As he mounts a comeback bid for a fifth term as governor, Iowa Republican Terry Branstad, once the golden boy of Hawkeye conservatives, finds himself under attack from an unusual direction, the right. His fight for the GOP nomination has plenty of echoes from his party's 2008 presidential caucuses, and the outcome could signal what sort of Republican presidential candidates will get the warmest receptions in Iowa during the 2012 campaign.
With his conservative credentials intact, Branstad, who was governor from 1983 to 1999, returned to the fray because he felt that the state needed an experienced GOP hand at the helm and that his party was ready to welcome a candidate who emphasized economic issues.
Many other prominent Iowa Republicans feared that GOP candidates who continued to push social issues would keep losing elections. Last year, Iowa GOP strategist Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer and lobbyist, spearheaded an effort to steer the party back toward the middle. As chairman of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign in the state, Gross watched in dismay as evangelical Christians flooded Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, delivering an upset victory to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Worried that social conservatives were steering the party more and more rightward and concerned about the GOP's prospects in the 2010 gubernatorial contest, Gross commissioned a statewide poll last year. Its results indicated that a Republican candidate who emphasized economic issues over social concerns was more likely to defeat Democratic Gov. Chet Culver. "If we let a minority control a minority party, we'll always be a minority," Gross said. "And that was a problem."
Armed with his research, Gross and other longtime party activists, including former state GOP Chairman Rich Schwarm and Dave Roederer, John McCain's 2008 Iowa chairman, set out to enlist a like-minded gubernatorial candidate. Branstad, who at the time was president of Des Moines University, was recruited to help. (Gross and Roederer had served stints as his statehouse chief of staff.) Branstad personally made calls on prospects.
When no ideal candidate agreed to jump in, Branstad decided to take the plunge himself, despite having been out of electoral politics for a decade.
"We advised the governor not to run," Roederer said, explaining they felt that Branstad had given enough time to public service, should not give up a good job in academia, and would inherit a fiscal mess if he won. "He said, 'OK, if you don't think I should do it, who's your candidate?' " Roederer recalled. "That's where I had a problem. I didn't have one."
Branstad's candidacy quickly drew support from much of the Iowa GOP establishment. He raised more than $1.5 million even before he officially announced his intentions on January 19. Less than a month later, Christopher Rants, a former Iowa House speaker, bowed out of the Republican race, telling Radio Iowa that his fundraising "dried up" after Branstad joined the fray.
But Branstad's entry didn't clear the field. Retiring state Rep. Rod Roberts, an ordained minister, has said he's in. And Bob Vander Plaats, who ran for governor in 2002 and 2006 and chaired Huckabee's Iowa campaign in 2008, is making his third try.
Although he leads in general election polls, Branstad faces a stubborn opponent in Vander Plaats, who has a strong following among social conservatives. That was clear earlier this year when the Iowa Family PAC, the political arm of the Iowa Family Policy Center, a nonprofit conservative Christian advocacy group, not only endorsed Vander Plaats but also announced that it will not support Branstad in the general election if he wins the June 8 primary.
"If we let a minority control a minority party, we'll always be a minority."-- Doug Gross, Iowa GOP strategist
The key factors behind those decisions were Vander Plaats's boast that as governor he would issue an executive order powerful enough to override the Iowa Supreme Court's 2009 decision allowing same-sex couples to marry and Branstad's refusal to match him. Vander Plaats, a former teacher and Sioux City businessman, vows that he would somehow stay the state Supreme Court's decision until the Iowa Legislature allows a referendum on amending the state constitution to restrict marriage to a union between a man and a woman. (Gay couples have been marrying in Iowa for nearly a year; the Legislature has made no move to stop them.)
Like Vander Plaats, Branstad favors a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, but he contends that what his opponent pledges to do is beyond the governor's power. A governor is not a "dictator," Branstad told Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Todd Dorman. The four-term chief executive, who is a lawyer, added, "Sometimes you can feel strongly the court's wrong, but that's the way the system works."
