Yet another top GOP candidate: former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad wants his old job back

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.

13 Responses to “Yet another top GOP candidate: former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad wants his old job back”

  1. 1 Cliff

    I think this is important, not only for the Governor’s race, but for other races as well. If Branstand indeed trounces Culver, as polls suggest, it’ll ensure that Grassley is safe (he probably already is, but the D’s are making lots of noise). And having both Grassley and Branstand trounce their opponents could carry challengers for newly flipped Congressional seats and state leg seats to flip as well.

    Anyhow, it’s too early to tell, but this is, at best, a troubling and at worst devastating development for the D’s.

  2. 2 Joe from NC

    I think the recent recruitment successes of the GOP show one of the secrets to their success in the past 30+ years: They are always optimisitic about their chances. They seem to enter every cycle assuming they’re going to win big, even if all the evidence suggests otherwise. Occasionally this hurts them, (like in 2006, I think the Republicans were too overconfident. They didn’t raise enough money and they played too much offense) but usually it helps them. It (amoung other things) enthuses the base and helps recruit strong candidates and raise money.
    The Dems tend to be more pessimistic, which depresses the base and turns off strong candidates.
    As for why the parties have these levels of optimism, that’s a difficult question, but the optimism factor seems to be well-known in Republican circles.

  3. 3 Ron

    Cliff, both of the Congressional seats that Democrats picked up in 2006 were overwhelmingly Democratic seats.

  4. 4 Taniel

    Joe, interesting take. I do indeed think the GOP was incomprehensibly optimistic through the 2006 cycle (see Rove’s quite serious prediction late in the cycle that they’d gain seats).

    Ron, you are right that both IA-01 and IA-02 were Kerry districts and both gave Obama big majorities; but the IA-02 pick-up came out of absolutely nowhere.

  5. 5 Ron

    Taniel, I dont think Rove ever predicted that Republicans would gain seats. I recall him pointing out that they would hold onto the House and Senate narrowly.

  6. 6 Taniel


    You are absolutely right, here’s the link. The point remains, to an obviously far lesser degree.

  7. 7 Cliff

    Obviously, Rove was over optimistic about the House, but given the GOP only lost the Senate by about 1100 votes in Montana and 9000 in Virginia, that’s really not that bold of a claim. The Dems drew an inside straight, or should I call it a “Macaca”, to win the Senate in ‘06.

    Anyhow, Taniel is right about Iowa’s Congressional races. We lost 3 and one of those should be an R seat. Nussell’s is still relatively swing. Kerry only won it by 3%.

  8. 8 Preston

    Taniel, I posted this on another page, but the GOP landed a top-tier candidate in John Spratt’s Republican SC-5.

  9. 9 Taniel


    Thanks for the link. I saw that and will compile it with the week’s other strong GOP House recruits (in Virginia, Nevada), probably tomorrow.

  10. 10 Maurice

    He seems just as persistent as Edwin Edwards was.

    And I would be knocked back a hundred and twenty years before Mulvaney wins; Spratt had his races in ‘94 and ‘96.

  11. 11 desmoinesdem

    I do not think Branstad will find it easy to heal the wounds from the GOP primary. Evangelical conservatives saved him in the 1994 primary, but what did they get during his fourth term? Not much. He appointed two of the Supreme Court judges who cleared the way for gay marriage in Iowa, including the author of the Varnum v Brien ruling. If Branstad chooses a pro-choice moderate running mate again, as the Des Moines rumor mill expects him to, there will be hell to pay. Social conservatives already feel that the Republican Party of Iowa doesn’t cater to them enough. I don’t see them pounding the pavement to re-elect Branstad. Culver isn’t that popular, but he isn’t hated by the right the way, say, Bill Clinton was hated.

  12. 12 Joe from NC

    What you said about VA and MT in 2006 was my point. If the NRSC had spent less time going after NJ and MD, they might have saved VA and MT, and possibly MO too.

  13. 13 Ron

    Cliff, John Kerry won IA-01 by seven points and IA-02 by 14 points. Both of those districts are fairly safe Dem districts.

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