IA-Sen, IA-Gov: Grassley, Branstad With Big Leads

Rasmussen Reports (2/22, likely voters, 1/26 in parentheses):

Roxanne Conlin (D): 36 (31)

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 53 (59)

Some other: 5 (4)

Not sure: 6 (5)

Bob Krause (D): 33 (26)

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 55 (59)

Some other: 5 (7)

Not sure: 8 (8)

Tom Fiegen (D): 28 (25)

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 56 (61)

Some other: 6 (4)

Not sure: 11 (10)

(MoE: ±4.5%)

Rasmussen Reports (2/18, likely voters, 9/22 in parentheses):

Chet Culver (D-inc): 37 (34)

Terry Branstad (R): 53 (54)

Some other: 6 (8)

Not sure: 4 (4)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 40 (39)

Bob van der Plaats (R): 46 (43)

Some other: 7 (9)

Not sure: 7 (9)

(MoE: ±4.5%)

Research 2000 for KCCI-TV (2/15-17, likely voters, 10/12-14 in parentheses):

Roxanne Conlin (D): 35 (39)

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 56 (51)

Undecided: 9 (10)

(MoE: ±4%)

Research 2000 for KCCI-TV (2/15-17, likely voters, 10/12-14 in parentheses):

Chet Culver (D-inc): 38 (43)

Terry Branstad (R): 54 (48)

Undecided: 8 (9)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 41 (55)

Bob van der Plaats (R): 38 (33)

Undecided: 21 (12)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 44 (58)

Chris Rants (R): 33 (28)

Undecided: 23 (14)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 48 (NA)

Rod Roberts (R): 26 (NA)

Undecided: 26 (NA)

(MoE: ±4%)

Selzer for Des Moines Register (1/31-2/3, adults, 11/8-11 in parentheses):

Chet Culver (D-inc): 33 (33)

Terry Branstad (R): 53 (57)

Not sure: 9 (8)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 40 (37)

Bob van der Plaats (R): 43 (45)

Not sure: 12 (15)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 41 (42)

Chris Rants (R): 37 (35)

Not sure: 14 (18)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 41 (NA)

Rod Roberts (R): 36 (NA)

Not sure: 15 (NA)

(MoE: ±4%)

A whole lot of Iowa data has found its way across our desk over the last week, none of it terribly good for incumbent Governor Chet Culver or Senate challenger Roxanne Conlin. Or you can look at the bright side: the news is less bad if you look at the Rasmussen and Selzer trendlines. (Research 2000, not so much, but that trendline goes all the way back to October… and the earlier poll was commissioned for Daily Kos rather than KCCI, although that shouldn’t affect the toplines.)

In case you were hoping that somehow Chet Culver might wind up facing former Republican state legislative leader Chris Rants, though, don’t get your hopes up… Rants dropped out of the race last Friday, probably seeing no path out of the primary that’s dominated by Branstad and van der Plaats. As always, desmoinesdem is on the scene, with discussion already underway in two different diaries.

RaceTracker Wiki: IA-Sen | IA-Gov

IA-Gov, IA-Sen: New Research 2000 Iowa poll

Research 2000 conducted an Iowa poll of 600 “likely voters who vote regularly in state elections” for KCCI-TV, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines. The poll was in the field from February 15 to 17, and KCCI published the results on its website yesterday.

It’s not a good poll for Governor Chet Culver, but it’s less bad than the Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa poll. Chuck Grassley has a comfortable lead in the Senate race, but not the kind of margin he has enjoyed against previous Democratic opponents.  

First, a few words about the sample for the Research 2000 poll, which contained 33 percent Democrats, 29 percent Republicans, and 38 percent independents. That seems like a reasonable reflection of the current Iowa universe of registered voters.

However, the actual Iowa electorate for the 2006 general election (pdf file available here) contained about 37 percent Democrats, 37 percent Republicans, and 26 percent independents. Of course there’s no guarantee that the 2010 electorate will look the same as the 2006 electorate, but I doubt no-party voters will outnumber partisans in an off-year election. The poll could be off by more than the 4 percent margin of error if the sample is skewed.

Research 2000 found just 42 percent of respondents approved of Chet Culver’s performance as governor, while 51 percent disapproved. It’s never good to be “upside down” on job approval. Culver’s favorability numbers were a little better: 44 percent favorable, 43 percent unfavorable.

Terry Branstad led Culver 54 percent to 38 percent, with only 8 percent of respondents undecided. That’s not good, but it’s not as bad as the 20-point lead Branstad had in the Des Moines Register poll. Branstad led Culver 89 percent to 5 percent among Republicans and 60 percent to 32 percent among independents. Culver led 74 percent to 17 percent among Democrats.

If this poll assumed too high a proportion of independents in the general electorate, then Branstad’s lead over Culver may be smaller than this poll would indicate. But Culver needs to bring up his numbers and bring down Branstad’s favorability. Research 2000 found that 61 percent of respondents had a favorable impression of Branstad and just 24 percent unfavorable. The Republican primary campaign may bring Branstad down to earth a little, but Iowa Democrats have their work cut out for them. Branstad even led Culver among women in this survey.

Culver led all other Republicans in the Research 2000 poll but didn’t break 50 percent against any of them. He led Bob Vander Plaats by 41 to 38. In that matchup, independents were evenly divided, but I think Culver would end up doing better among independents if Vander Plaats pulled off an upset in the primary. Culver led State Representative Rod Roberts by 48 percent to 26 percent, and State Representative Chris Rants (who quit the race yesterday) by 44 percent to 33 percent.

Unfortunately, this poll didn’t test the Republican primary. What’s it gonna take to get us a public poll on Branstad against Vander Plaats? Maybe the Des Moines Register will publish numbers on that this weekend.

