Brad Zaun: A study in misdirected political ambition

State Senator Brad Zaun endorsed Donald Trump for president last week.

What will he think of next?

If past experience is any guide, nothing that reflects a coherent political philosophy, and nothing that will help him attain the higher office he covets.

A promising base for a political career

Zaun served for two years on the city council and for seven years as mayor of Urbandale. It’s a good base for an ambitious Republican, as the suburb to the west of Des Moines contains some of Iowa’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Zaun also ran a local hardware store for nearly two decades (I used to be a semi-regular customer) and formed enough business connections to make it to the Urbandale Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame.

Zaun’s first Iowa Senate campaign in 2004 was for an open Democratic-held district, which included some west-side Des Moines precincts as well as Urbandale. He defeated Des Moines school board member Laura Sands by a surprisingly large margin, demoralizing Democrats, who had put a lot of money and volunteer energy behind Sands and had gained Senate seats elsewhere in the state the same night. The Iowa Senate was split 25 to 25 following the 2004 election. Democrats made it a 30 to 20 majority after November 2006.

Going into his first re-election campaign in 2008, Zaun was in a strong position. He didn’t have a Democratic challenger, and he had wealthier constituents than many of his colleagues in the Senate GOP caucus, who represented rural areas. The logical play was to become a rainmaker.

Failing to deliver for Iowa Senate GOP hopefuls

Zaun’s campaign disclosure forms from the 2008 election cycle are either comical or tragic, depending on your partisan leanings. He raised only $13,440 during all of 2007. Several thousand dollars came from political action committees that cut checks to virtually all Iowa Republican legislative incumbents.

From January through April 2008, Zaun raised only $1,950, mostly from PACs (including $1,000 from the Koch Industries PAC). He followed up by raising a whopping $2,375 in June and early July of that election year, all from PACs that were cutting similar checks to many of his colleagues.

Zaun’s October 2008 campaign disclosure report showed $24,025 in contributions from a mix of individuals and PACs. His campaign committee spent only $3,462.59 in the late summer and early fall and was sitting on $42,745.30 cash on hand a few weeks before the general election. Zaun reported raising $2,350 more in his final pre-election campaign disclosure form, and he did finally donate $30,000 to the Republican Party of Iowa and its Eisenhower Club, which supported candidates in many state legislative districts.

But an unopposed incumbent could have done much more, especially considering Zaun’s longstanding business and political connections in his well-off district. He could have built up goodwill by working hard to get Republicans out of the minority at the Capitol. He comes across as a friendly, personable guy, which should have been an asset in fundraising.

Republicans suffered a net loss of two Iowa Senate seats in November 2008, leaving their caucus at just eighteen members. To my knowledge, the GOP had not held so few state senate seats in the living memory of any Iowan.

Contrast Zaun’s behavior during the 2008 election cycle with that of Bill Dix during his comeback bid for the Iowa legislature in 2010. Dix had served in the Iowa House for ten years before retiring in 2006 to seek the GOP nomination in the first Congressional district. That race didn’t pan out, but with the support of Iowans for Tax Relief, Dix raised a ton of money for his 2010 Iowa Senate campaign. His committee took in more than $81,000 between January and April 2010 and kept the contributions coming, piling up more than $100,000 cash on hand by July. Dix’s October 2010 disclosure form showed nearly $100,000 more in new donations, and he raised $71,580 more during the last few weeks before the general election. Dix gave $7,000 to the Republican Party of Iowa and its Eisenhower Club and another $60,000 to the Butler County Republican Central Committee, which may be the largest-ever single donation to any Iowa county party committee.

In what was transparently a way to circumvent Iowa’s law against money transfers directly from one candidate committee to another, the Butler County GOP Central Committee turned Dix’s $60,000 around in a single day, sending donations to GOP candidates in four other targeted Senate districts. All of those candidates won their races and later supported Dix for Senate minority leader (a couple of false starts in the fall of 2011 and a successful bid shortly after the 2012 election).

