The Candidates Stand On Their Soapbox


Second in my posts from the ICMA convention. Stay tuned, probably at least two more to go before I move on from Des Moines.

Bruce Braley was not in town, and not all of the minor candidates showed up, and at least one major contender for the Senate was AWOL.

But I was pleasantly surprised at the number of statewide candidates who did attend a “soapbox” event at the Iowa Newspaper Association Convention Feb. 6. The INA very kindly allows and supports the Iowa College Media Association, ICMA, to co-convention with it, which is why I was there to see the soapbox.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who is running for re-election and probably will win, was there, as was his major Democratic rival. And several GOP hopefuls for U.S. Sentate showed up, too.

I had several impressions from the event: One, Branstad can stay governor as long as he likes. Neither of the erstwhile candidates who are running against him who were at the forum can lay a glove on him. Two, I think Braley is going to win Tom Harkin’s Senate seat, if the depressing parade of white, Wonder-Bread Republicans on the right are any sign. Anyway, a rundown of my interpretation of what the candidates said:

For Iowa Governor:

Jack Hatch, candidate for Iowa Governor.

Jack Hatch, candidate for Iowa Governor.

Sen. Jack Hatch—he made a big deal of being a housing developer in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. I can’t help but feel he was deliberately reaching out to Iowa’s second city. He also chided the current governor for putting himself above the law on numerous occasions—of having a special arrogance. I don’t disagree, but am not sure that’s the policy question on which an election could turn. Most of all, I wanted a vision for a different Iowa from Sen. Hatch, who is the likely Democratic nominee. It was only a few minutes in one appearance, but I didn’t get one.

Jonathan Narcisse, candidate for Iowa Governor.

Jonathan Narcisse, candidate for Iowa Governor.

Jonathan Narcisse—he says he knows how to win and will. I’m more than a bit skeptical. His emphasis is on jobs for Iowans—not a bad choice, and a focus not just on jobs but on the kind of job being attracted to Iowa would be an important point. He pledges to support Hatch if Hatch is nominated. And, running against Narcisse, Hatch probably will be. Jonathan seems like an interesting guy, but I didn’t hear a vision or issue that would make him catch fire. He is running for the role of interesting character in the race.

Terry Branstad, Governor for Life of Iowa.

Terry Branstad, Governor for Life of Iowa.

Gov. Terry Branstad—The dude abides. He was off like a racehorse when his time came—full of energy and confidence, as only a governor-for-life can radiate. What he said, sort of: Iowa needs to keep going because it was broken and he fixed it and he would like to keep it fixed. I am not one who buys into that narrative—Iowa’s roads, for instance, are falling apart and further economic development may prove difficult in a state you can’t get around in—but the narrative will probably sell. And today, if not on Election Day, this dude can wipe the floor with any of the challengers he faces. I kind of hope things change in this race, but I suspect we’ll have to get used to the Terry as our gov. Seems a shame, to me. I would like a Democrat to emerge who can really take Terry on.

For U.S. Senate:

Matt Whitaker, GOP candidate for U.S. Senate.

Matt Whitaker, GOP candidate for U.S. Senate.

Matt Whitaker—it says right on his web site that he is a “Christian who attends church.” So am I, Matt, but the way you slip that in and noted it in your stump speech totally turns me off. I’ll vote for a Muslim or a Jew or an agnostic or an atheist if she advocates public policy that I consider wise. I don’t see Christianity as being a requirement for public office, and the fact that you do pretty much disqualifies you from my consideration. He is a former Iowa Hawkeye football player. Strike two. He is worried about growing debt. OK, I am concerned about federal debt too, a bit, but as a share of GDP, that debt is shrinking under Obama, so listing that as crisis number one seems like strike three, to me. Go home and enjoy those energetic kids, Matt. The U.S. Senate is a better place without you.

Mark Jacobs, running for U.S. Senate of this great company.

Mark Jacobs, running for U.S. Senate of this great company.

Mark Jacobs—If Matt was the GOP’s scary “Christian” in the race, Mark is the scary businessman—the GOP candidate who is convinced that business experience is just what public service needs. I don’t know why CEOs think that they would make good legislators, and I don’t think Mark would. My favorite Freudian slip of the day was when he stated he was concerned about the direction the “company” was going in, and had to quickly correct that to “country.”

Sam Clovis. Get me out of academia, please.

Sam Clovis. Get me out of academia, please.

Sam Clovis—the best speaker among the GOP group, although Matt spoke well, too. A political science professor, ex Air Force pilot who wears his service ring to remind him what “service” is all about. I can’t say much about what he said, although it was said well. He has read the Constitution. He has flown on planes. And he is a conservative college professor, which maybe explains the desire for a career change since he’s a rare bird. It’s early in the campaign, and maybe he needed to deal more with image and biography, but I would have preferred a bit more talk about what he wants to do.

There you have it. I think Terry Branstad might as well settle in, he’ll be governor as long as he wants to be. Rep. Braley may face more of a battle in the fall—this doesn’t feel like the year of a Democratic surge—but I didn’t see anybody in this trio of GOP hopefuls who could easily knock him off. I guess I would say Matt Whitaker looked strongest on first impression, but if he’s going to run as the right-wing Christian kook, second and third impressions won’t be so positive.

You know, despite my complaints about them, I really enjoyed seeing the candidates. Even if I know I would not like some of them should they be elected, I don’t hate any of them. True, I greatly disagree with many of them. But it’s early, and they are sincere, and they want to serve Iowa. Most of them are going to lose, but it’s important to note that we owe a debt to the losers in political campaigns for raising issues and ideas and helping us discover ourselves.

So, thanks candidates, and thank you, Iowa Newspaper Association, for bringing these guys together.

On the other hand, before the candidates spoke, some reporters who cover politics in Iowa had a discussion in a previous session. And Simpson College professor Brian Steffen noted in a question to them that Iowa shares the distinction of being the only state, besides Mississippi, that has not elected a woman to represent it in Congress or as Governor.

The reporters had various theories why, including lacking a deep bench among women leaders in Iowa politics.

Well, ladies, the stage still seems open, to me. I know the election is very soon, but there seems some room for alternatives in the major statewide races. Joni, are you still in the race? And do you seem a bit more sensible then your guy GOP opponents?

The candidates that I have now seen who are in the arena are not the best that Iowa has to offer, I hope. Even if I credit them with having their hearts in a good place, we need leaders with more effective heads. And I wonder whether we’re doing something fundamentally flawed in our politics that makes such leaders so hard for us to find.

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