IA-Gov: Reynolds hits the panic button

Governor Kim Reynolds launched her first negative television commercial on July 20, with a spot focusing on decisions Fred Hubbell made as chief executive of Younkers during the 1980s. The move came a few days after another national election forecaster declared the Iowa governor’s race a “toss up,” as Cook Political Report did last month.

Incumbents who are confident about their standing with voters don’t typically go negative on tv this far out from an election. New campaign disclosures filed on July 19 show that while Reynolds had more cash on hand than her opponent–even after spending $1.2 million on advertising since the end of May–Hubbell more than doubled her fundraising during the same period and will likely be competitive financially through the November election.

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Iowa House district 39 preview: Jake Highfill vs. Maridith Morris

Iowa House district 39, covering much of northwest Polk County, is represented by the youngest current member of the state legislature. Republican Jake Highfill pulled off a shocking upset in his 2012 primary against then House Majority Whip Erik Helland. He was the only successful one of a dozen primary challengers to sitting Iowa House Republicans that year. Highfill benefited from some blunders by Helland and some help from fellow supporters of Ron Paul’s presidential bid as well as former State Representative Walt Tomenga, whom Helland had beaten in the 2008 GOP primary. Highfill beat Democrat Kelsey Clark in the 2012 general election and Tom Leffler in 2014, but underperformed the top of his party’s ticket both years.

A new Democratic challenger to Highfill emerged last week. Maridith Morris is a nurse at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. She is also a personal friend (not through Democratic Party politics), and I can vouch for her commitment to helping others, in volunteer capacities as well as through her vocation.

I enclose below a district map and background on Highfill and Morris. House district 39 leans Republican, with 5,863 active registered Democrats, 9,291 Republicans, and 8,206 no-party voters according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. (Those numbers do not include voters who changed party affiliation on February 1 to participate in the Iowa caucuses.) Mitt Romney outpolled President Barack Obama among voters in this district by 55.76 percent to 43.02 percent in 2012, and Joni Ernst had nearly a 20-point margin over Bruce Braley here in the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

While the district is a long-shot for a Democrat, Highfill is weaker than the average GOP statehouse incumbent. He chairs the relatively insignificant International Relations Committee, which has met only once this session and does not appear to have any legislation pending. Quite a few House Republicans from the 2012 cohort and even a few colleagues serving their first terms have better committee assignments than Highfill.

Last year, when then House Speaker Kraig Paulsen needed to yank one opponent of raising the gasoline tax off the Ways and Means committee, he picked Highfill. This year, Highfill was assigned to the Appropriations, Education, State Government, Local Government, and Government Oversight committees as well as International Relations. He has not floor-managed any significant bills, to my knowledge.

In a sense, Highfill is fortunate to remain in the legislature. He drew two primary challengers in 2014, which allowed him to win the GOP nomination despite gaining less than 50 percent of the vote. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Republican with more stature run here this year, though at this writing I am not aware of any rival GOP candidate in House district 39.

Highfill’s campaign raised $16,990 last year, about half from individuals and the rest from political action committees that give to numerous legislative incumbents. His campaign spent $12,670.17, mostly on a $10,000 contribution to the state party. He entered the election year with $13,283.48 cash on hand and $6,100 in outstanding loans–not a lot to fend off a primary challenge, if one materializes. Assuming Highfill wins the GOP nomination again, House leaders could chip in more funds if they felt he were in trouble during the general election campaign.

Any comments related to the House district 39 race or either candidate are welcome in this thread. I found it strange that a 2012 Ron Paul supporter Highfill endorsed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie before this year’s Iowa caucuses. But some big movers and shakers in Iowa Republican politics were supporting Christie, including Gary Kirke, one of Highfill’s larger individual donors.

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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?  

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50 "most wanted" Iowa Republican discussion thread

Following up on last week’s look at “most wanted” Iowa Democrats, Jennifer Jacobs wrote a feature for today’s Sunday Des Moines Register on “50 of Iowa’s makers and shakers for the Republican presidential caucuses.” Any comments about the list or GOP politics in general are welcome in this thread.