Going into the 2012 election cycle, Iowa Republicans had high hopes of regaining the Senate majority. They had cut the Democratic advantage to 26 to 24 in the 2010 landslide. The new map of political boundaries following the 2010 census created several open Iowa Senate districts and other challenges for Democratic incumbents. Zaun had no opponent going into his second re-election bid, and his Senate colleagues had elected him minority whip, the number two position in the caucus, in November 2011. He had another opportunity to prove his value by helping GOP candidates in targeted districts. A net gain of just two Senate seats would have given Republicans “the trifecta,” since Republicans had a comfortable majority in the Iowa House and Terry Branstad back in the governor’s office.

Yet again, Zaun’s campaign disclosure forms reveal a remarkable lack of effort to raise money. During all of 2011, he raised just $19,481, more than half of which came from PACs that give to nearly all Republican legislators. His May 2012 report showed only $1,050 in new donations. His pre-primary report: another $2,200. In June and early July, Zaun’s campaign committee took in $5,000. Between July and early October, Zaun raised $26,810 from a mix of individuals and PACs, but he still had only $15,469.13 cash on hand. He wasn’t spreading money around, with the exception of $2,500 to the Polk County Republican Central Committee. Zaun’s final disclosure form before the 2012 general election showed $2,132 in new donations (again largely from PACs) and expenditures including $1,000 to the Polk County Republicans and $11,500 to the state party and its Eisenhower Club.

No one has yet explained to me how a Republican in a leadership role who hails from a wealthy part of the state could raise so little money. In any event, Zaun wouldn’t remain minority whip for long. GOP senators chose new leaders shortly after the 2012 general election, which left them on the wrong end of the 26 to 24 split in the upper chamber.

Two failed bids for Congress

Like many state legislators, Zaun has long aspired to higher office. His best chance came in 2010, when he gained 40 percent of the vote in a seven-way GOP primary to represent Iowa’s third Congressional district. During that GOP primary, Jim Gibbons massively outspent Zaun and the rest of the field; powerful business donors including Bruce Rastetter were backing Gibbons. Zaun spent less money, and his television commercials were amateurish, but he benefited from having the highest name recognition in Polk County, where most of the primary voters lived.

Democratic Representative Leonard Boswell was considered a relatively vulnerable House incumbent going into the 2010 cycle. However, bad news started piling up for Zaun in August of the election year. He didn’t raise as much money as Boswell for the general election campaign, and he wasn’t getting any help from the National Republican Congressional Committee, whereas its Democratic counterpart was spending heavily on Boswell’s behalf.

When the dust settled, Zaun lost to Boswell by a little more than 10,000 votes despite a national wave that brought Republicans a net gain of 63 U.S. House seats. A person less optimistic than Zaun might have given up hope of rising beyond the state legislature at that point.

As discussed above, Zaun didn’t focus his attention on fundraising during the 2012 election cycle. However, he did reveal some higher ambition.

Bleeding Heartland discussed in May 2012 how Zaun “stuck his nose into two Republican primaries that should be of little concern to a state senator from the Des Moines suburbs.” He endorsed Ben Lange, who was running against Representative Bruce Braley for the second time in Iowa’s first Congressional district, which covers 20 counties in northeast Iowa. And he endorsed State Representative Annette Sweeney, who was thrown into Iowa House district 50 along with State Representative Pat Grassley when Iowa adopted a new map of political boundaries the previous year. House district 50 is also in northeast Iowa, covering Grundy County and parts of Hardin and Butler counties.

Not being a mind-reader, I can only speculate about why Zaun got involved in those races. They had one obvious common denominator: Bruce Rastetter.

By 2012, Rastetter was the most powerful Iowa Republican donor. He was the main early financial supporter of the 501(c)4 group American Future Fund, which under the leadership of Nick Ryan spent huge money attacking Braley on Lange’s behalf during the 2010 campaign. All told, the American Future Fund spent approximately $1.4 million against Braley that year, using negative direct mail, robocalls, television and radio commercials.

Iowa Democrats were worried about Braley’s seat going into election day, but Lange fell a little more than 4,000 votes short, possibly thanks to a couple of third-party candidates who siphoned off conservatives.

