judiciary subcommittee hearing in 2009. But doing fundraisers for King hasn’t translated into a good reputation with Iowa conservatives.

The latest Selzer poll for the Des Moines Register showed Christie with the second-worst ratings in the Republican presidential field: just 29 percent of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers have a favorable opinion of the New Jersey governor, while 59 percent have an unfavorable view. The May Selzer poll found similar numbers for Christie (28 percent favorable/58 percent unfavorable), a deterioration from Christie’s numbers in the January 2015 Selzer poll (36 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable). That survey revealed that 46 percent of Iowa respondents felt Christie was “not conservative enough”; 27 percent said the New Jersey governor was “about right,” while only 7 percent said he was “too conservative.”

Christie’s leadership team is not well-positioned to help improve his image with conservative caucus-goers. Former House Speaker Paulsen doesn’t have a lot of fans on the right wing. He pulled an extraordinary power play during this year’s legislative session in order to move a gasoline tax increase forward, but he never went to the mat like that for various marriage- or abortion-related bills. Nor did he talk much about social issues while he was House speaker. Before Paulsen chickened out of running for Congress, his would-be primary rival Rod Blum was already attacking him as a “compromiser.”

Support from Branstad’s former staffers and campaign county chairs now won’t impress the conservative crowd either. Branstad’s return to political life was great news for the Republican Party of Iowa, but not for the religious right, most of whom favored self-styled marriage defender Bob Vander Plaats, the once-prohibitive front-runner for the 2010 gubernatorial nomination.

On several occasions during Branstad’s current stint as governor, GOP primary voters have snubbed candidates he favored. Branstad’s endorsed candidates lost primaries to more conservative rivals in three Iowa Senate districts in 2012 alone (Senate districts 4, 6, and 36).

Just last week, Branstad enraged the “defund Planned Parenthood” crowd by acknowledging that he does not have grounds to remove Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid provider in the state of Iowa. Christie opposes abortion rights, but his association with people in Branstad’s orbit will hurt him with Iowa’s passionate anti-abortion activists.

Rastetter told NBC News in March, “Not every candidate I have supported has won, so it’s hard to be a kingmaker when that doesn’t happen consistently.” True that: Rastetter has donated to plenty of Republicans who went on to win general elections, but his track record in Iowa primaries is mixed.

Recruiting Branstad was a home run, and Rastetter got on board with Joni Ernst early for the 2014 U.S. Senate primary, as did several others in the business group now backing Christie.

But in the 2010 primary to represent Iowa’s third Congressional district, Rastetter and other business leaders including Kirke and Elwell supported former Iowa State University wrestling champion Jim “Burn the boats” Gibbons. He lost badly to State Senator Brad Zaun, despite outspending the rest of the seven-man field combined and saturating central Iowa airwaves with tv ads. In 2012, Rastetter supported his childhood friend, State Representative Annette Sweeney, after redistricting threw her into the same district as fellow Iowa House Republican Pat Grassley. Senator Chuck Grassley’s grandson won that primary by more than 20 points.

Rastetter and some of the group now backing Christie put their money behind then Secretary of State Matt Schultz in the crowded 2014 primary to represent Iowa’s third Congressional district. Schultz finished third on primary day. Despite an intense persuasion campaign involving direct mail, Republican delegates passed on Schultz at the district nominating convention that eventually settled on David Young.

Talk radio could be another obstacle as Christie’s team tries to gain traction here before the caucuses. Iowa hosts like Steve Deace, Jan Mickelson, and Simon Conway serve up a steady diet of GOP establishment-bashing to large audiences of loyal Republicans.

As a liberal, I’ve often felt frustrated that the Iowa Democratic establishment isn’t more willing to protect the environment, pass progressive economic policies, or fight bad ideas like a balanced budget amendment. But I assure you, my feelings about elected officials and strategists who aren’t committed to the Democratic platform can’t compare to the hatred right-wing opinion leaders regularly stir up against GOP elites.

Consider this June 2014 column for the Washington Times, in which Deace asserted, “the undocumented Democrat known as Republican Governor (for life) Terry Branstad, and the corporatist shills surrounding him, could be poised to put the finishing touches on a complete rout of their own base.”