Now on to the U.S. Senate race. The Research 2000 poll for KCCI only tested Roxanne Conlin against five-term incumbent Grassley. (I think they should have run the numbers for all the Democratic candidates, especially since they polled Rants and Roberts in the governor’s race.)

Grassley’s favorable/unfavorable numbers were 59/35, and Conlin’s were 41/36, with 23 percent having no opinion of her. Unfortunately, they didn’t ask about Grassley’s job approval numbers. For Culver and President Barack Obama, favorability numbers were better than job approval. (Obama was at 52 favorable/41 unfavorable in this poll, but his job approval/disapproval numbers were 49/46.) For many years Grassley had approval ratings in the high 60s and low 70s, but if his favorability is only 59 percent now, his approval is probably a bit lower than that.

Research 2000 found Grassley leading Conlin by 56 to 35 percent. He had a much larger lead among men (62-30) than among women (50-40). Right now Grassley appears to be outside the danger zone, but I doubt he will be re-elected with anything like the 66 percent to 70 percent numbers he’s had in the past. If the Democratic nominee can hold him below 60 percent, or better yet below 55 percent, that would help our down-ticket Democratic candidates.

Share any thoughts about the Iowa gubernatorial or Senate races in this thread.

IA-Gov: New Register poll finds record low approval for Culver

The latest Iowa poll by Selzer and Co. for the Des Moines Register finds Governor Chet Culver’s approval rating at a new low of 36 percent. Only 34 percent of respondents said Iowa is headed in the right direction, while 57 percent said the state is on the wrong track. The poll was in the field from January 31 to February 3 and surveyed 805 Iowa adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Culver’s approval rating fell to 36 percent, with 53 percent disapproving. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll from September had Culver in positive territory, with 50 percent approval and 39 percent disapproval. The Des Moines Register’s November poll had Culver with 40 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval.

The Des Moines Register noted that since September, Culver’s approval among Democrats has fallen from 72 percent to 57 percent, while Senator Tom Harkin’s approval among Democrats was measured at 77 percent in both polls.

The economic recession is probably a major factor in Culver’s slide. Although the state’s eight leading economic indicators were measured in positive territory in December 2009 (for the first time since April 2007), employment remains weak. Iowa’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in December 2009, and Iowa Workforce Development found,

Compared to last December, the Iowa economy has lost 40,100 jobs. Manufacturing still leads all sectors in terms of losses, down 19,900 over the year. Trade and transportation and construction followed with losses of 7,900 and 7,700, respectively. Education and health services remained the most resilient sector, adding 2,600 jobs since December 2008.

The slow economy has caused state revenues to fall below projections, which prompted Culver to make a 10 percent across-the-board cut in current-year spending in October. Spending cuts are rarely popular with anyone.

Side note: I wondered last fall whether the scandal surrounding Iowa’s film tax credit, which broke in September, would hurt Culver. I was surprised to see that 61 percent of respondents in the Des Moines Register’s poll think the film tax credit is “good for the state.” The poll question didn’t mention how much the film tax credit has cost compared to the economic impact. I agree with economist Dave Swenson, who thinks the program was flawed from the start.

The latest Register survey also polled Culver against the four Republican challengers. The hypothetical match-ups come from a subset of 531 “likely voters,” producing a slightly higher margin of error: plus or minus 4.3 percent.

Former Governor Terry Branstad remains the strongest challenger, beating Culver 53 percent to 33 percent. Bob Vander Plaats leads Culver 43 percent to 40 percent. Strangely, Culver trailed Branstad and Vander Plaats by slightly larger margins in the Register’s November poll, even though his approval rating was a little higher then. Culver barely beats the other Republicans, who are less well known. He leads State Representative Chris Rants 41 percent to 37 percent and State Representative Rod Roberts 41 percent to 36 percent.

Needless to say, it’s never a good sign when an incumbent governor is below 40 percent approval and barely breaks 40 percent against any challenger. Culver needs to make up ground this year in order to be re-elected. The right direction/wrong track numbers show that voters under 35 were more likely than the overall population to think things are going in the right direction, but most of the electorate in November will be over 35.

Culver has chances to improve his standing this year. If the state’s leading economic indicators continue a positive trend, the job market may improve. Also, spending on infrastructure projects supported by the I-JOBS state bonding initiative will pick up in the spring and summer. So far nearly $600 million in I-JOBS money has been awarded, but only $20.7 million has been spent. As the projects take shape, more Iowans will be employed and more people will see the benefits to their communities.

On the political side, Branstad hasn’t received much scrutiny from the media yet, but when the gubernatorial campaign heats up, his accountability problem may become more apparent. A hard-fought Republican primary will exacerbate the rift between moderates and conservatives. Some conservatives have already vowed not to support Branstad if he is the GOP nominee. More focus on the inconsistencies between candidate Branstad and Governor Branstad may help Culver’s standing with Democrats and independents.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich says Culver may as well start shopping his resume around, but Iowa blogger John Deeth argues that Culver is not dead yet.

SECOND UPDATE: The latest poll commissioned by The Iowa Republican blog and the Republican Concordia group found Branstad leading Culver 57 percent to 29 percent and Vander Plaats leading Culver 43 percent to 39 percent. I don’t know much about the firm that conducted that poll, and I would put more stock in Selzer’s numbers for the Des Moines Register.

IA-Gov: Could Vander Plaats pull off an upset?

