Chet Culver’s back, apparently. The former Governor popped back onto Iowa’s political radar last week by holding a series of public forums on opposing current Governor Terry Branstad’s Medicaid privatization plan. Just yesterday he held his fourth town hall meeting on the topic in Davenport, and is planning a large rally at the Capitol building next Wednesday.

Most Iowa political insiders told Starting Line they’re simply confused by Culver’s actions. Why he decided this topic and this particular time to make a return to the public eye isn’t quite clear. Culver hasn’t been too engaged in Democratic politics or public issue campaigns very often since leaving office five years ago. He currently runs his Chet Culver Group business, which does work with renewable energy groups.

Speculation swirled last year over whether Culver was interested in running for office again, in particular for the 3rd Congressional District. That talk died down after a while, and he’s just about out of time were he to announce anyway (it takes a few weeks to get the signatures needed to qualify).

But his tour around the state now has many wondering if he’s planning a statewide run, perhaps for governor again in 2018. He’s hit most of the state’s main media markets with his events now in Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Sioux City. If he wanted to run in the 3rd District, he wouldn’t need to visit those areas (though he could be trying to reconnect with donors).

However, there’s also suggestions that the Iowa Hospital Association, which Culver has been close with in the past, asked him to help out on the issue. So it could simply be a matter of helping out old friends on an issue Culver cares about. Or he’s looking for new clients.

Several people at the Statehouse report Culver’s actions didn’t sit well with the Senate or House Democrats. His sudden reemergence onto the political scene risked turning the Medicaid fight into too much of partisan affair, just as Democrats were starting to bring a number of Republicans on board (three Republican senators voted with Democrats to end the privatization plan). A lot of Democrats involved in the Medicaid debate are also frustrated that Culver didn’t give them a head’s up on his plans, and that he’s not considering the larger political impacts.

Indeed, Branstad seemed to take considerable joy last week in blasting his former campaign rival Culver, calling his involvement part of a “partisan, political” effort to derail Medicaid privatization. The press stories written of their back-and-forth quotes read like it was the 2010 campaign all over again. That’s exactly what many Democrats would like to avoid, fearing Culver’s public role in this debate could give Branstad cover to more effectively dismiss the push back on his plan as a partisan attack. Beforehand, healthcare professionals, parents and Democrats like Pam Jochum, who can’t find local healthcare coverage now for her own daughter, were the leading voices on the issue.

Regardless of how Culver’s activity on Medicaid comes off to his fellow Democrats, this is the type of public issue advocacy he may need to do if he’s interested in another run for office. Culver still retains a good donor base from his previous campaigns, and has near-universal name ID in Iowa. But he hadn’t been very engaged in the party or on any public projects in recent years, which would have made any sudden leap back into a campaign awkward. And if he’s getting political advice now, it’s not from people too plugged into the usual networks in Iowa, as no one ever seems to know what he’s working on or thinking.

There’s certainly a way for Culver to reenter Iowa politics, even with the many critics of his term as Governor. Labor likely won’t ever be interested after his veto of the bargaining bill, and there’s a lot of old tensions that Culver would have to smooth over. Up to now, he hasn’t seemed too interested in doing that. So his town hall forums on Medicaid could be the first step of a political comeback, or it could be nothing more than Culver’s own personal interest in the issue, with the added benefit of getting to criticize the man who followed him in office.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 2/19/16

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