This 2013 commentary may be the ultimate expression of Deace’s contempt for the “shameless” establishment. Click through to read the radio host’s elaborate, 500-word cuckolding scenario, which illustrates how strongly Deace feels “the current leadership of the Republican Party” has betrayed “grassroots patriots.”

Fortunately for Christie, he doesn’t need to persuade right-wingers to give him a chance, because the Iowa caucuses are not a winner-take-all contest. He only needs to outperform expectations here. With such a large field, that could mean finishing in the top four or five, rather than claiming one of the traditional “three tickets” out of Iowa.

A more credible player for the moderate niche

Skilled campaign hands like Boeyink, Valenziano and Ketzner know how to target a voter universe. Even if only 29 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers have a favorable opinion of Christie, that’s a large enough pool for a respectable showing if the New Jersey governor can get a decent share of those people to make him their first choice, instead of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, or Ohio Governor John Kasich. It helps that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is no longer competing for the relatively moderate caucus-goers.

When the Des Moines Register’s Jacobs broke the news about Rastetter’s group supporting Christie again, she noted,

[T]he news will be a blow to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, two other establishment candidates who have been scrambling to lock up business Republicans in Iowa. Bush has shown some success, rolling out a list of 30 prominent Iowa business leaders, and a separate list of 30 ag industry leaders. Rubio held some well-attended events in Iowa this past week after a much-praised debate performance. […]

“It’s possible it could trigger some people to give [Christie] a second look,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann told the Register. […]

This team of Iowa GOP influencers won’t necessarily sway the opinions of rank-and-file Iowa voters, but several have ties to GOP fundraising networks. The news of their endorsements will make a splash in the national political news, which could then prompt caucusgoers to reconsider Christie, who is coming off what many Republicans considered a strong performance in the Sept. 16 prime time debate.

I doubt national news coverage affects views in Iowa much, but better fundraising would give Christie the resources for direct mail or paid advertising to reach Iowans who may be open to supporting him.

Continuing to do well in debates will be critically important for Christie. Staff can only do so much; the candidate needs to make himself a credible alternative to the “out there” voices like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Ted Cruz.

Bush underwhelmed in the first two prime-time encounters. He has been sinking in national and state polls and keeps saying remarkably clumsy things. Christie probably doesn’t need to do anything but let Bush keep beating himself.

Rubio drew mostly favorable reviews in the first two debates (although he sounded phony to me), and along with Bush has picked up quite a few former Walker supporters. As the Florida senator rises in national polling, he may start to get tougher questions from moderators and more scrutiny from the media generally. If Rubio handles that pressure poorly, Christie could benefit.

Kasich seems unlikely to build an operation that will compete seriously in Iowa, but he did well in the first Republican debate. In the next encounter, Christie may want to toss out some digs at Kasich’s record, to see if he can produce a glimpse of the Ohio governor’s rumored anger management problem.

It will take months to determine whether recent events constitute a real turning point for Christie’s prospects in Iowa. But I do expect him to reap one immediate benefit from the growing establishment support: friendlier coverage in “the newspaper Iowa depends upon.”

A more positive vibe from the Des Moines Register

Reading the Des Moines Register’s Iowa caucus coverage in March and April, I grew increasingly concerned about the contrast between chief political reporter Jacobs’ glowing reports on Bush and the occasional hit pieces on Bush’s rivals for establishment-friendly voters. Bleeding Heartland analyzed that coverage in several posts: “Des Moines Register spins for Jeb Bush ahead of Iowa Ag Summit,” Overreacting to criticism is not good for the Iowa caucuses,” and “One reader’s feedback for new Des Moines Register publisher David Chivers.”  

Here’s the lede to one Jacobs report that bothered me when it appeared on March 18 under the headline, “Christie backer describes Iowa caucuses as ‘a bunch of old ladies.'”

First a GOP strategist used the word “morons” in a tweet referring to “government-dependent” Iowans.

Then a GOP financial backer described the Iowa caucuses as “a bunch of old ladies.”

Iowa has been getting kicked around lately.