I’ve been assuming for the past few months that there’s no way Bob Vander Plaats can defeat Terry Branstad in this year’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Branstad’s statewide connections from his four terms as governor and his support from major donors should give him an insurmountable edge, especially in the eastern Iowa counties. While Vander Plaats would have a great shot at winning a caucus or a statewide convention, I didn’t see any way he could keep Branstad below 50 percent in the primary, especially with Branstad likely to raise far more money.

I’ve started to rethink my assumptions as conservative Republicans have spoken out against Branstad.

Everyone knew the Iowa Family Policy Center’s political action committee would endorse Vander Plaats at some point, but their statement yesterday went far beyond expressing a preference for Vander Plaats. The IFPC made clear that they will not support Branstad in the general election if he wins the GOP nomination.

Follow me after the jump for more on the IFPC’s endorsement and how Vander Plaats could win the primary.

You can read the IFPC’s press release here and watch videos from yesterday’s rally outside the capitol against same-sex marriage rights. The group judged the candidates on the following criteria:

The Iowa Family PAC’s evaluation of the candidates was designed to seek out and promote a statesman and public servant who would commit to uphold the Biblical principle of individual responsibility, who recognizes family as the foundational unit for a stable social structure, who will boldly defend the sanctity of human life and of marriage, commit to limiting the size and cost of civil government, promote high quality education under the authority of parents, encourage an ethical free enterprise system, defend the Constitutional separation of powers, and like our Founding Fathers be guided by the absolute moral truth that comes from a regular reading of the Bible. We believe that Bob Vander Plaats is the candidate who best meets those requirements. We are especially pleased with his pledge to stand up to the Iowa Supreme Court and stay their effort to unconstitutionally legislate same sex “marriage,” until the Iowa Legislature and the people of Iowa act on the Iowa Marriage Amendment.

They like Representative Rod Roberts but consider him “to have more of a legislator’s temperament than that of an executive.” The IFPC PAC also sounds concerned that Democrats could win Roberts’ Iowa House district in the Carroll area; they want Roberts to run for re-election there “for the greater good of the State.”

They like the way State Representative Chris Rants pushed for an Iowa House floor vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage last year, and they praised his “spirit and enthusiasm,” but they withheld their endorsement because of “his lengthy legislative record, his history in House leadership, and his past willingness to pursue questionable political pragmatism.”

The IFPC saved its harshest words for Branstad:

With a 16 year record as Iowa’s Governor, much is known about who he is and how he would govern. For instance, Iowa faced financial challenges similar to today’s when Branstad first became Governor. His answers to those problems included growing government, raising taxes, legalizing gambling, and keeping what State Auditor Dick Johnson referred to as “two sets of books.” He did demonstrate pro-family support at times, like helping to de-criminalize home schooling, fighting rampant “no-fault” divorce, and helping produce pro-marriage public service announcements. Still, significant portions of his record cause Christians serious concern, such as approving immoral “Human Growth & Development” sex education (which is used by Planned Parenthood and others to promote abortion and homosexuality), allowing homosexual advances in his Dept. of Human Services, appointing pro-homosexual Supreme Court Justices who unconstitutionally try to legislate from the bench, and opening Iowa to the ravages of gambling.

Branstad also brings with him a loyalty to long term political partners that seems to trump his loyalty to Biblical principles and the people of Iowa. He continues to refuse to publicly distance himself from his former Lt. Governor Joy Corning, even when she blatantly promotes and defends abortion on demand, state sanctioned sodomy, and the evil that has been loosed on the state as a result. When his former Chief of Staff, Doug Gross, chastised those of us who desire to see Biblical principles promoted in politics and public policy, Terry Branstad was silent. He needs to understand that Christians are tired of being poked in the eye by political elites and then being told to “go along and get along.” He appears to lack an understanding of the deeply important principles that current policies threaten, or at the very least seems to lack the fervor necessary to address them.

Traditionally, most issue driven special interest groups wait until after the primary to engage in an election. Pragmatists will argue that should Branstad win the primary, he will be better than the current Governor, and that we ought to position our organization to support anyone but Culver. As a Christian organization we will always be ready to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit, and we believe that God can change anyone. However, should Branstad become the Republican nominee, apart from clear evidence of a fundamental transformation, the Iowa Family PAC will not endorse either Terry Branstad or Chet Culver in the general election.

Last week State Representative Kent Sorenson endorsed Vander Plaats and vowed never to vote for Branstad, but he is relatively new in Iowa politics. Sorenson was first elected to the Iowa House in 2008, and as he likes to remind audiences, he got virtually no help from the Republican Party in that race. He has struck an outsider’s tone before, writing this open letter to Senator Chuck Grassley last summer.

In contrast, the Iowa Family Policy Center’s chairman, Danny Carroll, has long been a Republican insider. He was first elected to the Iowa House in 1994 (while Branstad was governor) and represented district 75 until he lost in the 2006 election. After failing to win back his seat in 2008, Carroll fell just two votes short of being elected chairman of the Iowa GOP in January 2009. At yesterday’s rally, Carroll said, “Now is the time to put principle, biblical principle, before political parties […] I’ve been a part of that Republican machine for too many years, and where [has it] gotten us?”

When someone of Carroll’s stature comes out so strongly against Branstad, it makes me wonder how many other Republicans harbor similar feelings. The IFPC has worked closely with the Republican establishment, most recently during last summer’s special election in Iowa House district 90.

More important, the IFPC can put a lot of boots on the ground for Vander Plaats in the Republican primary. In the early weeks following the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v Brien, the IFPC circulated petitions around the state urging county recorders not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They didn’t persuade any county recorders to defy the court ruling, but one can only imagine what a list-building bonanza that petition drive was for the IFPC.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Michael Kiernan called yesterday’s endorsement “huge” for Vander Plaats:

“Branstad’s fatal miscalculation is in underestimating the Vander Plaats campaign. Bob Vander Plaats is the former Huckabee for President campaign chair, and he knows how to organize in their communities, at churches, and even at Tea Parties, like the one he’s going to tonight.

