The path back to victory for Democrats will start with a host of gubernatorial races in 2018, with many of the most competitive contests located in the Midwest. Of the 38 governorships up in 2018, 27 are held by Republicans, including Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, all places that flipped away from Democrats this year. Iowa could quickly emerge as a top target for the party and a key opportunity to reverse the rightward trend in the state.
With Iowa Governor Terry Branstad getting picked for the ambassador job to China, it ensures the Democrats won’t have to deal with yet another Branstad reelection campaign. While many Democrats liked to fantasize about Branstad retiring midway through his term, there were just as many Republicans who thought he was still having enough fun that he’d run for seventh term. Branstad’s departure to the East changes the political calculus with the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2018, but it still creates a much better situation than if his name was on the ballot yet again.
Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds will be running for a full term herself after two years in the seat (it’s still unclear exactly when she’ll take over in the next few months). There’s disagreement in Iowa political circles over just how strong of an incumbent she’ll be. Reynolds will probably face some competition in a primary, and Iowa Republican leaders have notably not publicly warned any potential challenger from trying. But they’ve also cautioned that she’ll have the full support of the party apparatus, as well as public backing from people like Joni Ernst. Bill Northey has already declared he won’t run against her and Ron Corbett probably won’t either.
Politics watchers are also split on Reynolds’ abilities as a statewide candidate. She never really made a name for herself on a specific, high-profile topic during her time as Branstad’s Lt. Governor. Her rally speeches were so-so at best during the 2016 cycle. And she’ll have to navigate the 2017 legislative session, where the new Republican majorities will push through vast changes in Iowa law – that she’ll sign – that could prove very unpopular.
All of that gives Democrats a lot of hope for a very competitive, winnable statewide race that could help the party quickly rebound on both a political and policy level.
In a promising sign for Iowa Democrats, the Democratic Governor’s Association quickly put out a statement critical of Reynolds this week after the Branstad ambassador news hit. They referred back to a Politico story from 2013 where Republican insiders listed the reasons why Reynolds would have been “not viable” in a statewide run for the U.S. Senate seat in 2014:
“Multiple Republicans told POLITICO Thursday that Reynolds is not viable. They cited two drunk-driving arrests on her record, an eminent domain fight she was involved in as a state senator and a 2010 statement suggesting she was open to some form of civil unions.”
That’s not exactly the best line of attack on Reynolds, that some anonymous Republicans three years ago thought she’d be a weak candidate, but at least it shows the DGA has an eye on Iowa. There will be more than enough from this legislative session alone to fill an opposition research book. The DGA will have plenty of races to choose from to target in 2018, and some national fundraising assistance will be very helpful for Iowa Democrats.
So who ends up running on the Democrats’ side? There’s been little public chatter or positioning, but there’s plenty of rumors behind the scenes. Many Iowa Democrats are hoping Liz Mathis enters the race, who many see as a well-known, compelling and passionate legislator that’s still trusted by voters in Eastern Iowa from her days as a TV news host. Rich Leopold, the director of Polk County Conservation, is reportedly considering a bid and could enjoy support from the party’s left and environmental groups. Others are waiting to see if Andy McGuire will pull the trigger on her planned run after her time as state party chair draws to a close in January.
Beyond that there’s plenty of other names that get talked about. Some would like to see Todd Prichard, a state representative from Charles City and an Army Reserves officer who served in Iraq, run a campaign that could win back some rural areas for Democrats. Other proposed candidates include Congressman Dave Loebsack, State Senator Rita Hart, a farmer and retired teacher from Wheatland, Tyler Olson, who briefly ran for governor in 2013, and Bill Brauch, the past head of the Iowa Attorney General’s consumer protection division and a party activist. Some still mention Rob Hogg in the mix, but it’s unclear if he’d be interested in that after taking on the role of minority leader for the Senate Democrats.
by Pat Rynard