Iowa GOP caucus-goers deliver big hit to Terry Branstad's clout

Donald Trump was the obvious Republican loser last night. Despite leading in the last ten Iowa polls released before the caucuses, Trump finished more than 6,000 votes and three percentage points behind Ted Cruz, widely perceived before yesterday to have peaked too soon. Record-breaking turnout was supposed to be a winning scenario for Trump, yet a plurality of caucus-goers cast ballots for Cruz as attendance surpassed the previous high-water mark by more than 50 percent.

For Iowa politics watchers, another big takeaway jumped out from the caucus results: Governor Terry Branstad’s advice doesn’t carry much weight with rank and file Republicans.

The governor’s anti-endorsement fell flat

During a January 19 appearance at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, Branstad called on Republicans to reject the front-runner Cruz over a single issue.

“Ted Cruz is ahead right now. What we’re trying to do is educate the people in the state of Iowa. He is the biggest opponent of renewable fuels. He actually introduced a bill in 2013 to immediately eliminate the Renewable Fuel Standard. He’s heavily financed by Big Oil. So we think once Iowans realize that fact, they might find other things attractive but he could be very damaging to our state,” […]

Branstad added that Cruz “hasn’t supported renewable fuels, and I think it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him.”

Asked if he would want to see Cruz defeated, Branstad said “yes.”

In 21 years as governor, Branstad has used his power to benefit a wide variety of corporate interests. His ties to the ethanol industry are particularly close. One of his largest donors and most influential advisers is Bruce Rastetter, who led Iowa’s largest ethanol-producing company after making a fortune from hog confinements. More recently, the governor’s elder son Eric Branstad became state director for America’s Renewable Future, a corporate-backed group created to promote the federal ethanol mandate known as the Renewable Fuel Standard. America’s Renewable Future spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the Iowa caucus campaign, much of it on direct mail or advertising targeting Cruz.

While Branstad started talking down Cruz to the press nearly two months ago, his direct appeal to voters was an escalation that received substantial media coverage across the state. The governor had not intervened so explicitly in the campaign before the 2012 caucuses.

The Renewable Fuel Standard is a strange issue. Iowa elected officials from both parties attach a lot of importance to the ethanol mandate, uncritically embracing some questionable spin on federal policy and exaggerated perceptions about how many Iowa jobs depend on biofuels production.

Speaking at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, Branstad asserted that Cruz is “diametrically opposed to what we really care about.” Yet there is scant evidence typical Iowans “really care about” where candidates stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard. For rank and file Republicans who have an opinion, the ethanol mandate is not the consensus matter it is for political elites.

Many conservatives object to the policy on principle. An Iowa poll by Selzer & Co taken in early January for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News found that 56 percent of the likely caucus-goers backing Cruz shared his opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard. Furthermore, Jennifer Jacobs reported, “Among the overall caucus electorate, a 42 percent plurality don’t like [Cruz’s] stance [on ethanol], and 37 percent find it attractive.”

Representative Steve King’s Congressional district produces more ethanol than any other, and King supports the Renewable Fuel Standard. However, Cruz’s position wasn’t a deal-breaker for him. Standing beside the Texas senator on the campaign trail and promoting his candidacy in media availabilities, King gave conservatives plenty of reasons to caucus for Cruz. He also did a great job deflecting attacks about the ethanol mandate and raising doubts about who was behind them.

Cruz didn’t just win last night. He received more votes than any previous GOP presidential contender had won in an Iowa caucus, amid turnout that exceeded most observers’ expectations. More than 51,000 Republican activists were unmoved by Branstad’s warning that a Cruz victory “could be very damaging to our state.”

The governor’s not-quite-endorsement fell flatter

Branstad didn’t formally endorse any presidential candidate before the caucuses, but he made clear that he thinks very highly of Chris Christie. The two governors formed a “strong bond” when Christie came to Iowa to raise money for Branstad’s 2010 campaign. Several people with close ties to Branstad have been actively supporting the New Jersey governor since the early fall: Rastetter, Eric Branstad’s wife Adrianne Branstad, Jeff Boeyink, who managed Branstad’s 2010 campaign and served as his chief of staff for two and a half years, and 2014 campaign staffers Phil Valenziano and Jake Ketzner.