“The social conservative movement in Iowa that vaulted Huckabee to the top in the 2008 Iowa caucuses is poised to do the same for Vander Plaats.  Regardless of what the campaign finance reports show next week, it is clear that the grassroots momentum that surprised the nation during the caucuses is on the side of the Vander Plaats campaign and can spur on a legitimate third party candidate.”

Speaking of the Huckabee campaign, Vander Plaats has hired the highly-regarded Eric Woolson as his campaign manager. Woolson was Huckabee’s Iowa campaign manager in 2007 and 2008. He also ran Doug Gross’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002, when Gross narrowly defeated Vander Plaats and a state legislator in the GOP primary. Woolson helped Mariannette Miller-Meeks win a three-way GOP primary in Iowa’s second Congressional district in 2008.

Woolson is a very smart guy with lots of statewide connections. That will help Vander Plaats build on his network of support from his prior runs for office. Both Branstad and Vander Plaats have been endorsed by many Republican activists at the county level, as well as a few members of the State Central Committee.

In the coming months I expect to hear more from Vander Plaats campaign co-chair Richard Johnson. Johnson was the state auditor during most of Branstad’s tenure as governor. In the 1994 GOP gubernatorial primary, he endorsed Congressman Fred Grandy against Branstad because of the three-term incumbent’s record of fiscal mismanagement.

Going into this year’s primary, Branstad had two trump cards: he will raise far more money than any other Republican, and he could claim to be the party’s best chance to defeat Governor Chet Culver. Next week we’ll find out how far Branstad has outpaced Vander Plaats in terms of fundraising. I expect Vander Plaats to be way behind but to have raised enough to run a credible statewide primary campaign. He should get some out-of-state money thanks to supporters like David Barton, Chuck Norris and Focus on the Family.

Governor Culver’s recent slide in the polls has severely undermined Branstad’s electability argument. Rasmussen and the Des Moines Register have released public polls showing Vander Plaats with a lead on Culver (albeit a smaller lead than Branstad). Republicans are rumored to have an internal poll showing both Vander Plaats and Branstad way ahead of Culver.

The Des Moines Register is likely to release at least two more Iowa polls before the June primary. If Culver is still underwater, Vander Plaats may be able to persuade a critical mass of GOP primary voters that they shouldn’t settle for Branstad when a more conservative option is available.

I haven’t seen any polls of the Republican primary since Branstad joined the race. Branstad recently robocalled Democrats to ID supporters willing to cross over for the primary, which makes me wonder what their internals show about his matchup with Vander Plaats.

I still consider Branstad the prohibitive favorite in the GOP primary. He will outspend the competition and should be able to roll up big margins in the populous eastern Iowa counties. However, the Vander Plaats campaign has a lot of resources at their disposal. With groups like the Iowa Family Policy Center out there making the case against Branstad this spring, it will be hard for Republicans to present a united front if Branstad is the nominee.

Final note: despite the recent poll findings, I’m not the least bit concerned that Vander Plaats might defeat Culver in the general election. I believe he would get crushed in Polk County and almost everywhere east of I-35.

Any comments about the Iowa governor’s race are welcome in this thread.

IA-Gov: New Register poll has bad news for Culver

Governor Chet Culver has gone through a couple of very tough months, with a film tax credit scandal breaking in September and low revenue projections prompting a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut in October. Selzer and Co. polled Iowans for the Des Moines Register last week, and Culver’s numbers are at an all-time low.  

Culver is at 40 percent approve/49 percent disapprove (Selzer’s last poll in September pegged his approval at 50 percent). The right direction/wrong track numbers are 34/57, the worst they’ve been in ten years.

Culver loses a hypothetical matchup with former Governor Terry Branstad 57 percent to 33 percent, and he loses to Bob Vander Plaats 45 percent to 37 percent. Against Chris Rants and Christian Fong, Culver can’t break 50 percent. He’s ahead of Rants 42-35 and ahead of Fong 42-34.

The last governor to score as low was Branstad. In February 1992, as he grappled with that year’s recession and budget crisis, only 37 percent of Iowans approved of his performance.

The economy was in much better shape by the time Branstad had to face voters in 1994. Culver’s only got a year to turn things around. There’s no guarantee unemployment will be falling by then, especially if President Obama decides to act like Herbert Hoover during the next year. Iowa’s unemployment rate, though low by nationwide standards, is the highest it’s been since the mid-1980s.

The only good thing I can say about this poll is that it may convince conservative Republicans that Vander Plaats can win the general election. During the summer, Branstad looked like a hail-mary pass for the GOP.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Research 2000 found much better numbers for Culver a month ago. Either the budget situation has caused his approval to nosedive in the past month, or one of these polls is an outlier. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t bet on a Selzer poll being an outlier in Iowa.

Rasmussen’s Iowa poll from September found numbers similar to what Selzer found last week.

SECOND UPDATE: I agree with Tom Beaumont of the Des Moines Register:

Culver has kept up an optimistic tone, predicting Iowa will emerge from the recession in better economic health than most states. Several key statistics show Iowa’s overall economy and its state government have weathered the tough times better than other states. A report issued last week by the Pew Center on the States ranked Iowa as tied for second among states in terms of fiscal health.

But that message isn’t registering with Iowans.

That Pew report gave Iowa good marks for money-management practices, and put Iowa in the group of states “least like California” in terms of budget problems, but I don’t know how Culver can get that message across. Republicans have simple talking points: budget problems = Culver incompetence.

