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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Welcome news on employment gains in April

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. economy had a net gain of 290,000 jobs during the month of April, the largest monthly increase since March 2006. The number includes 66,000 temporary workers hired to help conduct the U.S. census. Job numbers for February and March were also revised upwards, Steve Benen notes: "While previous estimates showed 14,000 job losses in February, the revised total was a gain of 39,000. Likewise, March was revised from 162,000 to 230,000."

On the down side, the unemployment rate inched up from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent because more people are looking for work again. Many economists believe it will take four or five years to bring the unemployment rate back down to the level seen before the last economic recession.

Still, it's encouraging to see job growth instead of job losses. Down With Tyranny has more analysis of the employment figures as well as the absurdly negative spin some Republicans are putting on the news.

[Update] I've added some more thoughts below the fold. - Charles

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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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Many states to form new high-risk insurance pools

The health insurance reform bill passed in March included a program to help states form new insurance pools to cover people with pre-existing conditions until 2014. April 30 was the deadline for states to inform the federal Department of Health and Human Services whether they planned to participate. As of Friday afternoon, officials in 28 states had announced plans to create new high-risk pools, while officials in at least 15 states (listed here) had declined to participate for fear that federal funds may be insufficient to cover the operation of these pools until 2014.

Here are more details about the program:

Consumers will be eligible for the new pools if they have a pre-existing medical condition and have not had insurance for at least six months.

They will pay premiums that parallel rates being offered by commercial insurers to healthy people on the individual market. Many existing high-risk pools charge such high premiums that many people cannot afford the coverage. Today, high-risk pools in 34 states cover only about 200,000 people.

Individuals who sign up for the new pools also will not have to pay more than $5,950 a year out of their pockets for medical care, according to the legislation.

In Iowa, Democratic Governor Chet Culver hailed the new pools as a step toward giving uninsured people access to affordable coverage. Experts from the Iowa Policy Project have estimated that the new high-risk pool could serve more than ten times the number of people enrolled in Iowa's current high-risk pool, which has operated since 1987.

CORRECTION: Although the Iowa Policy Project estimated that more than 30,000 Iowans might be eligible for the new program, the Des Moines Register quoted HIPIOWA Executive Director Cecil Bykerk and State Senator Jack Hatch as saying federal funding will allow only about 1,000 people to be covered in the new high-risk pool before 2014.

All three Republican candidates for Iowa governor oppose our state's participation in the new federal program. The Des Moines Register quoted Rod Roberts directly and spokesmen for Terry Branstad and Bob Vander Plaats. I don't know how quickly the new pool will be up and running, but I'd like to see the Republican nominee for governor explain to Iowans with pre-existing conditions why they should have to go without affordable insurance coverage until 2014. If I were Culver's campaign manager, I'd consider running ads on this issue in the fall.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

Obama having second thoughts on offshore drilling?

A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama advocated expanding offshore oil drilling in a misguided attempt to reach out to Republicans on energy legislation. The president told a town-hall meeting audience on April 2, "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." Think Progress exposed the inaccuracies in the president's comments at the time, and the April 20 explosion at British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig was a tragic reminder of how much can go wrong with offshore drilling. Eleven workers were killed in the accident, and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico still has not been contained. If it hits the Gulf Coast, the environmental and economic damage will be immense.

Last week, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insisted that the tragedy had not given the president second thoughts about offshore drilling:

Obama still believes that "we have to have a comprehensive solution to our energy problems," and the spill did not open up new questions about his drilling plan, [Gibbs] said. [...]

"We need the increased production. The president still continues to believe the great majority of that can be done safely, securely and without any harm to the environment," he said.

 

However, presidential adviser David Axelrod announced on ABC's Good Morning America program today that

there’s a moratorium on the expansion until the recent spill can be controlled and investigated.

“No additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here,” he said.

Mike Lillis is absolutely right:

For the White House, the timing of the spill couldn’t have been worse. If Obama had stuck with his guns in opposing new drilling, he’d be seen as a prophet in the wake of this week’s Gulf disaster. Instead, by trying to make concessions to Republicans — most of whom won’t support a climate bill in any event — he’s simply alienated his conservation-minded supporters to no tangible benefit.

 

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, says that any climate change bill including more offshore drilling will be "dead on arrival" in the Senate. Let's hope that message will resonates with the president. I also hope the administration will follow through on promises to make BP pay the full cost of cleaning up the oil spill.

On a related note, Mike Soraghan reports in the New York Times that BP "joined with other oil companies last year to oppose stricter safety and environmental rules" for oil rigs. I'm not surprised, and I'm not optimistic that the current disaster will lead to significantly stronger regulations on existing rigs.

UPDATE: The statement from the Sierra Club is worth reading.