Iowa Family Policy Center Chairman Danny Carroll, however, said that his group's PAC wants a governor who will challenge the court. "A lot of grassroots in this state are looking for that kind of hero," he said. "We've had a bellyful of judges legislating from the bench. And we think it's time someone took them on." Carroll acknowledged that Branstad promises to work to get the Legislature to schedule a referendum, but said, "We're looking for something more substantial."
Gay rights and the state government's separation of powers are not the only issues that cause some Iowa conservatives to have doubts about Branstad. Vander Plaats criticizes him for approving tax increases as governor; for supporting the state lottery and casino gambling; and because his former lieutenant governor, Joy Corning, last fall taped a recorded phone message to Republican voters in support of gay marriage. Corning has endorsed Branstad's comeback.
"I think some people definitely have their questions whether he's a principled conservative or not," Vander Plaats told National Journal. "His record would say [he's] probably not as much as I am."
Branstad communications director Tim Albrecht responded, "No governor has done more to advance the conservative cause in Iowa than Governor Branstad. His record of balancing Iowa's budget, lowering taxes, protecting traditional marriage, and standing strong for life continues to attract support all across Iowa."
Branstad has said he will support whoever wins the GOP nomination, but Vander Plaats is being coy. He says that his decision will depend on how the candidates treat one another in the primary and whether he thinks the victor can find a way to unite the party heading into the fall campaign. "Whoever wins the nomination needs to authentically earn the support of his peers," Vander Plaats said. He warns that "blind allegiances [to party] really play out in taking another candidate's base of support for granted, and I don't think any one of us can afford that."
Still, Vander Plaats says he has no interest in running as an independent if he doesn't clinch his party's nomination. "I really don't see what that does for our party, long-term," he explained.
Although Branstad was neutral in the 2008 GOP presidential sweepstakes, this primary race has taken on some of the flavor of the 2008 caucuses, with Vander Plaats and his backers eager to play the Huckabee underdog role. The Iowa Family Policy Center's Carroll, who also backed Huckabee, noted that "a lot of the former Romney supporters and their money, the wealthier Republican establishment," are backing Branstad -- hoping to ride his name and reputation back into power.
There are other similarities. Huckabee's Iowa campaign manager, Eric Woolson, now runs Vander Plaats's campaign. Branstad communications director Albrecht was Romney's chief Iowa spokesman. Branstad's campaign office in Des Moines was Romney's Iowa headquarters. And actor Chuck Norris, who stumped for Huckabee in the state, recently announced that he will hit the trail on behalf of Vander Plaats.
Vander Plaats relishes the comparisons to 2008. "If the grassroots was on fire for Huckabee, it's on steroids today," he said, adding, "If I win, I think a principled conservative is going to play well" in the 2012 presidential caucuses.
Indeed, a Vander Plaats primary victory would rekindle the debate over whether the Iowa GOP has moved so far to the right that more-centrist candidates cannot hope to win its 2012 caucuses.
A Branstad win would be more inconclusive because the voters who cast ballots in the gubernatorial primary will be a much broader cross section of the electorate than the Republican activists and evangelicals who tend to turn out for the caucuses.
"I would be very cautious applying what happens in the primary to the caucuses," said Branstad adviser Gross. But he added that the atmosphere in the state has changed since 2008 and that economic worries are now paramount within the GOP, even among social conservatives. "Those [presidential candidates] who will focus on those issues can do well in the Iowa caucuses -- which may not have been the case in the past," Gross predicts.
Case in point: Romney struggled to make himself acceptable to social conservatives in the last presidential race and ran second in Iowa, 9 percentage points behind Huckabee. On March 29 of this year, Gross attended a private meeting in Des Moines with Romney and many of his Iowa supporters. Gross, who is currently neutral in the 2012 jockeying, later observed: "I think he's trying to figure out if he can run it the way he wants to run it this time and be successful. I think he wants to focus on economic issues, and he should."
This article appears in the April 3, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.