When Rastetter and five other prominent business Republicans gave Christie their blessing in late September, Jacobs reported for the Des Moines Register, “Christie had already snagged a well-respected team of Iowa operatives to guide his campaign here,” citing work by Boeyink, Ketzner, and Valenziano “to convert the Branstad network into a Christie organization for the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1.”

Christie was never a contender to reach the top tier in Iowa, but in recent weeks he had expressed hope to finish first among the governors left in the Republican presidential field. He pushed his electability argument hard during the last GOP debate before the caucuses. Branstad spent some time with Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush during the Iowa State Fair last August and appeared with both of them during the last two days of the Iowa caucus campaign.

Last night Bush finished sixth with only 5,235 votes, 2.8 percent of the statewide total. That was embarrassing, considering how much money Bush and the super-PAC supporting him burned through in Iowa.

But look! Ohio Governor John Kasich, who spent less time in Iowa than any of his rivals, finished eighth with 3,473 votes (1.86 percent). Former Governor Mike Huckabee was in ninth place with 3,344 votes (1.79 percent). Christie’s 3,278 votes (1.75 percent) put him tenth out of eleven candidates who went through the motions of campaigning here–twelve if you count Jim Gilmore. Instead of being the top governor for Iowa Republican caucus-goers, Christie finished behind a sitting governor and two former ones.

Working on a Branstad campaign during a GOP wave year (like 2010 or 2014) would make anyone look good. Christie’s pitiful showing last night demonstrates that Boeyink, Valenziano, and Ketzner can’t wave a magic wand and conjure up large numbers of voters. For whatever reason, Iowa Republican caucus-goers weren’t buying what Christie was selling.

P.S.- Rastetter doesn’t like it when journalists call him a “kingmaker.” As he told NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell last March, “Not every candidate I have supported has won, so it’s hard to be a kingmaker when that doesn’t happen consistently.” Of all the Republicans who lost primaries despite backing from Rastetter, none bombed as badly as Christie did.

UPDATE: Here is some excellent spin from Eric Branstad’s Twitter feed on February 2: “83% of Iowa Caucus voters supported candidates who recognized that the RFS is crucial to over 852,000 US jobs #iacaucus”

SECOND UPDATE: Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson asked Branstad about the caucus results during a February 4 interview (audio here). Branstad acknowledged that Cruz won by running an “old-fashioned,” “retail politics” campaign to visit all 99 counties and turn out his supporters. He strongly criticized the Cruz campaign for spreading false rumors that Carson was dropping out, however. As for why Christie did poorly, Branstad said he “didn’t spend enough time here,” adding “none of the governors did well,” not Bush or Kasich or even Huckabee, who won the state before. He posited that Republicans were looking for a fresh face, which is why Rubio did well despite not spending enough time in rural counties.

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  • Your thoughts

    It seems to me that the intra-state battle of Repubs was won by the King/VanderPlaats faction over the Branstad/Rastetter wing. Look for a much more interesting gubernatorial cycle next time as I don’t think evangelicals are going to just accept Reynolds as gov just because Terry says so.

    • for sure they will not accept Reynolds

      She does not have a strong base of support within the party. Will be curious to see who emerges as the candidate from the BVP wing and whether that person can challenge Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett (who will almost certainly run for governor) effectively. Corbett could clean up in eastern Iowa while two or more candidates split the western Iowa vote. There are quite a few Republicans east of I-35.

  • Thoughts

    Huckabee never went after Cruz like he could have if he actually wanted to win. I think Huckabee was running to pick up more speaking engagements in the future. He realized that social conservatives wanted a younger, fresher face and his effort was half-hearted in comparison to 2008.

    You had Carson, Santorum and Cruz all fighting for those same voters. Cruz ended up with the longest straw.

    Christie’s effort was half baked as well. Too many GOPers fall victim to the media narrative that only hard line social conservatives vote in the caucuses. Christie could have done better here if he wanted to. Newt Gingrich could have done here in 2012 if he wanted to as well. I kind of lump Gingrich and Christie together as far as an Iowa performance.

    • don't know about that

      The “he doesn’t tithe” ad was corny but fairly hard-hitting, considering how much Cruz relied on support from evangelicals.

      Agree that Christie’s effort was weak. Craig Robinson pointed out that his campaign didn’t target the counties Romney had won.