Republican presidential prospects in Iowa for 2012

The decision won't be final until the Republican National Committee's summer meeting in August, but it appears likely that the Iowa caucuses will remain the first presidential nominating contest in 2012. This week the RNC's Temporary Delegate Selection Committee recommended adopting a rule that would allow only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold primaries or caucuses before March 6, 2012. Click here to read the rule, which would also require all states that hold nominating contests before April 2010 to award their delegates proportionally, rather than through a winner-take-all system that is typical for the Republican Party.

So, Iowa will continue to be a frequent travel stop for Republicans considering a presidential bid. It's been six months since I last discussed the prospects of likely challengers to President Obama in Iowa. New speculation is after the jump.

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IA-Gov: New Branstad ad airbrushes his record

Former four-term Governor Terry Branstad, the likely Republican nominee against Governor Chet Culver, launched his campaign's third television ad today, about a month after his first commercials started running statewide in Iowa. The latest ad depicts Branstad as "the real conservative change we needed then... and now."

Here's the ad script:

The farm crisis ... Budget deficits... Skyrocketing unemployment...

That’s what Terry Branstad faced when he was elected governor.

But this Winnebago County farm kid put his rural values right to work, recruiting thousands of jobs, cutting out half the state agencies and taxes $124 million – leaving us record employment, and a $900 million surplus.

Terry Branstad is the real conservative change we needed then... and NOW.

Time for a reality check.

Branstad was first elected governor in 1982, near the bottom of an economic cycle (at that time the most severe recession since World War II) and was fortunate to retire near the peak of the Clinton boom years. However, job gains during Branstad's tenure as governor did not fulfill promises he made during his campaigns.

Iowa reorganized state government in 1985, eliminating some agencies and merging others into larger departments. On the other hand, total state government employment increased from 53,342 in 1983 to 61,400 in 1999. Total receipts in the state's general fund increased from $1.899 billion in 1983 to $4.881 billion in 1999. That 166 percent increase was more than the rate of inflation during the same period, and Iowa's population was no larger when Branstad retired than it was when he was first elected.

The huge growth in the general fund budget would not have been possible without various tax increases Branstad signed into law. Increased revenue from two sales tax hikes dwarfed the $124 million in tax cuts highlighted in Branstad's new commercial. Those cuts came primarily from reducing income and estate taxes, delivering most of the benefits to wealthier Iowa families. Unfortunately, Branstad's sales tax increases disproportionately hit lower-income families, who spend a greater share of their money on essentials.

Branstad was far from reluctant to raise taxes. He asked the state legislature to increase the sales tax in his very first budget address, within days of being inaugurated in 1983.

I expect Branstad to win the Republican primary on June 8 despite his accountability problem. Bob Vander Plaats is a strong speaker but doesn't have the financial resources to publicize his case against the former governor. Rod Roberts isn't trying to make a case against Branstad, as far as I can tell. His function in the campaign seems to be to prevent Vander Plaats from consolidating the conservative vote in the primary.

However, during the general election campaign, Branstad will face an opponent with the resources to compare his record with his rhetoric. I wonder how many conservative Republicans will either stay home in November or check the Libertarian box in the governor's race.

IA-Sen, IA-Gov: New Rasmussen Iowa poll

A new Rasmussen poll finds five-term incumbent Republican Senator Chuck Grassley's lead shrinking against Roxanne Conlin, and Republican Terry Branstad still over 50 percent against Governor Chet Culver. Rasmussen surveyed 500 Iowa likely voters on April 29, producing a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

In the Senate race (survey questions and toplines here), Rasmussen found Grassley ahead of Conlin 53 percent to 40 percent. Grassley led Conlin 55-36 in Rasmussen's previous Iowa poll, taken in mid-March. Rasmussen's summary notes that Grassley "now leads Conlin by only five points among women."

Grassley leads Democrat Bob Krause by 57 percent to 31 percent, the same as in Rasmussen's March poll. He leads Tom Fiegen by 57 percent to 30 percent, a slightly smaller margin than his 57-28 lead in March.

This race is still Grassley's to lose; Rasmussen finds 63 percent of respondents have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of the incumbent, while only 34 percent have a very or somewhat unfavorable opinion. The corresponding numbers for Conlin are 44 favorable/30 unfavorable.

However, a few stumbles by Grassley could make this race highly competitive in a hurry. At the very least Conlin is going to make it a lot closer than any other Democrat has against Grassley in the last 25 years.

I expect Conlin to have little trouble winning the Democratic primary on June 8. Not only is she the best-known candidate, she out-raised Grassley in the first quarter and had about $1 million cash on hand as of March 31. According to FEC reports, Krause had $352 and Fiegen had $582 on hand at the end of the first quarter. The Des Moines Register recently profiled Conlin, Fiegen and Krause.

Rasmussen's numbers on the governor's race continue to point to a tough road ahead for Culver. He trails Branstad 53 percent to 38 percent, little changed from Branstad's 52-36 lead in Rasmussen's March poll. Bob Vander Plaats leads Culver 45-41 in the new poll, up from a 42-40 lead in the March poll. Culver is barely ahead of Rod Roberts in the new poll, 43-41, little changed from the 40-38 lead Culver had against Roberts in the previous poll.

It's not encouraging for an incumbent to be stuck around 40 percent against all challengers. Culver needs to bring up his own numbers and get out there to tell voters about his administration's successes. For a preview of the case Culver will make with Iowa voters, watch his appearance on Chuck Todd's MSNBC program last week.

Assuming Branstad will be the Republican nominee, Culver's campaign will have to take him on aggressively. The race is bound to tighten up, but as long as Branstad is polling above 50 percent the odds are against Culver. Perhaps the governor can needle Branstad and provoke the same kind of response Vander Plaats got during the second Republican debate over the weekend.

One simple question, three non-answers on Iowa gay marriage

Everyone who moderates a debate this year could learn from the journalists who guided the May 1 Iowa Republican gubernatorial candidates' debate: Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Paul Yeager of Iowa Public Television, and Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio. Too many journalists ask long-winded questions that are easy to evade, or ask about hot topics of no lasting importance, or ask about policies outside the scope of the office the candidates are seeking. In contrast, almost every question the panelists asked during Saturday's debate was direct and addressed an issue the next governor of Iowa will face.

Mind you, asking an unambiguous question doesn't guarantee that you'll get a straight answer from a politician. Look what happened when Dorman asked the Republicans, "Can you identify one tangible way Iowa has been harmed during a full year of legal same-sex marriage?"

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One simple question, three non-answers on Iowa gay marriage

Everyone who moderates a debate this year could learn from the journalists who guided the May 1 Iowa Republican gubernatorial candidates' debate: Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Paul Yeager of Iowa Public Television, and Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio. Too many journalists ask long-winded questions that are easy to evade, or ask about hot topics of no lasting importance, or ask about policies outside the scope of the office the candidates are seeking. In contrast, almost every question the panelists asked during Saturday's debate was direct and addressed an issue the next governor of Iowa will face.

Mind you, asking an unambiguous question doesn't guarantee that you'll get a straight answer from a politician. Look what happened when Dorman asked the Republicans, "Can you identify one tangible way Iowa has been harmed during a full year of legal same-sex marriage?"

There's more...

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