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, the opening sentence implies that a strategist (Walker’s briefly-employed consultant Liz Mair) called Iowans “morons.” In reality, Mair was mocking others: “Morons across America are astounded to learn that people from IOWA grow up rather government-dependent.”

At the time that article appeared, Christie had visited Iowa a dozen times since 2010. Why did the Register deem it newsworthy that the Wall Street Journal quoted one of his donors as saying, “How are you going to let a bunch of old ladies sitting in a room saying who they like and don’t like determine who is going to be the next president?”

I’m not saying Jacobs will start spinning for Christie now. Her article about the Rastetter group settling on Christie was careful to note,

polling shows Christie is one of the least popular in the current field of 15 GOP contenders. A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll in late August found Christie in 10th place with 2 percent, down from 4 percent in late May. Christie has been more focused on campaigning in New Hampshire, and his super PAC has already spent over $2 million there and plans to spend another $6.5 million, according to news reports, but has failed to invest any money in Iowa television ads.

I am only predicting that between now and February 1, the Register won’t go out of its way to link Christie to east coasters who denigrate Iowans or the caucuses. Christie may rise with Republicans here, or he may fall flat. But people like Boeyink, Rastetter, Derby, Kirke, Elwell, Kersten, and Richards will remain heavy-hitters in Iowa long after most of this year’s caucus hopefuls have become answers to obscure trivia questions. Jacobs will not want to burn bridges with that group.

To be clear, I am not saying the Register has the power to tell Republican voters what to think or how to caucus. I’m only saying that like any major media outlet, the Register has agenda-setting power to tell voters “what to think about.” It’s a plus for Christie if he doesn’t have to contend with more headlines such as, “Christie backer describes Iowa caucuses as ‘a bunch of old ladies.'”

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Reading Boeyink’s reflections on how helpful Christie was to Branstad’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign brought back some vivid memories for this blogger. I still can’t believe the Iowa press corps never held Branstad accountable for bragging about bringing Christie to Iowa while the campaign’s tv ads used lies and distortions to bash Governor Chet Culver’s infrastructure bonding program. Christie had presided over more state borrowing in his first year as governor of New Jersey than Culver had over his entire term. At the time, Iowa had one of the lowest per capita debt loads in the country, while New Jersey’s was the fourth-highest.

Chris Christie’s Iowa leadership team, as published in the Des Moines Register on October 1.

State Chairman Kraig Paulsen (Hiawatha) – Outgoing speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives

Adrianne Branstad (Des Moines) – Polk County GOP Leader, daughter-in-law of Gov. Terry Branstad

Jeff Boeyink (Ankeny) – Former Branstad Chief of Staff, 2010 Branstad-Reynolds campaign manager

Jean Davidsaver (Bellevue) – Former Jackson County GOP Chair

Mikel Derby (West Des Moines) – Branstad-Reynolds 2010 campaign, Polk County Republican Leader

David Drescher (West Des Moines) – Business leader

Denny Elwell (West Des Moines) – Business, philanthropic and community leader, as well as chairman of Denny Elwell Co., LC

Patrick Finnegan (Des Moines) – Former University of Northern Iowa College Republican Chair, Romney Caucus campaign leader, Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair

Dr. Tom Gleason (Boone) – Branstad-Reynolds County Chair, Branstad-Reynolds Honorary Colonel

Martha Gleason (Boone)

Gary Grant (Cedar Rapids) – Former District Director for Rep. Jim Leach, Linn County GOP Leader

Betty Gustafson (Cumming) – Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair, Madison County GOP Leader

Nigel Hanson (Ames) – Iowa State University College Republican Chairman

John Harris (Cedar Rapids) – Linn County Supervisor

Brian Harrison (Waukee) – Waukee City Councilman

Mark Hudson (Marion) – Former Linn County GOP Chairman, Romney-Ryan legal team, Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair

Shelly Hughes (Waukee) – Waukee City Councilwoman

Stewart Iverson (Clarion) – Former Senate Majority Leader

Jim Kersten (Fort Dodge) – Former State senator, former Branstad staffer

Gary Kirke (West Des Moines) – Business, philanthropic and community leader, chairman, Wild Rose Casino and Resort, founder of Kirke Financial Services

