Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett kicked off his campaign for governor last week in front of a crowd of about 250 well-wishers in the city’s NewBo Market. There was no singing this time.
But will Corbett’s candidacy grow to anything more than a sideshow in the many 2018 contests? Corbett faces extremely long odds in upsetting Governor Kim Reynolds in next June’s Republican primary. So what I wanted to see was whether he would really make the case to why the party faithful should abandon the current governor for him. Sometimes in long-shot bids like this one, the challenger will play it too safe, avoid angering much of their party’s base, donors and leaders, and just try to win based on their own merits. It doesn’t work.
Defeating an incumbent of your own party, especially one with the backing of the former popular governor’s huge political network, is extremely difficult. You have to very forcefully drive home the argument against retaining Reynolds, because no one else is going to make it for you.
In a pleasant surprise, Corbett began to lay a strong foundation for why Republican primary-goers should seek a change in the state’s chief executive. Though he didn’t mention Reynolds by name, he identified multiple areas where Branstad and Reynolds’ policy decisions have gone awry. And he painted his own personal story in a way that contrasts with some of the early failures of Reynolds’ administration.
Let’s take a look at the case Corbett is building against a full Reynolds term:
Honest Criticism To Identify New Solutions
The first problem Corbett will have to deal with are Republicans who feel his primary challenge is completely unnecessary and damaging to the party. Plenty will charge that his traveling the state and pointing out problems within the current administration only helps Democrats. Corbett tried to insulate himself from those attacks by relating how his tough assessments of Cedar Rapids many years ago helped him build proposals to improve the city as mayor.
“Some criticized me because I was pointing out some of the problems and the challenges that our community was facing,” Corbett recalled. “They said he’s being negative. I said I’m not negative at all, I’m positive. I’m optimistic about our future. You can’t get to the next level if you don’t recognize what’s preventing you from getting you there.”
New Ideas And New Leadership
The other hurdle Corbett needs to clear is why Republicans should abandon the Branstad/Reynolds team when they’ve been so politically successful.
“We’ve come to the end of the Branstad Era,” Corbett declared, seeking to separate Reynolds from Branstad’s legacy. “It’s time to elect new leaders with new ideas that have a new game plan for the state of Iowa … If we keep electing the same people to look at the same problems, they’re going to come up with the same solutions.”
Corbett explained that he prefers a collaborative approach to leadership and seeking others’ help, which set up his later criticism of Branstad/Reynolds’ unilateral decision on Medicaid. He called the privatization move “a top-down decision that we didn’t participate in.”
“I’m not a renegade Republican,” he said. “I’m not a rubber stamp Republican either. I’m a conservative Republican with an independent streak. I can think for myself, but I also appreciate advice and counsel from people.”
He may be trying to box Reynolds into an “Everything’s fine!” frame for when she tries to defend aspects of her administration.
Reynolds’ biggest vulnerability in both a Republican primary and the general election is the deepening budget mess Iowa is facing. Corbett took his most explicit hits at the current administration here.
“We have chaos and unpredictability,” Corbett said of the budget. “At the state level, their calculator either isn’t working or it’s broken. You can’t keep getting it wrong, month after month. You say you’re going to borrow $131 million for ongoing expenses, and then two months later you’re advocating for borrowing another $50 million to get through the year. Paying our bills with one-time money is bad.”
He held a calculator in the air to emphasis his point, claiming he was able to structure the Cedar Rapids budget in a way that didn’t raise property taxes, while still keeping most services and jobs intact. This is also one of the safer criticisms to make, as it carries little ideology in it that could turn off certain Republican primary voters. However, it also holds the most risk in terms of damaging Reynolds for the general if Corbett comes up short.
There’s some who believe that Trump’s bombastic and unpredictable style will wear on even Republicans in advance of 2018 (or that the constant scandals and distractions will bring him down). It’s a very big risk to assume that’ll actually happen, and the Republican base – especially in Iowa – has shown no signs of tiring on Trump. But perhaps some would still prefer a more stable, less dramatic leadership style when it comes to state government.
In that case, Corbett pitched himself as an even-keeled, thoughtful administrator.
“I don’t really like our politics today. Seems pretty toxic to me,” Corbett said. “I wonder how much of the responsibility falls on the candidate. I think a lot of it does. I’m not going to be a raw, red meat candidate. You want someone like that to be your governor, you need to go to a different rally.”
If Trump really does take a dive in popularity, even among Republicans, Reynolds’ strong embrace of the president could become a problem (again, unlikely).
A Return Of Compassionate Conservatism?
Corbett quoted Proverbs 31:8 in his speech: “Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly. Defend the rights of the needy.”
He also emphasized “showing concern for citizens,” including when it came to healthcare coverage and mental health programs.
“If there’s going to be any special session this summer or fall, it should be to address this issue of the 72,000 people who are faced with the prospect of not having any health insurance,” Corbett said, adding that Iowa may have to go it alone in its solutions to the healthcare problem. “We’ve been dealing with the federal government [in Cedar Rapids] for nine years trying to get them to help us out with flood protection. We didn’t wait and decided to take matter into our own hands.”
Compassion could be a looming issue for Reynolds (and most legislative Republicans). When you make as deep of budget cuts to departments like DHS, you’re going to end up with some heartbreaking stories. And the recent news that Reynolds’ Department of Public Health slashed programs for autism and epilepsy assistance for children doesn’t play well with anyone.
If Corbett expands on these topics and drives home some of the potential negatives on Reynolds, we might have an interesting race on the Republican side in 2018.
by Pat Rynard