Republicans waging war against judicial independence in Iowa

Bob Vander Plaats announced at a press conference today that he will not run for governor as an independent but will lead a public campaign against retaining the three Iowa Supreme Court justices whose names are on the ballot this November. Vander Plaats didn’t say who will fund the campaign, but promised more details on his “grassroots” effort next week. James Lynch reported yesterday that the Republican Governors Association will fund Vander Plaats’ crusade, which RGA officials consider “a model to be duplicated in other states.”

It’s been obvious for weeks that Vander Plaats wasn’t planning an independent bid for governor. The only question was what kind of face-saving deal would be struck between the bitter Republican primary rivals. The rumor mill suggested Vander Plaats might endorse Branstad in exchange for a promised future job. Instead, we have a different truce: Vander Plaats formally stands true to his principles by not endorsing Branstad. In return, the RGA (Branstad’s largest campaign donor by far) will pay for Vander Plaats’ revenge mission against Iowa judges.

Branstad has avoided publicly urging Iowans to vote against retaining the Supreme Court justices, and he didn’t have the guts today to take a stand for or against unseating them over a political dispute. In a written statement, Branstad said, “This is an issue on which Bob has often spoke with great passion and I understand his desire to pursue this path.”

How different from the Branstad of May 2009, who said “I do respect the existence of the separation of powers” when asked whether he regretted appointing two of the current justices, including Mark Cady, author of the Varnum v Brien decision.

The old Branstad wasn’t planning to run for governor again. The new Branstad doesn’t mind exploiting resentment over same-sex marriage for his own political gain. If that ends the careers of three good judges while elevating demagogues who don’t understand judicial review, so be it. Branstad appointee and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus has said this year’s retention elections will test Iowans’ commitment to an impartial judiciary. Branstad won’t join the right side in this fight.

On the contrary, Branstad has endorsed changing Iowa’s highly-regarded merit-based system for selecting judges. He has an interest in creating vacancies he could fill if elected governor, and he would rather pander to the religious right than allow judicial selection commissions to keep doing the job they’ve been doing for almost four decades. Some Iowa Republicans have advocated bringing back judicial elections or extremely stupid new restrictions on judicial deliberations. Branstad should know better than to play with fire on this issue.

Iowa House and Senate Republicans are probably overjoyed by today’s news. Vander Plaats will be working to turn out social conservatives who might not be thrilled with the party’s nominee for governor. That has to help GOP candidates in some of the battleground legislative districts. On the other hand, moderates may be turned off by the campaign against the judges. A Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa Republican primary voters taken in June by Selzer and Associates found that 35 percent of respondents said some Iowans had “overreacted” to the gay marriage issue. The same survey found that 45 percent of likely Republican primary voters were against voting to remove Supreme Court judges because of their decision on marriage.

I’m concerned about the retention elections, because the judges are unable to campaign on their own behalf. Those who support judicial independence, such as the State Bar Association, are unlikely to match spending against the judges by conservative groups and the Republican Governors Association. Fortunately, Governor Chet Culver made his position loud and clear today:

“I support Iowa’s Supreme Court justices and more importantly, I support our judicial nomination and appointment process as it stands today.

“Iowa is known for having the fairest judge selection system in the country. We oppose efforts to make choosing our judges more political, more ideological.

“Terry Branstad and his running mate Kim Reynolds have made it clear that they want to change our system. Branstad has gone so far as to highlight Reynolds’s support for changing the state’s constitution, allowing the governor to reject all nominees sent by the judicial nominating committee, requiring the committee to send names again and again until the governor finds an appointee that supports a certain political agenda.

“This campaign is about the future of our state and about choosing to move forward, instead of backwards. The best way to do that is not to focus on ideological battles but to bring Iowans together by investing in our future to create jobs, continue our national leadership in renewable energy and build 21st Century schools.”

John Deeth seems optimistic that the Vander Plaats crusade will fail. He makes a good point today:

Just for the record, here’s how the math usually works out on these things: the judges almost always win [retention] by an 80%-20% margin, with 40% or so of voters just skipping the contests entirely. I don’t see BVP swaying a typical independent voter. If he has any impact it’s on the margins, lowering that undervote percentage.

In [the] 1992 ERA vote, I learned a tough but basic lesson: Loudly reminding your people to vote Yes in an otherwise low-profile race simultaneously reminds the other side to vote No. The polarity is reversed here but BVP faces the same dilemma.

In 2004, activists on the religious right “mounted an unsuccessful campaign to oust Woodbury County District Court Judge Jeffrey Neary in 2004 based on Neary’s decision to grant a divorce to two lesbians who had entered into a civil union in Vermont.” Here’s hoping Vander Plaats fails too.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread. Do you think Branstad can get by with weasel wording on the retention vote for the rest of the campaign? Or will he be forced later to come out explicitly for or against keeping Justices Ternus, Michael Streit and David Baker on the high court?