IA-Sen/IA-Gov: Grassley & Culver Are Both Vulnerable

Research 2000 for Daily Kos (10/12-14, likely voters, no trendlines):

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 51

Christie Vilsack (D): 40

Undecided: 11

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 51

Roxanne Conlin (D): 39

Undecided: 10

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 52

Bob Krause (D): 35

Undecided: 13

Chuck Grassley (R-inc): 54

Tom Fiegen (D): 31

Undecided: 15

(MoE: ±4%)

This is the first poll to test Chuck Grassley against a couple of higher-profile names: Christie Vilsack, the wife of former governor (and current Ag. Sec’y) Tom Vilsack, and Roxanne Conlin, former head of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and 1982 Democratic nominee for governor (she lost 53-47 to none other than Terry Bradstad – we’ll visit with him below). Both Vilsack and Conlin’s names have been tossed around as possible candidates recently, with Conlin refusing to rule out a run and Vilsack openly suggesting she might join the race.

The best news about this poll, though, is that Grassley seems to have a cap of about 51-52% against a field which has room to grow. He does better against state Sen. Tom Fiegen, but only because half the state has no opinion of the latter. All the other three Dem names are in a much closer range in terms of favorables – former state Rep. and longtime public official Bob Krause is actually a bit better-known than Vilsack, and Conlin, it turns out, has the best nums with 44-29 favorables. (Also recall that last December, Grassley only led Tom Vilsack by 48-44 in another R2K poll.)

Hopefully Conlin or Vilsack will get in. Either woman would bring considerable resources to bear – Conlin, thanks to her high profile and network of wealthy lawyers, and Vilsack, due to her strong brand name and powerful political connections. SSP currently pegs this as a “Race to Watch,” but if we get a top-tier challenger, that rating might soon change. (Discussion is also underfoot in this diary.)

Chet Culver (D-inc): 43

Terry Brandstad (R): 48

Undecided: 9

Chet Culver (D-inc): 55

Bob Vander Plaats (R): 33

Undecided: 12

Chet Culver (D-inc): 58

Chris Rants (R): 28

Undecided: 14

(MoE: ±4%)

How frustrating – Gov. Chet Culver utterly swamps a couple of unknown candidates, but along comes former four-term Gov. Terry Branstad showing the incumbent in a very vulnerable position. Branstad is still in “exploratory phase” – he just resigned as president of Des Moines University on Friday, but hasn’t officially announced a run yet. Lingering unhappiness over events from his long tenure, as well as a possible right-wing vs. establishment split, could pose some roadblocks for Branstad. But right now, Culver ought to be very concerned.

SSP currently rates this race a Tossup. (More on this poll in this diary.)

IA-Gov: Early Republican reaction to Branstad’s move

Terry Branstad shook up the Iowa governor’s race yesterday when he formed an exploratory committee headed by Mary Andringa, the CEO of Pella’s Vermeer Corporation. (Republican power-brokers tried and failed to recruit Andringa to run for governor earlier this year.)

Election-watchers like the Swing State Project and Campaign Diaries bloggers immediately recognized that Branstad is the toughest potential challenger for Governor Chet Culver. But some Iowa Republicans have doubts about going back to the future:

Drew Ivers, a longtime social conservative Republican leader, said some party activists object to the growth in the state budget during Branstad’s tenure. The budget Branstad approved in 1983, his first year in office, included $2.05 billion in general fund spending. In 1998, his last year in office, he approved general fund spending of $4.5 billion.

“The party needs to get back to the Goldwater definition of conservative: that which governs least governs best,” said Ivers, of Webster City, who is uncommitted in the race. […]

Branstad brings many assets, but not a fresh face, noted Roger Hughes, a longtime Iowa Republican strategist.

“I would be hard-pressed to vote against my friend Terry Branstad, but I think we need some new folks,” said Hughes. “I’m not sure him running is good for the party.”

The Republican primary field will narrow if and when Branstad formally becomes a candidate, but no one dropped out in response to yesterday’s news. Updates on the other Republican gubernatorial candidates are after the jump.

State Representative Chris Rants confirmed what we all suspected: he’s staying in the race, and the Branstad recruitment talk has hurt his fundraising efforts. He also wasted no time in laying out one of the strongest arguments against Branstad: “I think it’s a mistake for Republicans to nominate somebody who ran up budget deficits, played all kinds of financial games and raised taxes.”

Bob Vander Plaats’ campaign spokesman, Eric Woolson, told Charlotte Eby that Vander Plaats is “in the race until the end, and this certainly doesn’t change anything from our perspective.”

State Senator Jerry Behn will wait and see before deciding whether to end his candidacy, which never looked all that credible to me.

State Representative Rod Roberts also is holding off on ending his gubernatorial bid for now. I can’t see a path to the nomination for Roberts even if Branstad decides not to run in the end, but I do agree with one thing Roberts said yesterday: “This is a very different political environment, and it’s a different state and a different country than it was during the years when governor Branstad served.”

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley confirmed that he will drop out if and when Branstad becomes a candidate. He noted that the Branstad speculation “put everything in limbo” for other candidates trying to raise money and early support. For what it’s worth, I haven’t seen evidence that McKinley even tried to launch a real campaign.

Branstad’s candidacy puts Christian Fong in an awkward position. He crafted a campaign narrative about restoring Iowa values, but Branstad is the ultimate “restoration” candidate. Fong has tried to make a virtue of his lack of political experience, but his resume looks even lighter when compared to a former governor. He raised some big money in July, but the draft Branstad effort must have hurt his campaign receipts, and his first radio ad may have drained his campaign account.

Speaking to Eby yesterday,

Fong, who has been on a 17-city campaign tour this week, said Republicans should have a choice of candidates.

