Is Iowa’s Republican Goliath Governor the Next Chris Christie?

Terry Branstad is a GOP kingmaker who could lose his bid for a sixth term thanks to scandal upon scandal.

Brian Frank/Reuters

Terry Branstad is a political Goliath. The five-term Iowa governor has been the dominant figure in the Hawkeye State’s politics for decades. Branstad has never lost an election and is perhaps the longest-serving governor in American history. But after 19 years in office (16 from 1982 to 1998 before returning to politics in 2010), Branstad has found himself in scandal after scandal after scandal.

The most recent controversy that the Iowa governor has faced in recent weeks is an ongoing investigation about whether the state was firing employees for political reasons and then paying them to agree to confidentiality agreements about their termination. After long denying any irregularities, Branstad fired the senior state official responsible for these hush money payments last week. This comes on top of a trickle of other scandals, including a secret list of former state employees who could not be rehired as well as firing a state police official who called in the governor’s SUV for going “a hard 90” miles an hour on the highway (after pursuit, the car was eventually clocked going 84 miles an hour, 19 above the speed limit on the highway). Previously, the most significant political obstacles that the incumbent was expected to face deep skepticism from conservatives in the GOP who see Branstad as the embodiment of the worst of the Republican establishment.

As a result, the incumbent, who was once well above 50 percent in polls and cruising to victory, was only at 42 percent in a poll released last week by Suffolk University (PDF) with only a 10-point lead and is now getting booed in public appearances. But his Democratic opponent, state Senator Jack Hatch, may not be the best candidate to take advantage of this.

Hatch is a longtime state senator who represents the most urban neighborhoods in Des Moines, Iowa’s capital and biggest city. He’s a self-identified liberal who has served on and off in the state legislature for decades. He became the Democratic nominee almost by default in December, when his opponent in the primary, state representative Tyler Olson, dropped out due to personal issues. He doesn’t even have the advantage across as the candidate of youth compared to the 67-year-old Branstad. Hatch is a mere three years younger and, like Branstad, wears a mustache—and not the hip, ironic kind.

In the opinion of former longtime Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen, while “not a done deal for Terry Branstad… Hatch is a flawed messenger.” Yepsen points to Branstad’s weak poll numbers as well: “While people like the job he’s done, they didn’t want him to run for another term.” However, he also points out that “Des Moines liberals” like Hatch rarely fare well statewide and that the Democrat is severely underfunded.

Conservative activist and radio show host Steve Deace takes an even more choleric view of the Democratic candidate: “Jack Hatch is kind of a political joke in this state.” But, while Deace, a conservative stalwart who has long been critical of Branstad for being too moderate, doesn’t think Hatch can win, he still thinks there might be ways that the Republican incumbent could lose.

Despite this skepticism, Hatch was feeling buoyant in an interview with The Daily Beast. The Democratic hopeful was excited that he was putting Branstad on defense and forcing him to engage in “damage control.” He likened Branstad, in an interesting comparison in the state that is home to the Iowa caucuses, to embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In Hatch’s opinion, “this governor feels he is above the law and [displays a] kind of an arrogance of power which is what we see with Chris Christie and Chris Christie style politics” He went on to compare the investigation of Branstad to that of the New Jersey governor, noting that “being driven by a state senate committee” that has subpoena power and is expected to use it, not by his campaign.

He thought that the result left him poised to take advantage of Branstad’s failures.

“I think going back to these scandals this has created a pattern of behavior that is now giving my campaign a really strong belief that it is a significant pattern that we can constantly use to throw a shadow on his honesty and his ability to govern,” said Hatch. “These are the things that he’s said he’s best at, his management experiences and it is already increasing number of people who are believing in my campaign and giving me more money now.” But the money still is not quite flowing to Hatch’s campaign. His most recent campaign finance report (PDF) listed just $237,000 on hand. In contrast, Branstad had over $4.1 million available to spend (PDF). Plus, Hatch pre-emptively admitted that his fundraising at the next deadline in May would be weak because it would be within 30 days of the end of the legislative session and, under Iowa law, would not be able to get donations from labor unions at that point.

Hatch also dismissed concerns that, as a big-city liberal, he’d be a hard sell in rural parts of the state. The three-term state senator insisted “the things that I’ve worked on, it doesn’t matter if you live in urban Iowa or rural Iowa… I’ve got neighborhoods in [my district in] Des Moines that have 20 percent unemployment, businesses are boarded up, infant mortality rate is high, schools are closing, homes are vacant. That’s like any small town in rural Iowa, and what they need is the same thing.” His plan for rural Iowa also included raising the gas tax to pay for the repair of roads and bridges, which he thought was of particular importance in more isolated parts of the state.

Regardless of how successful Hatch is with rural voters, the political damage already done to Branstad may have an effect that lasts into 2016. As Deace points out, the longtime incumbent’s legacy is at stake. Branstad is in the process of trying to regain control of the state GOP after libertarian-leaning Ron Paul acolytes took over in 2012 and establish himself as a powerbroker for the 2016 caucuses. A competitive race would also will drain national Republican money from other gubernatorial races and divide the attention of Iowa Republicans seeking to defeat Bruce Braley to win the state’s open U.S. Senate seat as well as take control of the Iowa Senate.

While Hatch insists “I’m a pretty clean and pretty good candidate,” the race doesn’t seem to be about him. He’s just a generic Democrat whose political future depends on whether Iowa voters think the incumbent Republican is more Chris Christie than Chuck Grassley.