Ames straw poll bidding and other GOP presidential campaign news

Six candidates joined the bidding yesterday as the Republican Party of Iowa auctioned off space for the Ames straw poll event. Representative Ron Paul ponied up $31,000 for the best spot to pitch a tent outside the August 13 festivities. Four years ago, front-runner Mitt Romney used that spot, but the well-financed Romney is ditching this year’s straw poll.

The other candidates to pay at least $15,000 for guaranteed spots at the venue and on the straw poll ballot were Representative Michele Bachmann, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and (coming way out of right field) Representative Thad McCotter of Michigan. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was conspicuously absent from the bidding. Candidates who didn’t bid yesterday may secure a spot on the straw poll ballot later. Among the possibilities: Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Follow me after the jump for more on the Republican campaign trail in Iowa, including new endorsements and Pawlenty’s first television commercial.

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Bring on the clash of the auditors

Was anyone else disappointed that the “major endorsement” Terry Branstad’s campaign hyped yesterday turned out to be State Auditor David Vaudt? He’s not exactly a celebrity, and his stamp of approval only reinforces that Branstad is the Republican establishment candidate. I guess the big deal is that Vaudt normally does not endorse in competitive Republican primaries, but when I think “major endorsement,” I think game-changer, and Vaudt doesn’t fit the bill.

At yesterday’s press conference, Vaudt cited several of Branstad’s accomplishments as well as his proposals for the future. For example, he praised the 1985 government reorganization. It takes guts for Branstad to keep bragging about “cutting out half the state agencies” when Iowa’s general fund budget increased by 166 percent during his tenure, and the number of state employees increased by about 15 percent (from 53,342 in 1983 to 61,400 in 1999).

Vaudt also credited Branstad with implementing budget reforms to use generally accepted accounting principles, establishing the rainy day fund, spending no more than 99 percent of expected revenues, and leaving Iowa with a $900 million surplus in 1999 (which happened to be near the peak of an economic cycle). As State Representative Chris Rants has noted, Governor Branstad wanted to spend more:

Republicans were unwilling to go along with Branstad’s desire to spend more money – a fact he forgets when he talks about how much money was left in the reserves when he left office as it was only there because the legislature wouldn’t agree to his spending plans.

Vaudt praised Branstad for promising to reduce the cost of state government by 15 percent. We still haven’t seen specifics about how Branstad will achieve that. The 2011 budget was adopted in March; it’s past time for Branstad to tell us which services or programs he would eliminate to put us on track to reduce the size of government by 15 percent. Cutting funds for preschool programs, family-planning services and Area Education Agencies administrators won’t be nearly enough to keep his promises on spending.

Vaudt’s endorsement invites questions about Richard Johnson, who was state auditor during most of Branstad’s time as governor. Johnson famously endorsed Fred Grandy during the 1994 Republican primary and now co-chairs Bob Vander Plaats’ gubernatorial campaign. Asked about Johnson yesterday, Branstad said,

“First of all let me say, I’ve learned a lot.  Dick Johnson made some valid criticisms back in the 80’s when the Democrats were in control of both houses of the legislature.  As a result we put together the Committee to Reform State Spending in 1991 and passed the spending reforms.  I didn’t just accept the legislature saying, ‘That’s all we can do.’  I brought them back twice in 1992 until we got all the spending reforms.”

Branstad went on to say that, after Republicans got control of the Iowa House in the 1992 elections, they passed the 99% spending limitation, and he strictly enforced that limit the rest of the time he was in office.

Whatever reforms Branstad enacted in 1992 weren’t enough to satisfy Johnson two years later. Johnson also called out Branstad for misleading claims about reducing the size of government. Chet Culver’s campaign released several news clips yesterday about Johnson and Branstad, including this one:

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that “Where Branstad claims a 16 percent reduction in the number of management employees in state government, for example, Johnson contends the reality is that jobs weren’t eliminated. Titles were changed. ‘The people and the payroll are still there.’” (Cedar Rapids Gazette, 6/4/1994)

I posted the Culver campaign’s release after the jump for those who want to stroll down memory lane about Branstad’s record on fiscal issues.

Speaking of Branstad’s accountability problem, the Des Moines Register reports today that he spoke out publicly for a racetrack in Cedar Rapids in 1984. Branstad recently criticized Governor Chet Culver for advocating approval of four new applications for casino licenses. He claims that unlike Culver, he never directly contacted members of the Racing and Gaming Commission to urge approval of the Cedar Rapids racetrack. I highly doubt that the commissioners were unaware of then-Governor Branstad’s opinion. Most governors make their views known to state commissions via backdoor channels.  

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Setting the Branstad record straight

UPDATE: Branstad did file papers to form an exploratory committee today.

