Both publicly and privately, Iowa Democrats say they're optimistic about their chances to knock off Gov. Terry Branstad. But why? The five-term executive boasts a 12-0 election record, and Democrats' best candidate -- Rep. Bruce Braley -- now seems more likely to run for the state’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat. Iowa's unemployment rate now stands below 5 percent. And the biggest source of friction in the Statehouse? How to spend a nearly $1 billion budget surplus.
So how do Democrats plan to hit Branstad if, as appears likely, he runs for a sixth term? "That's exactly the question," former state party chair Sue Dvorsky told Hotline On Call.
It's a question worth asking. Democrats insist Branstad is vulnerable and express eagerness to get another crack at the Iowa fixture in less than two years. But when it comes to a narrative -- a reason voters should throw Branstad out of his longtime role -- Hawkeye State Democrats can't seem to find a consensus. "Oh geez, I don't know," said state AFL-CIO president Ken Sagar, when asked about Democrats' 2014 message.
Pressed further, Sagar quickly found a line of attack. Branstad's campaign promises -- including 200,000 new jobs and a family income increase of 25 percent -- have not been realized, he said. He noted Branstad's deceptive use of the "gross jobs" statistic -- which tracks jobs gained without subtracting those lost. It's a valid criticism, but to the average voter it may seem like splitting hairs -- parsing the difference between gross and net jobs is a far more difficult task than simply pointing to the unemployment rate.
Failed campaign promises were also the first target Dvorsky mentioned. Branstad's "extravagant economic plan," she said, is "not materializing."
Iowa Democratic strategist Greg Hauenstein took a different tack, saying the party should hammer Branstad on his reluctance to implement elements of the Affordable Care Act. State Sen. Jack Hatch, who is making waves about a possible bid, has leveraged the issue effectively as a means to criticize the governor and boost his own profile. Still, one state Democratic operative called it too much of a "niche issue" to use as a campaign platform.
When asked about the party's messaging, the operative instead talked about Democrats' improved turnout machine. Following Democratic Gov. Chet Culver's loss to Branstad in 2010, progressives "figured out how to tap the statewide operation" and delivered the state for Obama in 2012. That's true, but the state party was able to tap into a national narrative that the Obama campaign effectively crafted to define Mitt Romney. What would that narrative look like for Branstad? "I don't know what those key points are," he said.
The trick, that operative said, will be to create a theme -- that Branstad, who was first elected governor in 1982, is out of touch with Iowa voters. Lacking a singular issue, the campaign will instead be about reinforcing that perception through smaller criticisms. Essentially, while Branstad hasn't made himself vulnerable on a red-meat issue, he will be faulted for not strongly opposing the views of others in his party -- such as Romney's opposition to a wind energy tax credit or legislative Republicans' push to require voter identification.
Democrats expressed hope that a linchpin issue would present itself as Branstad battles with the legislature over his agenda over the second half of his term. The race's focus, said one national Democratic operative "will most clearly define itself with events over the next couple of years."
But while they wait for a defining narrative to emerge, party leaders acknowledge they have no time to waste in readying their campaign. "[Branstad]'s going to start with 105 percent name recognition," Dvorsky said. "Any of the candidates who would conceivably run against Terry Branstad are going to have to decide that early."
Still, Democrats don't lack confidence they'll be able to find the incumbent's vulnerabilities. And they're not shying away from what they're up against -- a political institution and formidable campaigner. Said Hauenstein: "There's magic in that mustache."
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