Democrats And Republicans Gear Up For An Epic Fight To Replace Gov. Branstad In Iowa

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Phillip Stucky Political Reporter
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Republican President-elect Donald Trump officially selected Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad for the position of Ambassador to China, leaving a “safe Republican” seat open and ripe for the taking in the 2018 replacement election.

Branstad began his term as governor in 1983 through 1999, and ran for the post again in 2010, where he won and continues to serve as governor. Branstad’s latest term ends in early 2019.

The state of Iowa calls for current Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to replace Branstad when he leaves office, and serve in his stead until the 2018 election season declares a new winner.

It will most likely be months until the governorship is open. Local news reported that Branstad will face mountains of paperwork and a long approval process, with Senate Democrats vowing to drag out the process as long as possible for any Trump appointee.

Regardless of when Branstad is actually confirmed for the ambassadorship, the fact that the six-term governor isn’t running for office again in 2018 has Democrats fighting for the right to oppose any Republican for the post, and regain control of the governorship.

The Cook Political Report rated the 2018 governor’s race as “solid Republican” before the news of Branstad’s appointment broke. Branstad’s firm electoral history backs up that assertion. The sitting governor won 59 percent of the vote in the 2014 race, up from a 41 percent polling position in April of 2014. He won in 2010 with 50.3 percent of the vote, barely breaking the majority mark. Branstad’s nomination clears the most important Iowa Republican from the roster, and Republicans are unsure of who will replace him. The state of Iowa has a history of going back and forth in state-wide elections.

Voters in Iowa voted for a Republican presidential candidate in four of the last 10 elections, and for Democrats in six of the last presidential elections. A Democrat filled the governor’s seat in the years between 1999 and 2010, when Branstad ran again for office.

So, the “solid Republican” designation may have been nearly completely tied to Branstad’s popularity and his name recognition. The 2016 election gave Republicans control of the Iowa government. Both houses in the legislative branch are also controlled by Republicans, and are now a new target for Democrats looking to weaken GOP control in the 2018 election.

Three Iowa Republicans aim to ensure that doesn’t happen: Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Rep. Steve King, and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett make up the GOP short list to replace Branstad in the 2018 election.

Reynolds is a local, who served in the state Senate from 2009 until she resigned her post in 2011 after winning with Branstad. The potential next governor only has one race where she ran the top of the ticket, and that was during her 2008 Senate race, where she won with 14,274 votes. Since then, she campaigned with Branstad on the joint ticket, where the pair were able to expand their lead in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Reynolds raised $118,940 during her Senate race, nearly double the amount the challenging Democrat raised in the same time frame. She expressed interest in running for governor earlier in the 2016 election cycle as long as Branstad opted out of running in 2018.

King enjoys strong name recognition nationwide — not just in his home state of Iowa. King served in the Iowa Senate from 1996 to 2002, and currently as the U.S. representative from the 4th congressional district since 2003.

King serves on the Agriculture, Judiciary, and Small Business Committees in the House. They are important committee appointments that will serve him well if he runs for governor. King also has an especially impressive electoral history, earning nearly 62 percent in the 2016 election. That’s consistent with his 2014 run, and much higher than the 53 percent he won with in the 2012 election.

He has extensive fundraising capabilities. King earned a grand total of $9.6 million for all of his races between 2002 and 2014, and raised just under $1 million for the 2016 election year.

Perhaps most importantly, King strongly endorsed Trump, and remained a surrogate in Washington, D.C., and in Iowa after Trump’s comments about women from 2005 were published. King’s continued devotion to Trump could mean that Trump will help King if he goes for the governor’s seat in 2018.

Corbett is perhaps the least known of the three major GOP contenders on the national stage. Although he currently serves as mayor, he served in the Iowa House of Representatives for seven terms, and became the state Speaker of the House towards the end of his tenure in 1999. Corbett has strong support among residents of his city, earning 69 percent in the latest mayoral race. The Republican mayo  confirmed with the Iowa City Press-Citizen that he has been approached for a race, but the latest reports indicate he is uncertain about a future run. Branstad’s appointment could surely clear the way for him to consider running for the top post in Iowa.

Republicans have a strong roster of potential nominees, but Democrats have a history of running for governor against Branstad — particularly former Democratic nominee to the post Jack Hatch. State Sen. Liz Mathis, state Democratic Party Chair Andy McGuire, and state Sen. Robert Hogg are all interested in running for the post, according to local reports.

The Democrat with the greatest claim to fame is Hatch, who earned 37 percent of the vote in the 2014 election against Branstad. Before that major statewide election, Hatch served in the state Senate from 2003 through 2015. He served on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, as well as the Commerce, Economic Growth, and Labor and Business Relations Committees.

Mathis began her tenure as state Senator in 2011, and currently serves in the powerful Appropriations, Commerce, Economic Growth, and Education committees. Mathis campaigned primarily on jobs, a plan that granted her a win in the 2016 election. Mathis earned 61.2 percent of the vote in 2012 in her first official election. She raised a comparatively small $124,774 in the 2012 race, but earned $355,833 in the 2011 special election.

Another high-profile Democrat is Dr. Andy McGuire. McGuire ran for lieutenant governor in 2006, but lost in the Democratic primary. McGuire went back into the private sector before earning a bid for chair of the state Democratic Party in 2015. She also currently serves on the board of the University of Iowa College of Public Health and the Des Moines Civic Center Board of Directors.

Her lack of high-profile races and the fact that she hasn’t run on the top of a ticket before will be high hurdles for McGuire to overcome if she wanted to run for governor, but her party connections are certainly going to be an asset that will only improve her chances.

Hogg also serves in the Iowa state Senate, and will have to decide to run either for governor or for another term as senator, since he is up for reelection during the 2018 cycle.

Hogg ran in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 2016 against Patty Judge, who lost to Sen. Chuck Grassley by an embarrassing 400,000 votes. Hogg won his seat most recently in the 2014 election with 62 percent of the vote. Hogg ran unopposed in 2010, and won by nearly 5,000 votes in 2006.

He currently sits on the Appropriations and Education Committees, and chairs the Committee on Government Oversight. The Democrat serves as vice chair to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

Both sides are sure to have an active primary cycle, with both fielding powerful and well-connected candidates. The national Democratic campaign machine will be looking for ripe posts to snipe from Republican hands, and the Iowa governor’s seat could be theirs if they invest the right resources in the right candidate.

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