An already bad midterm week is getting worse for Democrats, as a Governor who looked like he’d have little trouble winning re-election at the beginning of the year now finds himself in one of the toughest races of the cycle. Today, Iowa’s former Governor Terry Branstad created a campaign committee to take on Democratic incumbent Chet Culver.
Branstad served 16 years as Governor, from 1982 to 1998. You might think that would be enough to exhaust any politician’s standing with the public but two recent polls have found him widely popular. First, a Selzer & Co. survey for the Des Moines Register found that 70% of Iowans approved of his performance during his tenure and 48% wanted him to run in 2010, compared to 36% who did not want him to. Shortly thereafter, a Rasmussen survey found Branstad leading Culver by a stunning 54% to 34%.
Combine these numbers with the political stature a 16-year governor is bound to occupy in a state, and Branstad emerges as a formidable challenger to Culver.
That’s all the more the case when you consider that Culver’s vulnerability extends beyond the identity of his opponent: Whatever we think about the odds of a red wave next year, Midwestern governors running for re-election during a recession are bound to be vulnerable. (During the 1982 recession, for instance, Republicans were hit particularly badly in this region.)
Yes, Iowa took a leftward turn over the past 3 years - in many ways more so than other states. Let’s simply cite the fact that it was the the Bush state that was most certain to fall in Obama’s hands in 2008. Yet, no one disputes Iowa remains a swing state - a blue-leaning one, perhaps, but not by any measure so blue as to not be very susceptible to variations in the political environment.
In 2008, Democrats and Republicans made up equal parts of Iowa’s electorate, so Obama’s decisive edge was entirely derived from a 15% lead among independents. In short, this is exactly the type of state in which a partisan breeze can have big consequences and where independents simply leaning towards the GOP can endanger Democrats’ electoral coalition.
But that also gets us to one key reason it’s too early for Democrats to hit panic button: A race like this one is more dependent on the national environment than most and it’s obviously too early to know what the cycle will look like come next fall. With Culver showing no sign of being fatally wounded like some other governors (even in Rasmussen’s poll, his approval rating was not terrible), it should not be difficult for him to improve his numbers if the economy shows some sign of recovery.
There are other reasons for with which Culver can reassure himself. For one, Branstad is not a declared candidate yet; however likely he is to become one soon, the formation of a campaign committee does not guarantee that he’ll fully jump in the race.
Second, there is disagreement between pollsters as to the extent of Culver’s vulnerability: Selzer & Co had the governor’s approval rating at a far higher level than did Rasmussen. Also: Culver won his first term in 2006 with a startlingly easy demolition of then-Rep. Jim Nussle; even if he was helped by the year’s environment, the magnitude of his triumph suggests he is no pushover when it comes to campaigns and that he enjoys a level of personal appeal that should be useful against Branstad.
Third, and this is the same argument used to dispute Mike Castle’s strength, are voters interested in reaching back an entire decade? It will surely be a problem for Branstad to be a stand-in for the past. On the other hand, Culver is the incumbent so it will be hard for him to differentiate himself as a fresh voice - something Beau Biden should have an easier time doing in Delaware.
Finally, Branstad cannot be sure to coast towards the Republican nomination. Businessman Bob Vander Plaats has signaled he will stay in the race and challenge Branstad from the right. Other Republicans had signaled interest in the race, and while we might expect most of them to defer to Branstad, he served as governor too long ago for all state Republicans to have grown under his tutelage.
In fact, Branstad has a history of discontenting conservatives - one desmoinesdem exposes in a strong analysis over at Bleeding Heartland. Anger over tax increases and Branstad’s fiscal record helped fuel a primary challenge in 1994 by then-Rep. Fred Grandy. Branstad was then a three-term Governor, but he only survived the primary 52% to 48%.
However, Democrats shouldn’t hope for Branstad to be too weakened by the primary process. None of the Republicans whose names were circulating as potential candidates have the stature of a sitting congressman, and Branstad’s superior name recognition and fundraising potential should guarantee him an edge. Second, the primary will take place on June 8, early enough that intra-party wounds will have ample time to be mended.