It seems like Jacobs couldn’t decide whether she was making a list of the 50 most influential Iowa Republicans, or the people who will be most sought out by presidential candidates. A lot of names in the top ten will almost certainly not endorse any candidate before the Iowa caucuses (Governor Terry Branstad, Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann, Branstad’s chief of staff Matt Hinch). For that reason, I expect some of the presidential campaigns to do far more courting of donors and activists who are lower down on Jacobs’ list. Big money men (they are all men) who will be highly sought after include Kyle Krause, Pete Brownell, Bruce Rastetter, Gary Kirke, Jim Cownie, David Oman, and Robert Haus.

I was surprised Jacobs put David Kochel and Sara Craig Gongol so far down the list at numbers 36 and 39, respectively. Not only were they deeply involved in Romney’s 2012 campaign in Iowa, millions of dollars passed through dark money groups those two ran during this year’s U.S. Senate race. To my mind, they will be among the go-to Iowa Republicans for people who want to slime a less-preferred candidate before the caucuses, but don’t want their fingerprints on the job. Kochel and Craig aren’t shy about skating close to the edge when it comes to federal rules designed to ban coordination between campaigns and outside groups making independent media expenditures.

I was also surprised Jacobs left out talk radio host Steve Deace. Along with Sam Clovis and a few leaders of megachurches, he will be a loud voice in the Iowa GOP’s social conservative wing, and I’m sure several presidential candidates will work hard to win his endorsement.

UPDATE: I thought it was strange that former Iowa House Speaker Chris Rants made Jacobs’ list–he hasn’t been speaker since 2006, and he retired from the legislature in 2010. James Lynch pointed out that it’s even more odd for Rants to be there, given that Jacobs did not mention current Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen or Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix. Paulsen endorsed Newt Gingrich shortly before the 2012 caucuses. Dix did not endorse any of the contenders.

SECOND UPDATE: Shane Vander Hart commented n the Jacobs list at Caffeinated Thoughts. I largely agree with his take, especially this part:

Being an effective campaign staffer doesn’t (necessarily) equal influence. […] There are some people who are on this list who are great at the work that they do.  Tim Albrecht is an effective communications/PR guy, Phil Valenziano, Grant Young, they are great, hardworking campaign staffers, but influencers?  That can be debated and it depends on how you define influence and/or who the target of the influence is.  

 

Vander Hart also pointed out that WHO radio host Jan Mickelson was left off the list, even though he has a large audience around the state: “Mickelson doesn’t endorse, but he is a great conduit to grassroots Republicans and candidates need to shoot straight with him (ask Mitt Romney).”  

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Gaming commission grants casino license to Greene County (updated)

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission voted 3-2 today to grant a casino license for a $40 million project near Jefferson (Greene County) in western Iowa, between Boone and Carroll counties. Residents had overwhelmingly approved a gambling referendum last year, but the outcome was in doubt because the commission recently voted down a casino proposal for Cedar Rapids. According to Dar Danielson’s report for Radio Iowa, the commissioners who opposed the license cited evidence a new casino would largely take business from existing Iowa casinos, and that the Greene County community didn’t need a gambling facility as much as other amenities. The commissioners who favored the license cited the potential economic impact for a rural area.

The Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Polk County had lobbied the commission to reject Greene County’s application, citing potential impact on its business. Jefferson is a little more than an hour’s drive northwest of the Des Moines metro area. But in casting the decisive yes vote, Racing and Gaming Commission Chair Jeff Lamberti noted,

We have lots of advantages in Polk County and I think we have lots of advantages that are going to come in the future,” Lamberti explained. “We’ve got significant population growth amongst all of our suburbs. We’ve got some good things that are in the work that are pretty historic by Iowa standards. And quite frankly, we have advantages that a lot of other parts of the state don’t have, and quite frankly I think we are going to be just fine.”

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who has vowed to keep working toward a casino for his city, sounds furious about today’s decision. I’ve posted some of his comments below.  

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