Shelley Laracuente (Ankeny) – Business leader, Polk County GOP leader, Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair, Branstad-Reynolds 2015 Inaugural Honorary Colonel

Norlin Mommsen (DeWitt) – State representative

Katie Popkes (Rock Rapids) – Branstad-Reynolds 2015 Inaugural Committee, Iowa State University College Republicans

Heather Quist (Dubuque) – Former Republican Party of Iowa Field Director, Romney 2011 Caucus campaign leader, Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair

Bruce Rastetter (Hubbard) – Business, philanthropic, and community leader. CEO, The Summit Group

Mike Richards (West Des Moines) Business, philanthropic and community leader, vice chairman of the board of directors of Wild Rose Casino & Resort

Daniel Seufferlein (Cedar Rapids) – Romney-Ryan legal team, Linn County Republican leader, Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair

Allan Thoms (Cedar Rapids) – Former mayor of Dubuque, former Branstad Chief of Staff, former chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board, former Commissioner of the Iowa Department of Transportation, former Cedar Rapids City Manager, former Director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development

Jim Van Fossen (Davenport) – Former state representative

Lisa Wagner (Spirit Lake) – Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair

Mary Whisenand (Des Moines) – Polk County GOP leader, Branstad-Reynolds 2014 County Chair, Branstad-Reynolds 2015 Inaugural Committee

POST-IOWA CAUCUS UPDATE: The caucuses didn’t turn out well for Christie. Since his presidential campaign website will disappear someday, I’m posting here the final version of the governor’s Iowa leadership team.

Chair- Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives Kraig Paulsen
Business, Community, and Republican Leader Bruce Rastetter

State Representative Chip Baltimore- Boone, IA
State Representative Gary Carlson- Muscatine, IA
State Representative Dave Deyoe- Nevada, IA
State Representative Jake Highfill- Johnston, IA
State Representative Norlin Mommsen- DeWitt, IA

Diane Birchard- Newton, IA
Jeff Boeyink- Ankeny, IA
Adrianne Branstad- Des Moines, IA
Karey Claghorn- Milo, IA
Mayor Nelson Crabb- Clear Lake IA
Jean Davidsaver- Bellvue, IA
Mikel Derby- West Des Moines, IA
David Drescher- West Des Moines, IA
Denny Elwell- West Des Moines, IA
Manda Elwell- Ankeny, IA
Patrick Finnegan- Des Moines, IA
Dr. Tom Gleason- Boone, IA
Martha Gleason- Boone, IA
Gary Grant- Cedar Rapids, IA
Betty Gustafson- Cumming, IA
Nigel Hanson- Ames, IA
John Harris- Palo, IA
Brian Harrison- Waukee, IA
Barbara Hovland- Mason City, IA
Mark Hudson- Marion, IA
Shelly Hughes- Waukee, IA
Stew Iverson- Clarion, IA
Rick Jacoby – Grinnell​​, IA
Jim Kersten- Fort Dodge, IA
Jim & Mary Ellen Kimball – Osceola, IA
Gary Kirke- West Des Moines, IA
Shelley Laracuente- Ankeny, IA
Beth Ann Mahaffey- Johnston, IA
Tom Mazza- Clive, IA
Scott Olson- Cedar Rapids, IA
Jennifer Osby- West Des Moines, IA
Scott Overland- Cedar Rapids, IA
Kathy Pearson- Cedar Rapids, IA
General Maurice Phillips- Newton, IA
Katie Popkes- Rock Rapids, IA
Heather Quist- Dubuque, IA
Dr. Michael Richards- West Des Moines, IA
Bill Schickel- Mason City, IA
Connie Schmett- Clive, IA
Kim Schmett- Clive, IA
Daniel Seufferlein- Cedar Rapids, IA
David Sweeney – Alden, IA
Allan Thoms- Cedar Rapids, IA
Shelley Van De Krol- Newton, IA
James Van Fossen- Davenport, IA
Lisa Wagner- Spirit Lake, IA
Ron Wheeler – Cedar Falls, IA
Mary Whisenand- Des Moines, IA

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