Too early to talk about 2018? Never! Certainly not on Starting Line, anyway. Seriously though, forget the 2016 presidential election or the close races in the 1st and 3rd Congressional Districts. Nothing will have a bigger impact on Iowa’s future than who wins the race for Governor in 2018 (though the State Senate races in 2016 will come close). Multiple top-tier potential Democratic candidates have kept their electoral powder dry by staying out of tempting Congressional races (though who wants to go to D.C. anyway?). Many have their sights set on leading the Democrats back to power in the Governor’s office.
1. Tom Vilsack
The former Democratic Governor has been away in D.C. the past seven years, but he recently suggested he’d return to Iowa and didn’t rule out another run for office. If he return to electoral politics, what could that mean other than Governor? Serving in the U.S. House seems a step down from heading the Department of Agriculture, and a Senate bid against Ernst would require waiting until 2020. So why not pull a Branstad and return to Terrace Hill? A 2018 bid would give him just enough time to reestablish himself in Iowa political circles, many of which will be happy to welcome him back. He would likely start the primary in the driver’s seat, with the best name ID and donor connections. Though some Iowa Democrats will be looking to a new generation of leaders, rather than recycling a past one. But if none of the others catch fire, Democrats would likely side with the past proven winner as their best chance to retake control at the Capitol.
2. Liz Mathis
Iowa Democrats’ savior in 2011 when her special election victory retained Democrats’ control of the Senate, she maintains a level of excitement among Democratic activists. Her name ID in Democratic Eastern Iowa is practically 100% following her years as a broadcaster at KWWL and KCRG. That puts her in a very enviable position for the primary. It may also make her the most electable in a general election, which Democrats will crave after 8 years of Terry Branstad. But some wonder if she’s passed up too many opportunities. Is her hesitancy simply a strategy to wait for just the right moment and right office? Or is it a sign she doesn’t have the killer drive needed for an all-out primary brawl? It’s entirely possible she was just waiting for her kids to get out of the house before embarking on a huge campaign. Whatever the case, Liz Mathis still starts in an extremely strong position for a potential 2018 run.
The current Iowa Democratic Party chair is focused on electing Democrats up and down the ballot in 2016 – while likely still keeping an eye toward 2018. Starting Line hears that McGuire has had 3 top Democratic campaign consultants on retainer for over a year. She’ll be a formidable candidate for Governor, with a deep fundraising base and executive experience from her stint as CEO of Meridian Health Plan. Before her ascension to state party leader, McGuire was well-known in Des Moines circles, but not so much outside Polk County. She ran as Lt. Governor in the 2006 primary with Mike Blouin, but that was short-lived and years ago. Now she constantly travels the state in her new role, meeting with the very party activists who could decide the 2018 primary. That’s a great advantage to have, and boosts her chances significantly than if she were just a business executive from Des Moines. Majority Leader Mike Gronstal ensured her victory for party chair – does that mean he sees her as the gubernatorial nominee too? If so, she’d start with strong legislative support.
The inspiring 2014 gubernatorial candidate who dropped his bid early on last time still harbors higher political ambitions. He’s got a policy-perfect job right now working with wind and solar energy at his company. Olson still stays in the mix of Iowa Democratic politics, a busy player behind the scenes. But that’s a problem – he’s lacked a public stage for a while now. He could use a larger role to stay in the hunt. Perhaps serving as a statewide co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s caucus campaign could endear him to Clinton volunteers and give him a reason to headline events around the state.
5. Janet Peterson
The State Senator from Des Moines is well-liked among female activists and central Iowa Democrats. Many have suggested her as a candidate for statewide office or Congress, though she hasn’t jumped at potential opportunities yet. She’d start off with a good base of support in Polk County and the backing of pro-choice activists around the state. But she’d have a tough time against several of the folks higher up on the list.
6. Chaz Allen
We have no idea if the state senator from Newton has any interest in running for Governor, but we’re going to keep throwing him on this list anyway, just for kicks. Why? Because he has the perfect profile for a statewide campaign. So many of the other people on this list call liberal big cities Des Moines and Cedar Rapids home. Allen’s the former mayor of Newton who transitioned the town from a near-disaster when Maytag left to a leader in clean energy jobs with their wind turbine manufacturer. He backed Branstad in 2010. He drives race cars. He looks like Iowa. Don’t be surprised if national Democrats or smart local insiders push donors and leaders his way.
7. Pam Jochum
The Senate President has been a rumored gubernatorial candidate for some time now. Well-respected in the Senate and decently known around the state, Jochum could make a legitimate run for Terrace Hill. Her problem, however, is the potential competition. The Democratic field should be strong in 2018, with candidates who can claim the “new generation” mantle. Her base of Dubuque is a great Democratic stronghold, but doesn’t bring with it as many votes as others’ Linn and Polk County hometowns.
8. Steve Warnstadt
Starting Line’s personal favorite dark horse candidate for 2018, we’re listing the former Sioux City state senator here even though he’s probably unlikely to run. Try to beat this profile: a colonel in the National Guard, supposedly in line to become Iowa’s Adjutant General, former legislator, spent a year in Kosovo in NATO leadership, from Western Iowa, instructor at a community college. Not to mention he’s a compelling speaker and one of the most clear-thinking people in Iowa politics. His likely coming top role in Iowa’s National Guard may preclude him from any campaigns – that position alone is pretty great, and may be more than enough for any public servant. But if he ever decides to get back in the game (and he should), keep your eye on Steve Warnstadt.
by Pat Rynard