FL-Sen: Race blown wide open

Florida Governor Charlie Crist finally announced today that he will run for U.S. Senate as an independent candidate, saying the political system is "broken." He declined to say whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans if elected in November. Jonathan Martin noted,

The governor made no mention of his two rivals, but he indicated in unambiguous terms that he will now race from the right to the political center. After months of touting what he described as the conservative record of a Reagan Republican, Crist made no mention of cutting taxes and spending.

Instead, he touted his opposition to off-shore drilling, his recent veto of an education reform bill that has won him support among teachers and recalled his controversial decision to expand voting hours in 2008.

Although some polls have shown Crist narrowly leading a three-way contest against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek, my hunch is that this race will become quite difficult for Crist. His key campaign staff have quit, his pollster has severed ties, and he will lose many of his donors. Both major parties will nominate serious candidates against him. Joe Lieberman faced none of those obstacles when he decided to run for for re-election as an independent after losing the 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut.

Swing State Project and the Cook Political Report changed their rating on this race to "tossup" today. Meek has trailed in polls to date, but against two opponents he may have a decent shot if he can consolidate his support among Democrats. He said today that donations are pouring in now that Crist has decided to run as an independent. Not long ago Mark Blumenthal made the case against writing off Meek.

I'm much less encouraged to read that a self-funding billionaire, Jeff Greene, will announce tomorrow that he's running for Senate as a Florida Democrat too. Marc Ambinder writes, "It's been previously reported that Net pioneer/ex-Dean manager Joe Trippi and Bloomberg and pollster Doug Schoen have been informally advising Greene." I hope Trippi and Schoen will come to their senses, because another Democrat in the Florida race is frankly the last thing we need.

What do you think, MyDD readers?

OH-Gov, OH-Sen: Democrats lead recent polls

A few months ago, Democrats were facing uphill battles in the Ohio races for governor and U.S. Senate. However, recent polls have been more encouraging. A new Quinnipac poll shows Governor Ted Strickland leading Republican John Kasich by 44 percent to 38 percent and both Democratic candidates, Lee Fisher and Jennifer Brunner, narrowly ahead of Republican Rob Portman in the U.S. Senate races, 40-37 and 40-36. Quinnipac was polling registered voters in Ohio, and polls that sample likely voters tend to produce better numbers for Republicans, but as you can see from the Pollster.com chart, several pollsters have found Strickland in a stronger position compared to a few months ago:

Here is the Pollster.com chart of Senate polls testing Portman against Fisher, who will probably win the Democratic primary next Tuesday.

It's not a big lead, but I'll take it in a state where unemployment is above the national average at 11 percent. Money will be a big problem for the Democratic nominee against Portman, who had $7.7 million cash on hand according to his latest FEC filing. Fisher had only about $907,000 on hand, and Brunner had just $59,000.

Share any thoughts about this year's Ohio elections in this thread.

Iowa marriage equality anniversary thread

One year ago today, the Iowa Supreme Court's Varnum v Brien ruling went into effect. From April 27, 2009 through the end of last year, at least 1,783 same-sex couples received marriage licenses in Iowa. The real number is probably higher, because about 900 marriage licenses did not specify the gender of the couple involved. Despite a petition drive led by some Iowa Republicans and the Iowa Family Policy Center, not a single county recorder denied a marriage license to a same-sex couple.

Although all three Republican candidates for governor say they want to overturn the Varnum v Brien ruling, marriage equality is probably here to stay. Conservative groups are not urging voters to pass a ballot initiative calling for a constitutional convention, which would be the quickest path to amend the Iowa constitution. Bob Vander Plaats probably won't win the Republican nomination for governor, much less the November election, and even if he did, his plan to halt gay marriage by executive order is a non-starter.

That leaves the self-styled defenders of traditional marriage one path: approving an amendment restricting marriage rights in two separately elected Iowa legislatures, then convincing a majority of Iowans to vote for that amendment (in November 2014 at the earliest).

Republicans have an outside shot at winning a majority in the Iowa House in 2010, but they have virtually no chance of taking back the Iowa Senate this year. Democrats currently hold a 32-18 majority in the upper chamber. A net gain of four or five seats is the best-case scenario for the GOP, and I consider a net gain of two or three seats much more likely. That leaves Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal in a position to block all efforts to bring a constitutional amendment on marriage to a floor vote during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions.

Gubernatorial candidate Rod Roberts claims he could force Democrats to allow a marriage vote. His plan is to veto all legislation, including the state budget, until the Iowa House and Senate have voted on a marriage amendment. I doubt a Republican could win that game of chicken even if Governor Chet Culver is defeated this November. Polling indicates that most Iowans are not eager to ban gay marriage and think the state legislature has more important things to do. Anyway, the most likely Republican nominee, Terry Branstad, has an incoherent position on gay marriage and probably would make only a token effort to get a constitutional amendment passed.

Share any thoughts about same-sex marriage in Iowa in this thread.

Speaking of civil rights, some reports indicate that the House of Representatives will vote this year to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which has ended far too many military careers. Click here to read a moving open letter to President Obama from an Air Force major who was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

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