UPDATE: A statement from the American Judicature Society is after the jump. Iowa’s judiciary has been recognized as among the best in the country.

AUGUST 11 UPDATE: How cowardly is Terry Branstad?

“This is a ballot issue, and Gov. Branstad believes this is an issue on which people need to decide for themselves,” spokesman Tim Albrecht said today. “He respects the secret ballot and believes people should vote their conscience.”

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Culver campaign brings on new finance director

Governor Chet Culver’s campaign announced today that Peggy Huppert has signed on as finance director. From the press release:

“Peggy is an asset to our campaign and will make sure we have the resouces needed to win in November. She brings a great deal of knowledge and experience about fundraising but also about Iowa politics,” said Culver/Judge Campaign Manager Donn Stanley.

Huppert has taken a leave of absence from her role as Iowa Director of Government Relations at the American Cancer Society to join the Culver/Judge Campaign. From 1998 to 2000, she served as co-chair of the Polk County Democrats and has continued to play a key role in Des Moines politics. Prior to her work with the American Cancer Society, Huppert worked with Iowans for Sensible Priorities/Caucus4Priorities and was Chair of the Freedom Fund.

Huppert knows a lot of the major donors in Iowa Democratic and progressive circles from her past work with the Polk County Democrats, Iowans for Sensible Priorities and the Freedom Fund. If you were in Iowa during the year before the 2008 caucuses, you may recognize this graphic even if the name “Sensible Priorities” doesn’t ring a bell:

Sensible Priorities spinning wheel

The Freedom Fund is the old name for Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa’s political action committee. PPGI became Planned Parenthood of the Heartland last year, and its political arm is now called the Planned Parenthood Voters of Iowa PAC. The Freedom Fund endorsed Culver before the 2006 Democratic primary and for the general election, and Planned Parenthood Voters of Iowa PAC has endorsed Culver for re-election.

It’s a bit late for the Culver campaign to bring a heavy-hitting fundraiser on board, but better late than never. A lot of the usual suspects in the Iowa Democratic donor world weren’t on Culver’s last campaign finance disclosure report. The Democratic Governors Association has already given money to Culver ($500,000 in 2009 and $750,000 in the spring of this year), and they may offer additional help. At the same time, they are defending a lot of governor’s seats and don’t have an endless supply of cash.

Terry Branstad depleted most of his campaign’s cash on hand by spending at least $2 million before the Republican primary. Even so, he should have resources to spend on the general election. Branstad has continued to advertise on television since the primary, which suggests he’s still collecting lots of individual donations and/or the Republican Governors Association cut him a big check. The RGA has about twice as much cash on hand as the DGA, in part because major Republican givers have been shunning the Republican National Committee.

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Both parties raising big money for governor's races

With 37 governor’s races coming up this November, the Republican Governor’s Association and the Democratic Governor’s Association are pulling in big money. The RGA “raised $9 million in the first quarter of 2010 and has $31 million cash on hand,” CNN reported yesterday. The DGA raised $8 million during the first quarter, setting a new record for the organization, and has $22 million on hand. A DGA press release noted that first-quarter receipts in 2010 exceeded the organization’s fundraising during the first six months of 2006.

The RGA and DGA set fundraising records in 2009, with the Republican organization bringing in $30 million and its Democratic counterpart raising $23 million during the off-year. I expect both groups to spend money in Iowa this year.

I’m pleasantly surprised that the DGA has been able to stay so competitive with the RGA’s fundraising in 2010. The first couple of months of the year were rocky for Democrats, and many major Republican donors have been fleeing the Republican National Committee for various reasons, including RNC staffers’ embarrassing fundraising plans and massive overspending on luxury hotels, limos and nightclubs. I suspect a lot of contributions that would have gone to the RNC in other years are flowing to the RGA.

Yesterday’s press release from the DGA noted:

Since 2006, the DGA has compiled an impressive winning record on targeted races. In the six races where both governors committees have spent at least $500,000, DGA has won four.  […]

The strong first quarter fundraising piggybacks on two consecutive record-breaking years for the DGA and builds on what was already the largest cash-on-hand in organizational history. With $22 million already in the bank, the DGA will spend more on races in 2010 than it spent in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 combined. Grassroots donors are fired up about the GOP’s redistricting takeover plan and they boosted the DGA tothe $8 million mark with a surge of contributions in the final days of the first quarter.

“Even as we’re raising more than ever before, we’re spending that money wisely,” said Nathan Daschle, the DGA’s executive director. “We’ve trimmed our operating expenses significantly so that we can put more resources where it matters – into the races on the ground – and our burn rate is the lowest it’s ever been. We are committed to spending every dollar wisely because the stakes are so high – Republicans are planning to win so many governorships that they can redistrict themselves back to power.”

Some of the key redistricting states with competitive gubernatorial elections include California, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Iowa will lose a Congressional district after the 2010 census, but our state’s governor has little influence over the redistricting process.

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