“It’s not only good for Iowans to have a choice, but it makes for a healthier process to have a good dialogue about the ideas,” Fong said.

Vander Plaats and Rants will be taking the fight to Branstad, but for now Fong is keeping his powder dry. He could play nice in the hope of becoming Branstad’s running mate, but Branstad might already have someone else in mind for that job.

We never did learn who was behind that YouTube claiming there’s no difference between Branstad and Culver. In recent weeks the creator of that piece posted another video on Branstad, set to the “Time Warp” song from Rocky Horror Picture Show:

In addition, this short clip indicates that the Draft Branstad PAC sent a cease and desist letter to creator of the “Terry and Chet” videos:

Final note: if Branstad wins and serves a full term, he will be among the longest-serving governors in U.S. history. However, his 20 years as governor of Iowa would fall just short of George Clinton’s 21 years as governor of New York from 1777 to 1795 and 1801 to 1804.

IA-Gov: Roundup of recent news

It’s been a while since I posted a diary here about the Iowa governor’s race, so I’m catching up today after the jump.

Governor Chet Culver said this summer that he’d be “cranking up” his campaign operations soon, and last week the governor hired Andrew Roos to run his re-election campaign and Jesse Harris as deputy campaign manager. Jason Hancock has background on Roos and Harris at Iowa Independent.

Republican candidate Christian Fong, a Cedar Rapids flood recovery leader, claims Culver hasn’t done enough on flood recovery (more on that here). Illogically, Fong also opposes the I-JOBS state bonding program, which has allocated $45 million to flood recovery projects in Linn County alone. (Click here and here for a more detailed look at the Obama-like campaign narrative Fong is building.)

The Republican front-runner (for now), Bob Vander Plaats, held a few events around Iowa on Labor Day to officially announce his candidacy. In keeping with his tendency to advocate unworkable policies, he pushed another off-beat idea. Instead of just criticizing Culver’s I-JOBS state bonding program, like every other Republican does, Vander Plaats says that if elected, he would try to pay back the bonds during his first term (you can read the Vander Plaats press release here). State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, a Democrat, and State Representative Chris Rants, a rival Republican gubernatorial candidate, agree that the Vander Plaats idea is unworkable.

Meanwhile, Vander Plaats is promising not to balance his ticket with a less-conservative running mate:

“I’m not looking to balance the ticket with somebody who’s moderate or liberal or who doesn’t believe in those core values like I do,” he said. The core values, he noted, include believing in a right to life and that marriage should be between one man and one woman.

He didn’t mention former Gov. Terry Branstad, but the inference was clear – the former governor chose pro-choice Republican Joy Corning as his running mate.

Lest anyone get too impressed by Branstad’s ticket-balancing, Rekha Basu reminded me recently that Branstad endorsed the inept Jim Ross Lightfoot over the highly capable Corning in the 1998 GOP gubernatorial primary. Also, when one of Lieutenant Governor Corning’s annual diversity conferences included a workshop on workplace discrimination, Branstad sided with an anti-gay crusader who attacked the workshop.

Establishment Republicans have been trying to recruit Branstad since two Republican-commissioned polls taken in July showed him leading Culver in a hypothetical matchup. The Iowa Republican blog’s poll, in the field the first week of July, had Branstad ahead of Culver 53-37. Hill Research Consultants did a poll for the 527 group Iowa First Foundation later in July and found Branstad ahead of Culver 53-34.

Branstad has said he’ll announce in October whether he plans to run next year, but it looks increasingly likely that he’ll jump in. Since he’s not a candidate yet, he can’t raise or spend money on the race. Enter the “Draft Branstad” political action committee that former State Representative Sandy Greiner launched at the beginning of September. They’re collecting signatures on a petition at draftbranstad.com. They’ve been advertising on The Drudge Report, one of the highest-traffic conservative websites. Draft Branstad flyers were distributed at Saturday’s Iowa/Iowa State football game. They’re running a 60-second radio ad statewide. Among other things, the flyers and radio ad praise Branstad for his “fiscal discipline” and balancing the budget. That’s quite the revisionist history lesson.

I’m enjoying the @draftBranstad Twitter feed, which periodically reprises the great one’s profound words: “My passion for our state has grown with every day I have served it.” Branstad 1/13/98″; “This spirit of neighbor helping neighbor is as Iowan as the tall corn we grow.” -TEB 1/9/96

Des Moines Register Marc Hansen wrote last week that “coming back could be the biggest mistake of [Branstad’s] life.” Highlights:

The best Branstad could do in 1994 against fellow Republican Fred Grandy was talk about how Rep. Gopher wasn’t a real Iowan. […]

The further removed from office he gets, the more popular he becomes. In February 1997, not long before Branstad reaffirmed his decision not to run for a fifth term, the Iowa Poll said 55 percent of Iowa adults believed Branstad should not seek another term in 1998. Thirty-five percent said he should. The other 10 percent were unsure.

The minute he wasn’t running, his numbers started climbing.

I don’t even want to get into Richard Johnson, the state auditor who supported Grandy in ’94 because of the way he said Branstad was keeping the books.

Incidentally, Richard Johnson is co-chairing the Vander Plaats campaign. We’ll probably be hearing more from him if Branstad enters the gubernatorial race, as most political observers now expect. For a preview of other arguments rival Republicans are likely to make against Branstad, see here and here.

Branstad didn’t turn up at the Iowa Family Policy Center Action’s fundraiser on September 12, but four others in the Republican field attended. For some reason, State Senator Jerry Behn wasn’t there, despite recently forming an exploratory committee for a gubernatorial bid. Iowa Senate minority leader Paul McKinley didn’t attend the Iowa Family Policy Center’s event either, but that’s par for the course for him since he claimed to be “aggressively” exploring a campaign for governor.

