By THOMAS BEAUMONT • firstname.lastname@example.org • © 2009, Des Moines Register and Tribune Company • August 2, 2009
Signs are increasing that Terry Branstad - Iowa's longest-serving governor, but one who hasn't been on the ballot for 15 years - is actively considering a run for the office next year.
The state's last Republican governor dismissed talk of a comeback last spring. But now he's discussing a 2010 run more openly, even as he says he is contentedly busy as president of a growing medical college.
"I'm not ruling it out, because I care deeply about the state," Branstad said in a Des Moines Register interview. "And I have real concerns about the direction things are going."
Branstad is accepting invitations to meet with party activists. Two weeks ago, he met with about 50 political and business leaders at the Alden home of Bruce Rastetter, an influential Republican fundraiser and ethanol industry executive.
New calls for Branstad's candidacy, and encouraging words from key donors such as West Des Moines developer Gary Kirke, underscore a growing feeling in his party that Democrat Gov. Chet Culver is vulnerable as he finishes his first term and that the emerging GOP field lacks a contender who can beat him.
Branstad, who served four terms after being elected in 1982, acknowledged that his openness to a 2010 bid complicates the path for Republicans already taking steps to run. But he's concerned about the direction of the state, he said.
He remains keenly involved in party politics and wants to see a Republican in Terrace Hill.
"More importantly, I guess, I'm interested in what needs to be done to turn the state around, turn the economy around and get the state's budget under control, restore fiscal responsibility and get the focus on economic development and those things to get the state to grow and prosper in the future."
Branstad connecting with key GOP donors
Talk of Branstad's return was stoked in April after a poll commissioned by longtime Branstad supporters showed he was popular with likely Iowa voters 10 years after leaving office.
Nearly half said they wanted their next governor to be similar to Branstad. Poll respondents, given a list of generic profiles, rated highest a GOP candidate described as a respected former state official who managed Iowa during tough times.
Branstad said at the time he didn't want to suggest he was considering it seriously, "because that would be not really correct."
He said he has been preoccupied with planning a new optometry school at Des Moines University, the osteopathic medical school where he has been president since 2003.
But in the Register interview Friday, Branstad used stronger language to indicate returning to politics remains an option, although he declined to say what it would take to force a decision.
"Obviously, I would like to see a strong Republican candidate emerge that can win the election," Branstad said, adding later: "I'm not prepared to make a decision at this point in time."
Since the poll, calls to Branstad from county-level Republican activists and donors have increased, even though five GOP prospects have already announced plans to run for governor. They are Cedar Rapids businessman Christian Fong, Chariton state Sen. Paul McKinley, Sioux City state Rep. Christopher Rants, Carroll state Rep. Rod Roberts and Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats. Others weighing campaigns include Boone state Sen. Jerry Behn and former Ankeny state Sen. Jeff Lamberti. (Ed. note: All losers, especially Vander Plaats, and don't call Christopher Rants "Chris" or he'll flip out to the media.)
Branstad also has accepted invitations to meet with activists, although he said he declines those that conflict with his work.
Rastetter, chief executive officer of Hawkeye Renewables, said the event with potential contributors at his home was not an effort to persuade Branstad to run, but was an opportunity to talk about economic policy and politics.
"My view, frankly, is he was a great governor, and the state needs leadership. It's missing that today," Rastetter said. "He's done a great job at Des Moines University, and I don't know what he is going to do. I have to assume he is going to be there until he says otherwise."
Rastetter was 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee Jim Nussle's top fundraiser, contributing roughly $100,000 to the former congressman's campaign and helping raise roughly $1 million.
Today's issues similar to ones Branstad faced
West Des Moines developer Gary Kirke, another key GOP fundraiser, said he would be pleased to see Branstad run because he served during tough times, but also because he has a ready political network at his fingertips.
"He would be as good a candidate that we could field right now of all the people that have announced," said Kirke, a West Des Moines developer who contributed more than $200,000 toward Nussle's 2006 bid. "He's got the ability to raise money. He's got all the ingredients, and evidenced by 16 years in the governorship, he's got the experience to do it."
Republicans have criticized Culver's response to the revenue declines prompted by the recession. Recently, some GOP leaders have rapped him for not calling the Democrat-controlled Legislature into special session to dip into the state's emergency reserve account.
The state faces a budget shortfall for the fiscal year that ended June 30, although Culver's estimate of its size is smaller than the estimate of the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. Culver, who ordered across-the-board cuts last spring, has expressed confidence that the state will have enough money to cover the gap when the books close this fall on the fiscal year.
Branstad, elected governor in 1982, evolved from a conservative Republican to a more pragmatic, less ideological politician.
He signed into law bills creating the state lottery, parimutuel betting, riverboat gambling and the private sale of liquor. He focused his energies on job creation, marketing the state and reorganizing state government and Iowa's educational system.
Like Culver, he faced severe economic problems. In the wake of the 1980s farm crisis, Branstad admitted he had made mistakes and began the controversial and painful process of cleaning up the state's finances. That involved limiting the growth of state spending, spending less than collected in taxes, raising taxes and setting aside emergency funds.
Culver and Branstad also have devastating natural disasters in common. For Branstad, it was the floods of 1993; for Culver, the deadly storms and floods last year.
Branstad's move will affect rest of field
Branstad frequently calls Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn, and he recently showed up at a political picnic for U.S. Rep. Tom Latham in Ames.
He also brought 1,000 GOP regulars to their feet when he walked onstage in June at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines during the state party's summer fundraiser, with the 1970s tune "Still the One" blasting over the sound system.
That event was aimed at highlighting the up-and-coming talent in a party beset by consecutive general election defeats and trailing Democrats by 100,000 in voter registration. Should Branstad, 62, enter the race, he could face notably younger primary rivals.
Fong is 32, while Rants is 41. Both signaled during a recent candidate forum that they would seek to distinguish themselves from Branstad as the next generation of GOP leaders. "This race is about looking forward," Fong said at the event at Drake University last month.
Kirke and Des Moines Republican Doug Gross said Branstad, who was the youngest governor in the nation when he was first elected, would likely force some of the candidates from the race should he run.
Gross, a close Branstad friend and his former chief of staff, said talk of Branstad in GOP circles was chilling some candidates' fundraising and keeping some prospects from moving forward.
Gross, who set up the poll last spring, said he is not pushing Branstad to run.
"There has been so much chatter about Branstad. As a result, I think the race is kind of frozen until people determine if he's going to do it or not," said Gross.
For now, Branstad says he remains consumed by preparing a proposal for the optometry school and overseeing a building plan for Des Moines University.
Most of his work on those projects will be finished this fall, giving him more time to think about politics as early as October, he said.
That would give him plenty of time to enter the race. Gross, the party's 2002 nominee for governor, didn't enter the race until January of the election year.
Branstad's successor, Democrat Tom Vilsack, launched his long-shot bid in October 1997.
This may be more relevant for us Iowans here, but seriously Republicans? You have to dust this guy off to run for you? Brandstad wasn't all bad, but jeez, let's not have another sixteen years of this.