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Iowa Dem Party Chairman Mulls Two Races

photo of Alex Brown
June 13, 2013

Tyler Olson -- who announced his resignation this week as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party -- is preparing to run for office, but he won't say whether that campaign will be for governor or the House seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley. Olson said in an interview that he's still weighing the best opportunity to serve, but he seems to be drawing distinctions between himself and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

"We need to think about things differently than we did 30 years ago," Olson, age 36, said of the five-term governor. "There's a spot in the 2014 cycle here in Iowa for someone who can put forth a vision. ... Iowans are looking for leaders that have their eye on the future."

Olson had less to say about the First District congressional seat, perhaps because several Democrats are already in the race and his resignation from the party leadership post doesn't become official until Saturday.

It's possible Olson legitimately hasn't made up his mind about which race to join, but some in Iowa think a challenge to Branstad is in the works. State Sen. Jack Hatch, a likely gubernatorial candidate himself, said he was "disappointed" to see Olson leave the job he had taken just months before. The possibility of a primary challenger likely accounts for some of Hatch's disappointment as well.

In addition to attacking Branstad's vision, Olson also pushed back on the notion that the incumbent -- 12-0 in his electoral career and leading Hatch by nearly 30 points in recent polling -- is unbeatable. "My sense is that most of the gap is a name ID issue," he said.

Asked about the open House race, Olson said he expected "three or four people in the primary." He did not say if he would be one of them.

Regarding his brief tenure as party chair, Olson said he felt he was leaving the party at a "strong jumping off point." He added, "You have to talk with folks in a very personal way (when preparing for a campaign), and I wanted to make sure that absolutely no lines were crossed."

Which campaign makes more sense? Olson won't speculate, but for a young politician with a rising profile, an open House seat in a Democratic-leaning district could be a golden opportunity. Several candidates have already entered the Democratic primary, but the race is still winnable.

On the other hand, there's nothing to suggest Branstad's run of electoral success is in jeopardy. Iowa's unemployment remains below 5 percent, and the state is operating with a healthy surplus. While other Republican governors are enduring stalemates with Democrats or their own party, Branstad reached late-session compromises with the legislature on Medicaid expansion, property taxes and education reform, all in bipartisan fashion.

If nothing else, Olson's "out of touch" attacks on Branstad are at a hint Democrats' 2014 strategy, but the coming weeks will show if they're a precursor to a statewide bid.

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