Vander Plaats was on friendly turf at the Iowa Family Policy Center event, easily winning the straw poll with 63 percent of the votes. (Fong and Rants finished a distant second and third.) The Vander Plaats plan to stop gay marriage on day one as governor is a hit with that crowd. Vander Plaats also also promised not to expand gambling and to put representatives for parochial schools and home-schoolers on the State Board of Education.

Rants usually talks about the budget and taxes in his stump speeches, but he adapted his pitch for the Iowa Family Policy Center event, referring to moments of personal prayer as well as his efforts to bring a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to the Iowa House floor. Rants also

acknowledged that there’s not a lot of space separating Republican candidates on the issues.

But honesty will be important, he said. That might be difficult in the primary, he said, noting that some of the things he’s said in the past few weeks have made some people uncomfortable. He did not give more explanation, but in the past few weeks, he’s called into question Bob Vander Plaats’ portrayal of himself as a CEO who’s been a turnaround artist. Rants released tax returns that appear to show deteriorating finances at a nonprofit organization that Vander Plaats led.

“If we’re going to ask Iowans to trust us,” candidates have to lead by example, he said.

I can’t see any way Rants gets the nomination. I don’t even know of another state legislator who’s endorsing him, which is remarkable given that he used to be Iowa House speaker until the GOP lost the majority in the 2006 elections. That said, Rants is smart enough to know that there probably will be room for only one other candidate if Branstad enters the race. So, he’s been going after Vander Plaats for bad policy ideas as well as his record as CEO and board president of the non-profit Opportunities Unlimited. (I recommend reading the whole comment thread under this story.)

Fong tried to inspire the Iowa Family Policy Center crowd:

Too much debt and too-high taxes are problems; so are abortion and other major issues, he said. But “the critical issue for our cause” is spiritual, he said.

Christ-like leadership is needed, with integrity and compassion, he said. It’s service above self. Voters are hungry for something greater than government and politics, he said.

“A hurting Iowa” needs that leadership, he said.

He called for leadership based on the “political philosophy of Jesus Christ himself.”

State Representative Rod Roberts claimed to have the right leadership qualities for a governor:

He’s been asked, “Rod, Aren’t you too nice to run for governor?” He replies: His two favorite Republican presidents are Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. They were friendly, civil and respectful, but they also knew what they believed, stood their ground and knew where they were going, he said.

“That’s what leadership is about,” he said.

“A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way,” he said.

Before the gubernatorial candidates spoke, Iowa Family Policy Center head Chuck Hurley previewed his group’s efforts to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“If they don’t see the light, maybe they’ll feel the heat,” said Hurley, who urged supporters of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman to seek more information at luviowa.com on how to get involved. […]

The goal of the group’s effort is to get all 150 state legislators on the record where they stand on the marriage issue and then “to pressure middle-of-the-road legislators who said they believe in one-man, one-woman marriage to vote that way in January and February,” Hurley said.

He also made a special point to let the audience know that three of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices who overturned the state’s 1998 defense of marriage act will be up for retention votes on the 2010 ballot. Hurley said it was the justices’ “rogue decision” to allow “counterfeit marriage” that now requires a vote of the people to “rein-in” the judicial malpractice and to “rebuild the moral and legal culture that respects and strengthens marriage rather than tears it down.”

It looks like Hurley’s group is not focusing on the quickest way to amend the constitution: urging voters to approve the ballot initiative calling for a Constitutional Convention. That’s going to be on the November 2010 ballot anyway and, if approved, could lead to amendments being drafted in 2011. Social conservatives may be afraid that Democrats would end up controlling a Constitutional Convention, but if stopping same-sex marriage is such an urgent need for them, they should be pursuing all legal avenues to do so.

I didn’t see whether anyone at the Iowa Family Policy Center’s event mentioned the September 1 House district 90 special election. The Republican Party and conservative interest groups went all-in for that race but came up 107 votes short. Craig Robinson thinks the GOP erred in letting staff from Iowans for Tax Relief run the campaign of Republican Stephen Burgmeier. The Iowa Family Policy Center also delegated a staffer to work on Burgmeier’s campaign.

Share any thoughts or predictions about the gubernatorial campaign in this thread. If you follow Delaware or Virginia politics, feel free to share your thoughts about Andrew Roos.

I am looking forward to the next Selzer poll for the Des Moines Register, which will probably come out during the next month.

SSP Daily Digest: 7/22

FL-Sen: Looks like Charlie Crist has decided that, despite mediocre polling and worse fundraising from Marco Rubio, he’s facing a bigger threat in the primary than he is in the general. Crist came out in opposition to the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor yesterday, trying to shore up what remains of his conservative bona fides.

IL-Sen/Gov: Here’s an explanation for why Chris Kennedy has been dawdling on declaring for the Illinois Senate primary: he’s considering whether or not to jump over to the Governor’s race instead. This seems very odd… not that he’d have a good chance in either race, but it seems like he’d have a better shot in a primary in an open seat race against Alexi Giannoulias, who has some vulnerabilities, than against Pat Quinn, who’s fairly popular and has the benefits of incumbency. Apparently Giannoulias’s fundraising scared him off.

MO-Sen: Here’s an interesting tidbit out of Missouri, suggesting that former Treasurer Sarah Steelman is getting less and less likely to run in the GOP primary. Jeff Roe, who ran Steelman’s 2008 campaign, has started working for Rep. Roy Blunt. Blunt still faces a primary challenge from state Sen. Chuck Purgason, though, but he doesn’t pose the same level of threat that Steelman would.

