IA-GOV: How vulnerable is Culver?
by desmoinesdem, Wed Jan 28, 2009 at 05:16:28 AM EST
David Yepsen published a weird column in the Des Moines Register about Culver's vulnerability in the 2010 election.
After the jump I'll assess Yepsen's analysis and handicap the 2010 Iowa governor's race.
Yepsen notes that Culver's approval rating has been "stuck at 60 percent" (with only 32 percent disapproval), as if that's a bad thing. Any campaign operative will tell you that an incumbent is considered vulnerable only if his or her approval rating drops below 50 percent.
Yepsen is convinced that Culver has been badly damaged by Iowa's current budget shortfall and a "fiasco" over the proposed sale of the Iowa Lottery. Contrary to Yepsen's column, Culver did not "float" the idea of selling the lottery to private investors. He listened to other people floating that idea and waited too long to issue a statement ruling out the proposal. (Yepsen glosses over his own incorrect prediction last week that claimed the fix was in on selling the lottery.)
Yepsen notes that Culver's "relations with the labor movement soured over his veto of their pet collective-bargaining bill last year." But I expect that the bad blood between Culver and organized labor will dissipate if the governor signs one or more good bills on labor issues this year. Democrats expanded their majorities in the Iowa House and Senate and should be able to pass another collective bargaining bill, or perhaps a a "fair share" bill. I sincerely doubt labor will sit out the 2010 election if an anti-union Republican challenges Culver.
While I don't agree with most of Yepsen's analysis, I do agree that the governor may be vulnerable to a strong challenge in 2010.
Culver has several big advantages going into a re-election campaign:
1. He's an incumbent. It's been many decades since Iowans voted an incumbent governor out of office.
2. Since Culver won the 2006 election by a 100,000 vote margin out of 1.05 million votes cast, Iowa Democrats have opened up a large registration edge. There are now approximately 110,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Iowa.
Here are the danger signs for Culver:
1. The economy is lousy and could get worse before 2010. There's plenty of time for Culver's approval rating to drop into the danger zone. Poppy Bush had 70 percent approval ratings in early 1991.
2. The first midterm election is often tough for the president's party. Democrats control the legislative and executive branches in Iowa as well as Washington, and voters may punish Culver if they don't like what they see. The governor is presiding over budget cuts that may be unpopular.
3. Turnout will be lower in 2010 than it was in the 2008 presidential election (about 1.5 million Iowans cast ballots for president). Traditionally, lower turnout helps Republicans, although that didn't prevent Iowa Democrats from winning gubernatorial elections in 1998, 2002 and 2006.
4. Culver's campaign committee burned through a lot of money in 2008, spending more than half of what was raised. If the burn rate stays high in 2009, that war chest may not be big enough to scare off a serious Republican challenger.
Who might that challenger be? Yepsen thinks Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey might have a shot. He'd certainly be a stronger candidate than three-timer Bob Vander Plaats. (Vander Plaats thinks Republicans lost recent elections because they moved too far to the middle and can win again if they "effectively communicate a compelling message of bold-color conservatism.")
I still think it would be tough for the low-profile Northey to beat Culver. He doesn't have a base in any of Iowa's population centers. If the state budget outlook continues to worsen, I'd be more worried about State Auditor David Vaudt, who warned that last year's spending increases would be unsustainable.
What do you think?