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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Gas tax fight ahead for 2012 Iowa legislative session

Iowa House and Senate members have plenty of work to do during the next legislative session, scheduled to begin in January 2012. Governor Terry Branstad wants to pass a big education reform package as well as commercial property tax cuts he wasn’t able to get through the legislature this year. Lawmakers also face a deadline for adopting a new system for funding and delivering mental health services. Disagreements over the state budget pushed the 2011 legislative session two months beyond its original adjournment date, and I doubt Democrats and Republicans will find it easier to agree on spending priorities in 2012. Election years aren’t typically the most productive times at the state capitol.  

As if there weren’t enough contentious issues on the table, the governor’s transportation advisory commission will urge legislators to approve an 8-cent to 10-cent gas tax increase.  

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Rejected Branstad nominee lands state education job

The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate has rejected only two of Governor Terry Branstad’s nominees this year. One of them, former Department of Human Rights Director Isaiah McGee, started a new job Friday as education program consultant for achievement gaps and student equity at the Iowa Department of Education. Controversy surrounding McGee’s instructions to Human Rights staff and members of certain state commissions hurt the nominee with Senate Democrats. He fell a few votes short of confirmation. McGee stayed in his position at Human Rights until today; state law allows rejected nominees to keep serving for 60 days after the failed confirmation vote. State Department of Education Director Jason Glass “sought out” and offered McGee his new job as a program consultant, Branstad told journalists today. Glass commented,

“I am excited Isaiah will be joining us, because he has numerous talents and knowledge that will benefit the people of Iowa,” Glass said. “He is the exact right person for this job, as we need to continually serve the needs of all students in Iowa. Isaiah is passionate about education and will offer thoughtful solutions to the challenges we face in our educational system, and work to see those solutions through.”

Branstad hasn’t named a permanent director for the Department of Human Rights. Today he appointed Danielle Plogmann as interim director. She handled communications for the Republican Party of Iowa during the 2010 election cycle and early this year, until McGee hired her in March to be his executive assistant. Speaking to reporters today, Branstad twice described Plogmann as “loyal”:

“She has worked there, in the department, and I wanted to have somebody that I thought was loyal and somebody that I thought would work well with everybody.” […]

Branstad is interviewing candidates to take over as the director of the Department of Human Rights and he does not anticipate that Plogmann will be more than a temporary agency chief.

“I think this will be fairly short term,” Branstad said. “But I think she is somebody that I think is loyal and competant and can do the job in the short term and we will have a permanent director named in the near future.”

I’m not clear on what Plogmann’s loyalty (to the governor? to McGee’s vision? to Republican values?) has to do with managing the Department of Human Rights. I hope Branstad appoints a permanent director with a bit more relevant experience.

In related news, this week the governor named Michael Mullins to the Iowa Court of Appeals. Mullins is a registered Republican and has served as a District Court judge since 2002. He replaces Edward Mansfield, whom Branstad appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in February. Mullins was also on the short list of Iowa Supreme Court candidates the State Judicial Nominating Commission sent to the governor.

Incidentally, one of Branstad’s appointees to the State Judicial Nominating Commission was the other person Iowa Senate Democrats declined to confirm. Branstad’s replacement pick for that position was Jim Kersten, whom the Senate unanimously confirmed last month. A Fort Dodge native, Kertsen served as a Republican member of the Iowa House and Iowa Senate and also as an assistant to Branstad during his earlier tenure as governor. Kersten currently works as Associate Vice President of Development and Government Relations at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. He recently was one of seven heavy-hitting Iowa Republicans who flew to New Jersey to encourage Governor Chris Christie to run for president.

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Chris Christie recruitment discussion thread

Seven Iowa businessmen are flying to New Jersey today to dine with the man they hope will improve a comically bad Republican presidential field. I understand the idea behind recruiting Governor Chris Christie, but I don’t get why the power-brokers are calling so much attention their efforts.

More thoughts on the courting of Christie are after the jump, along with a bonus tip on what not to say if you want outsiders to take the Iowa caucuses seriously.

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