NH-Sen: This is a big surprise, as he’s been pouring a lot of money into advertising (for his STEWARD organization, though, not as a candidate) and starting to build a staff. Anti-tax businessman Fred Tausch announced today that he won’t be running in the GOP Senate primary after all (or for anything, including the House). Considering that he was lobbing bombs at AG Kelly Ayotte just a few days ago, this is a sudden change of heart. Former Board of Education member and 1996 gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne may still provide a challenge from the right, though.

NY-Sen-B: Last night was the vaunted Bill Clinton/Carolyn Maloney fundraiser, which pulled in about $300K for Maloney’s House account. Meanwhile, the Albany Project has an interesting catch in this race. It turns out that there was one question from the internal poll in May that gave Maloney a 34-32 lead over Kirsten Gillibrand that didn’t get released to the public, and only came out in that City Hall News profile from a few days ago: “Asked whom they would vote for if they knew Gillibrand had the support of Schumer and Obama, people chose Gillibrand over Maloney 50-24.”

IA-Gov: A fifth candidate officially got into the GOP field in the Iowa governor’s race yesterday: little-known state Rep. and pastor Rod Roberts, who represents a rural part of western Iowa. Roberts polled a whopping 1% in a poll last week by the Iowa Republican blog of the GOP primary field; the poll found Bob Vander Plaats leading the field with 46%, trailed by Chris Rants at 16%, and Paul McKinley and Christian Fong each at 3%. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Chet Culver defeats Vander Plaats 48-39 and Rants 46-36.

NV-02: Ooops, back to square one in the 2nd. Douglas County school board president Cindy Trigg, who said she’d run against Rep. Dean Heller in 2010, has backed out, saying she needs to focus on the school board for now instead.

NY-23: The NRCC has gone on the air in the 23rd, launching pre-emptive TV attacks on state Sen. Darrel Aubertine before he’s even a declared candidate for the special election, for voting for new taxes in the state Senate. Meanwhile, word has leaked (perhaps from GOP rival Matt Doheny’s camp) that moderate Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava was in fact under consideration for the Democratic nomination, but that they were scared off by unpaid tax problems associated with her brother’s business (for which she’s listed as the COO).

VA-11: Home inspection company owner Keith Fimian has decided on a rematch with Rep. Gerry Connolly in the now-blue 11th. Fimian, who can self-fund, lost the 2008 open seat race to Connolly, 55-43.

NY-LG: A New York judge put the kibosh on David Paterson’s appointment of Richard Ravitch as Lieutenant Governor, issuing a temporary injunction to stop it, saying the state constitution does not appear to permit appointment to fill a vacancy in that position. Still, even if the appointment never goes through, it looks like it may have succeeded for Paterson, in terms of forcing Pedro Espada’s hand and breaking the state Senate deadlock.

OH-AG: As was previously leaked, former Senator Mike DeWine announced today that he’ll run for state Attorney General. He’ll face off against Democratic incumbent Richard Cordray.

Fonts: Ever wondered about the font that defined the Obama campaign in 2008? Here’s a profile of that “uniquely American” sans-serif typeface, Gotham.

IA-Gov: No bump for Culver in SUSA poll (corrected)

Survey USA released a new batch of approval ratings for governors based on polls taken June 16. Iowa’s Chet Culver was at 42 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval. The previous SUSA poll in Iowa, taken in late April, found similar numbers for Culver: 42 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval.

CORRECTION: I did not realize that SUSA also conducted a poll in late May, which showed somewhat better numbers for Culver: 48 approve, 47 disapprove.

Probably this is just statistical noise, and Culver’s support is somewhere in the 40s. Alternatively, if you have some hypothesis that would explain why the governor’s support rose in May but dropped by mid-June, please post a comment.

Click here to see all of SUSA’s approval numbers for Culver since he became governor.

It would be nice if some other polling firm released a new Iowa survey soon.

Having noticed that Culver’s SUSA numbers bounced up last May and June after being in net negative territory from February through April 2008, I wondered whether a “legislative session effect” might have dragged him down from February through April of this year. Either that was not the case, or the weaker economy this year has prevented the governor from getting a post-session bounce.

Approval ratings in the low 40s are outside the comfort zone for an incumbent, but I wouldn’t hit the panic button yet. SUSA has tended to measure Culver’s support at lower levels than some other pollsters, and most governors have seen their approval ratings slip during the past year, presumably because of the economy and the fiscal problems affecting almost every state.

I couldn’t find any breakdown of Culver’s support among Democrats, Republicans and independents either at this site or on Survey USA’s site. If anyone has those numbers, please post a comment or send me an e-mail (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com). I still think a large number of Democrats and independents who may not “approve” of Culver would choose him in a heartbeat over Chris Rants or Bob Vander Plaats, who are most committed to running for governor.

We’ll have a better idea of the governor’s re-election prospects when we see polling of head-to-head matchups with potential Republican challengers. Some of the Republicans considering this race would be stronger than others in terms of personal appeal or fundraising (though Culver will probably be able to outspend even the best GOP fundraisers).

Finally, keep in mind that despite ups and downs in the economy, Iowa hasn’t voted an incumbent governor out of office since 1962.

Share any thoughts about Culver’s chances or the GOP gubernatorial primary in this thread. Who has the potential to overcome Vander Plaats’ head start on campaigning? Can Rants reinvent himself as a likable politician? Who would benefit from a more crowded Republican field? Will the GOP primary be negative enough to do lasting damage to the eventual nominee?

Final note: Swing State Project currently considers the Iowa governor’s race to be safe D. I would rate it as likely D, and the Culver-skeptic contingent at Bleeding Heartland would probably argue for a lean D rating.