IA-Gov: Ron Corbett may challenge Kim Reynolds for the GOP nomination

Despite early efforts to consolidate the Republican establishment around Governor Terry Branstad’s successor, Ron Corbett announced this morning on Simon Conway’s AM 600 Radio show that he will not run for re-election as Cedar Rapids mayor in 2017 and will consider running for governor in 2018. By that time, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds will be the incumbent, assuming the U.S. Senate confirms Branstad as ambassador to China, as expected.

Corbett has been laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial bid for some time. Since creating a new conservative think tank late last year, he’s been rolling out policy proposals and speaking at numerous Rotary clubs and other groups around the state.

The Republican Party of Iowa will back Reynolds against any GOP primary challenger in 2018, state party chair Jeff Kaufmann has warned. (CORRECTION: See update below.) But Corbett has presumably found enough support among potential major donors to proceed with considering a gubernatorial bid. I look forward to covering that primary and will update this post following a press conference Corbett has planned for this morning. Corbett would need to raise millions to run an effective statewide campaign, especially since the Republican Governors Association might get involved to protect Reynolds.

Related side note: There’s no love lost between Corbett and Branstad, dating from the time during the 1990s when Corbett served as Iowa House speaker. As soon as Branstad was back in the governor’s office in 2011, he issued an executive order on project labor agreements that caused problems for a big Cedar Rapids project. Branstad didn’t accommodate Corbett’s efforts to negotiate, and Corbett and Cedar Rapids leaders eventually backed down to avoid costly litigation.

UPDATE: Adding to this post after the jump.

Corbett posted the video from his December 19 press conference on Facebook. He said he believes in term limits and suggested people who run for office “again and again and again” may keep seeing certain issues the same way. Sometimes it’s good to let people take a fresh look, and he’d like to give someone else the opportunity to lead Cedar Rapids.

He said he’s making the announcement early to “give the people of Cedar Rapids ample time” to look at all the candidates seeking to replace him as mayor. He recalled that early in the 1999 legislative session, he had disclosed that he planned to retire at the end of that session.

Corbett expressed pride in the Cedar Rapids business community and how the city had responded following floods. If he runs for governor, expect his management of this September’s major (but not devastating) flood to feature prominently in his campaign advertising. Although Cedar Rapids has not received the funding needed to build permanent levees, city leaders improvised with temporary flood barriers that proved “remarkably effective” in keeping the Cedar River from destroying much of downtown.

During the press conference, Corbett emphasized that he’s just considering a gubernatorial campaign and has not decided yet whether to run. Asked what he could offer the state, he cited his varied experience in business as well as in government at different levels.

He promised a “big surprise” at the end of his final “state of the city” address on February 22. The theme of the speech will be “lessons learned” and accomplishments of the past seven years.

Corbett will continue to travel the state in 2017, giving policy speeches about education, tax reform, and water quality as the leader of his Engage Iowa think tank. He expects to make a final decision about running for governor “sometime next year.”

Multiple acquaintances (Democrats as well as Republicans) suggested to me that Corbett is bluffing in the hope of persuading Reynolds to choose him as lieutenant governor. I’m not buying it. He projects as an “alpha male,” and that personality type doesn’t seem like a good fit to be sidekick to some other governor–especially not a woman. I would guess he believes there may be an opening to run against Reynolds and wants to see how things play out. Reynolds’ stature may rise a lot next year, or she may fumble some situation and lose clout with the big money types Corbett would need in his corner.

Todd Dorman wrote about Corbett in a recent column for the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

On one hand, he says he’s accomplished much of what he set out to do as mayor. He ran in 2009 to provide leadership on flood recovery and preparations for future flooding. He wanted the city to adopt an “open for business,” economic development philosophy. He spearheaded the effort to pass a local-option sales tax that provides money for street projects. […]

On the other hand, he’s spent much of the last year traveling the state and speaking on behalf of his Engage Iowa think tank, which has advocated ideas for addressing tax modernization and water quality issues. Corbett says he’s been to roughly 60 counties. This week he’s scheduled to speak with groups in Hancock, Kossuth and Madison counties, with Adel, Knoxville and Okoboji next.

Engage Iowa, Corbett said, is preparing to release a series of education proposals in the New Year.

“I have been active trying to push the envelope on some of these state issues. So I do have higher aspirations for the state of Iowa,” Corbett said.

Earlier this month, Iowa GOP chair Kaufmann told Ed Tibbetts, “As far as the Republican Party goes, the minute Kim Reynolds takes the oath of office, we will be behind her 100 percent.” I interpreted that comment as a warning to primary challengers. Kaufmann’s message on December 19 was quite different, Brian Morelli reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

“The party will always remain neutral in a primary,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, said in a Monday conference call with reporters.

“Now that we seem to have momentum … to turn this state more red, I think we’re going to have more excitement,” Kaufmann said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of primaries at a lot of levels. There’s a lot of Republicans who want to get involved and hear their voice. Whether we’re talking a federal office, a statewide office, a legislative office — any time we have a lot of people who are wanting to go in front of the voters and voice their opinion I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s actually a sign of the health of our party.”

Branstad was more direct in his thoughts about a Corbett campaign.

“I think he’s making a big mistake,” Branstad told The Gazette. “I think he should have run again for mayor. He’s going to probably turn it over to the Democrats.”

One character trait of Branstad’s that doesn’t get mentioned often in public: he holds grudges. He’s been building up Reynolds to be his successor for years. I suspect that he will spend a lot of energy in the coming months working to discourage any Republicans with money or political influence from associating with Corbett.

Branstad probably is correct that Democrats are favored to win an open mayoral race in Iowa’s second-largest city. Possible candidates include former State Representative Tyler Olson.

Reynolds will probably face at least one primary opponent from the GOP’s social conservative wing, whether or not Corbett runs for governor. She will be favored regardless, but her chances strike me as better against just one challenger than in a three-way contest.

SECOND UPDATE: In a post at the Iowa Statesman site, John Thompson quoted Corbett as saying during an interview with the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble,

“Even if Branstad had decided to not step down for this post and just not seek re-election, he was always going to be endorsing and supporting her,” he said. “She would be the front-runner whether it was an open seat or whether she’s appointed and filling out the balance of term his term.”

According to Thompson, Branstad responded to Corbett’s comments during “a Monday afternoon meeting with youth and grassroots conservatives” as follows:

“Ron Corbett is not a team player. He would not support his own Republican Congressman, Rod Blum’s, reelection. He would not support Republican Rene Gadelha’s campaign for State Senate. He started a traffic camera program as a money generator for his city. He would have a hard time in a Republican Primary and is not a significant threat. However I’ve seriously heard rumors he may run as a Democrat.”

Sounds like a decent “elevator speech” case against Corbett for the GOP base.

I’ve also heard rumors about Corbett considering a party switch, but my sources in Cedar Rapids indicate the mayor will run for governor as a Republican if he runs at all, as he said to Noble. I certainly wouldn’t vote for him in a Democratic primary under any circumstances after he aligned with the Iowa Farm Bureau to spread lies about our state’s water pollution problems and Des Moines Water Works leadership.

  • Interesting Contrast

    Ron Corbett would launch with a VERY well defined set of policy positions from the think tank (including backing a 3/8ths of a penny sales tax increase to fund the Natural Resources & Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund). He has a very strong financial base for fundraising in Linn County, as well.

    • Do you think there's any chance

      he would switch parties? I can’t see that happening but some on both sides believe it is possible.

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