Rastetter happened to be a childhood friend of Annette Sweeney. He gave generously to the Team Iowa PAC, which Nick Ryan also managed. Team Iowa PAC ran negative ads against Grassley during the 2012 primary. That House district 50 campaign was widely seen as a proxy war between Rastetter and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, Pat Grassley’s grandfather.

In an e-mail for Lange’s campaign, Zaun praised Braley’s opponent as “a new breed of conservative leader” with “the political guts that the times require,” who “can bring a fresh perspective to Washington [….] Ben is as authentic as they come and he’s running for the right reasons.”

In an e-mail for Sweeney’s campaign, Zaun praised the two-term state representative’s effectiveness and leadership on issues ranging from trade to the “Ag Protection Act” (better known as the “Ag Gag” law) to ending state funding for abortions in the Medicaid program.

Lange won his IA-01 primary against Rod Blum by a narrower margin than expected. Sweeney lost her race to Grassley by more than 20 points.

Zaun launched his second Congressional campaign in January 2014. If he expected to be rewarded for having supported Lange and Sweeney, he must have been disappointed when Rastetter, Ryan, and several business leaders associated with them put their money on then Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz in last year’s IA-03 primary.

In a feat I would not have thought possible, Zaun raised less money for his 2014 Congressional campaign than he had during the 2010 primary. How pathetic was Zaun on this front? In February 2014, the told The Iowa Republican blog’s publisher Craig Robinson that he had paid off $22,987.69 in 2010 campaign debt. But when the first-quarter Federal Election Commission filings came out, everyone could see Zaun hadn’t paid those bills. At this writing, Zaun’s latest FEC filing shows he still hasn’t paid off that five-year-old debt.

Although Zaun received a plurality of the vote in the 2014 GOP primary, he fell short of the 35 percent threshold for winning the nomination outright. In both absolute and relative terms, he received fewer votes in his second attempt to win the IA-03 nomination. Zaun won 19,469 votes out of 50,270 cast in the 2010 Congressional primary, but only 10,522 votes out of 44,628 cast in the 2014 primary.

During the short campaign before a special district convention to pick last year’s nominee in IA-03, an arm of the American Future Fund kept spending on Schultz’s behalf. Zaun ended up losing the nomination to David Young on the final ballot of that convention.

I was intrigued when the Liberty PAC endorsed Zaun in the 2014 IA-03 primary. Former supporters of Ron Paul for president ran that PAC. Not only had Zaun not supported Paul before the 2012 Iowa caucuses (as we’ll see below), he had endorsed Lange against Blum in the 2012 IA-01 primary. The Liberty PAC leaders were big fans of Blum. Zaun was lucky they didn’t hold grudges, but their support wasn’t enough to get him above 35 percent on primary day or to carry him through the district convention.

Zaun had a bit of a tantrum on the Fourth of July last year, seeming to threaten to leave the Republican Party. Earlier this year, he made some noise about a possible 2016 primary challenge to Representative David Young in IA-03. But I never believed in that scenario, and Zaun closed the door on a third Congressional bid a few weeks ago.

No coherence to Zaun’s presidential picks

Zaun has endorsed a presidential candidate relatively early in each of the last three Iowa caucus campaigns. He officially backed Mitt Romney in April 2007, along with eleven other lawmakers. I couldn’t find any public statement expressing Zaun’s reasons for supporting the former Massachusetts governor. At the time, Romney was running third in Iowa caucus polling, behind Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, but he was picking up steam within the Iowa GOP establishment.

Zaun didn’t stick with Romney for the governor’s second run at the presidency. Rather, he signed on as co-chair of Representative Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign in Iowa in late June 2011:

“I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get to work for Michele Bachmann in Iowa,” said Sen. Zaun. “In this race for president, Michele has shown she has the credentials and experience needed to help solve the difficult issues facing the American people. With her leadership, we will be on our way to making Barack Obama a one-term president.”