The Iowa Republican blog reported today,

This morning, former Governor Terry Branstad will file paperwork with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board (IECDB), essentially launching his campaign for governor.

All state candidates are required to file with the IECDB once they spend or raise more than $750.00. While some candidates have claimed that filing this paperwork is like opening an exploratory committee, there are no special distinctions allowed under Iowa law for such committees, meaning that when you file with the IECDB, you are announcing that you are a candidate.

Branstad announced this summer that he would decide in October whether to run for governor again. It’s been clear he was planning to be a candidate since the Draft Branstad PAC started raising big money and running statewide radio ads last month, so why wait? Some people think Branstad, now president of Des Moines University, wanted to make his decision known to that university’s Board of Trustees at this month’s scheduled meeting before announcing his candidacy.

I have been wondering whether Branstad wanted to remain outside the campaign during September so that the Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll by Selzer and Co. would measure his support at the highest possible level. After he formally enters the race, his record will face tougher scrutiny, and his favorability ratings are likely to go down. The Register’s poll (released on September 20 and 21) showed that 70 percent of Iowans approved of his performance as governor, but only 48 percent thought it would be a good idea for him to run again. That poll did not include a head to head matchup against Governor Chet Culver. Republican firm Rasmussen conducted a one-day poll on September 22, which showed Branstad leading Culver by 20 points.

In the coming months, rival Republican candidates are likely to open three main lines of attack on Branstad:

1. During his first three terms as governor, Branstad kept two sets of books in order to run illegal deficits. His fiscal mismanagement was the main factor driving support for then Congressman Fred Grandy during the 1994 Republican primary. State Representative Chris Rants has already started hitting Branstad on this front. Last week he asserted,

“Culver’s repeating the mistakes Branstad made in the 80’s. He moved money on paper and delayed payments from one fiscal year to another until it finally caught up to him and he raised the sales tax to square the books. He could only hide his deficits for so long. It’s these kinds of accounting gimmicks that caused the fallout between Auditor Johnson and Branstad.”

“We Republicans need to be better than that if we expect to earn the trust of Iowans,” added Rants.

Richard Johnson, state auditor during most of Branstad’s tenure, is now co-chairing Bob Vander Plaats’ campaign. Expect to hear more from him in the future.

2. During his four terms as governor, Branstad didn’t deliver on various issues of importance to conservatives. Branstad selected a pro-choice lieutenant governor and didn’t get an abortion ban through the legislature even when it was under Republican control during his final term. Vander Plaats has already promised not to balance his ticket with a moderate, and if Branstad announces a pro-choice running mate, a lot of the Republican rank and file will be furious.

Branstad campaigned every four years on a promise to reinstate the death penalty, but he never got it done as governor.

Last week Rants promised to press for an amendment on gun rights to the Iowa Constitution. Perhaps we’ll hear more in the future about Branstad’s failure to do enough on this front.

3. Branstad raised sales taxes, the gas tax, and favored other tax increases as well.

Tax hikes are never popular with the GOP base, and Rants and Vander Plaats are certain to educate primary voters about Branstad’s record. If Christian Fong decides to stay in the race, we’ll be hearing from him about this issue too. Ed Failor, head of Iowans for Tax Relief, is one of Fong’s key political backers and fundraisers.

The Iowa Democratic Party has already started responding to the Draft Branstad PAC’s revisionist history, and will continue to call attention to how Branstad governed. I’ve posted the Iowa Democratic Party’s response to the first pro-Branstad radio ad after the jump. The IDP has also created the entertaining Iowa Knows Better website, with information about all of the GOP candidates for governor. Here is the page on Branstad, with details on Branstad’s two sets of books, tax increases, use of state bonding, and failure to pay state employees what they had earned.

Branstad will have more money and institutional support than the other Republican candidates and will be heavily favored to win the primary. But I doubt public approval for his work as governor will still be at 70 percent six months from now.

UPDATE: Swing State Project is now calling the Iowa governor’s race a tossup.

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Bob Vander Plaats has real talent

Like Spinal Tap’s amp that goes up to 11, Bob Vander Plaats can ratchet up the demagoguery that little bit more than the competition. While other conservatives warn against compromising the Republican Party’s core principles, Vander Plaats says Republican moderates make voters want to throw up, like Jesus when confronted with “lukewarm” followers.

While other conservatives back a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage (which would take years to adopt), Vander Plaats promises to stop gays and lesbians from getting married on his first day as governor of Iowa.

While other conservatives warn against a “government takeover” of health care, Vander Plaats isn’t just against a new public health insurance plan, he wants to protect Iowans from the tyranny of federal-run Medicare and Medicaid.  

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