Turning Point: Have Iowa Republicans Finally Gone Too Far?


Nearly a month after Governor Terry Branstad issued his controversial vetoes, the reviews are in and they’re unanimous: Iowans are pissed off. The vetoes that eliminated $56 million for K-12 education, effectively closed two mental health facilities, and wiped out one-time assistance to several universities have struck an angry chord with Iowa voters like few other issues in recent years. Whatever Branstad hoped to accomplish with his actions may be undermined by the massive backlash brewing.

Let’s start off with the polls. Branstad won last November with 59% of the vote, yet is already down to a 48% approval rating in the first poll released since the July 2nd vetoes. Independents are split on him with a 47-44 approval/disapproval. That’s a big change for Branstad who has often held high approval numbers in a state who favors its long-time incumbents. And it’s lower than Joni Ernst’s 52% approval and Chuck Grassley’s 68% approval numbers in the same poll.

The slipping polling numbers, however, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone watching the political fallout over the vetoes throughout July. So far 40 school superintendents have publicly criticized the education funding debacle. That’s a group of people who typically don’t stick their heads up in these types of political fights. You may see public comments from teachers and school board members, but typically not superintendents. But this time, they’re not holding back in blasting the damaging effects Branstad’s actions have had on their local schools.

“The governor’s veto was a significant blow to education, especially when it came on the heels of a totally inadequate increase in funding for public education,” Council Bluffs Superintendent Martha Bruckner said in the Nonpareil. “I have received numerous notes from employees and parents in the district who indicate that the message is disheartening.”

“Better decisions in regard to public education must be made if we are to once again be a leader in the nation in education,” said Maquoketa Superintendent Chris Hoover in the Quad-Cities Times. “If I could make the decisions at the state level, I would. But I am sorry Gov. Branstad, ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’”

“I was disappointed he vetoed that because the Legislature stayed in session to come up with the compromise between the House and Senate,” Le Mars Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Todd Wendt said to the Daily Sentinel. “I’m most disappointed because of the process they went through and then he just pulled the rug out from underneath the Legislature … When you look at Branstad’s most recent term, he has underfunded us in the general fund every year.”

The bad press for Branstad hasn’t been simply limited to superintendents, though. Nearly every major newspaper in the state has blasted the Governor in their editorials. The Cedar Rapids Gazette said he “failed to lead” this legislative session.  The Burlington Hawkeye slammed his unlawful closure of the mental health facilities, reminding Branstad that he “was elected governor, not king.” And those mental health closings have spurred a number of terrible stories in the press. The Register reported on the tragic death of a Clarinda patient who died shortly after being transferred, and even smaller publications like the Spencer Daily Reporter are covering the damaging effects in-depth.

More than that, you can witness the furor Branstad’s vetoes caused in countless anecdotal conversations with voters and online discussion. Teachers who never comment on politics are sharing stories critical of Republicans on social media. Even independents and Republicans who don’t hold education funding as a top priority realize how wrong it was for Branstad to swoop in after the negotiations were done and wipe out every provision Democrats received. From an internal metrics perspective with Starting Line, any story we write about Branstad or education lately has caught on like wildfire.

It’s become such a searing political topic among Democrats that even the presidential candidates are weighing in. At a major party fundraiser in Cedar Rapids, Hillary Clinton brought the audience to their feet in the longest standing ovation of the night with a line of “Governor Branstad, put down your veto pen.” Martin O’Malley got similar enthusiastic reactions when he hit Branstad’s mental health closings as well.

The bad news for Republicans is that it’s only going to get worse. With only a 1.25% increase for this year, schools will be even more insistent on a higher funding increase this next session. Expect the education debate to completely dominate the Legislature in 2016, a flashpoint which has clearly rallied Democratic voters and activists like no other topic in recent years.

But will the Legislature get anything done on it? Probably not. Branstad’s veto poisoned any good will that remained there. He made Speaker Kraig Paulsen look like either a liar or the most incompetent statehouse speaker in the entire nation. Paulsen’s leadership has clearly been weakened and he’ll only have a more difficult time holding together his rambunctious caucus. It’s no wonder Starting Line already hears rumors that conservative House members are plotting a revolt to remove his Majority Leader, Linda Upmeyer, from her position next year.

And so Republicans will enter the 2016 election with a terrible record on education funding hung around their neck, with stories of mentally disabled Iowans being kicked out of facilities. Their Democratic opponents will be fired up with a base of voters focused on local elections in a presidential year. And Republican voters? Oh yeah, they’re still angry about their leaders ramming through the gas tax at Branstad’s insistence.

Governor Terry Branstad, seen as untouchable after winning his sixth term in office, may have finally gone too far. Senate and House Republicans may very well pay for it dearly in 2016, where they find themselves in the unusual position of Branstad being a major drag on their ticket for once.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 7/28/15

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