A social conservative and frequent ally of Representative Steve King in the U.S. House, Bachmann could hardly have been more unlike Romney in terms of resume, speaking style, and issue focus.

To his credit, Zaun stuck with Bachmann to the bitter, sixth-place end. He showed infinitely more integrity than State Senator Kent Sorenson, who joined Bachmann’s campaign only after getting assurances of under-the-table money, then switched his allegiance to Ron Paul less than a week before caucus night, after being promised more under-the-table money.

This year, Zaun was among the first group of Iowa lawmakers to endorse Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. He told Radio Iowa in March,

“I thought we needed someone with some executive experience and I’ve spent some time privately with him and asked a lot of questions and am 110 percent behind him,” Zaun says.

The following month, as Zaun was trying to get Iowa Senate colleagues to support Walker, he told Erin Murphy of Lee Enterprises,

“Recognizing there’s a lot of good candidates, I want someone that’s [sic] got some executive experience, someone that [sic] doesn’t just talk about it but actually signs it into law,” Zaun said. “(Walker) has been very consistent. I certainly like a lot of things he’s done.”

If executive experience was important to Zaun, why didn’t he back a governor in the 2012 field, like Romney or Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota? Why didn’t he move toward one of the other governors in the current GOP field, once Walker had dropped out? Look at what Zaun said in last week’s press release from Trump’s campaign:

“I am proud to endorse Donald J. Trump for the Republican nomination for President of the United States,” Zaun stated. “For me public service is about doing what is right for the people and following through on what you say you will do. I am confident that Mr. Trump will be that kind of President and that he has the leadership skills necessary to make America great again.”

Granted, Zaun showed more class than Sam Clovis, who jumped off former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s sinking ship without waiting for the candidate to quit the race first. And there’s no evidence Zaun was badmouthing Trump to Iowa Republicans a short time before endorsing him, as Clovis did.

Still, if Zaun was looking for “someone that [sic] doesn’t just talk about it but actually signs it into law,” Trump should not be his man. Trump is all talk–bluster and insults and “braggadocious” talk.

The only common thread I discern among Bachmann, Walker, and Trump is that all were leading Iowa polls at the time Zaun joined their campaign team. Bachmann was at the top of The Iowa Republican poll released in late June 2011. The same week, the Des Moines Register published a poll by Selzer & Co showing Bachmann was rising and virtually tied with Romney in Iowa. Walker surged in Iowa and national polls following his strong performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January. Trump has led all Iowa polls since the early summer.

I don’t see a lot of upside for Zaun in endorsing Trump. The move looks opportunistic rather than principled. If Trump wins the Iowa caucuses, Zaun won’t get any credit. If the walking “festival of narcissism” peaks too soon and either loses on February 1 or drops out before the caucuses, Zaun will have jumped on his bandwagon for nothing.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- As Perry had done, Walker took several shots at Trump while announcing the end of his own campaign:

Appearing ashen and drained at a brief news conference late Monday [September 21] in Madison, Wis., Walker said the Republican presidential field was too focused on “how bad things are” rather than on “how we can make them better for everyone.”

Without naming Trump, Walker issued a plea to fellow candidates to coalesce around a different Republican who could offer a more optimistic vision and guide the party to a victory next year that, he admitted with sadness in his voice, he could not achieve himself.

“Today I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” Walker said. “With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately.

“I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same,” he said, “so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner.”

Let the record reflect that Zaun was unmoved by the warnings of a man he used to be “110 percent” behind.

P.P.S.- Zaun’s Democratic challenger in IOwa Senate district 20, Miyoko Hikiji, blasted his endorsement of Trump in this Facebook post:

What’s the difference between me and my opponent Brad Zaun? He endorsed Donald Trump for President of this great nation. Trump, a man who never served his country and criticized veteran-politician Sen. John McCain who had. The gap between Zaun and I is much deeper than political party, it’s a difference of respect and dignity for service members and veterans. My loyalty to my brothers and sisters in arms is color blind to the concept of red and blue states. ‪#‎Vote‬ #2016 ‪#‎AllIowaCanBe‬

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