Culver struggles to keep up with Branstad despite positive economic indicators


Photo: Tyler Kingkade/Iowa State Daily

Iowa first lady Mari Culver speaks with guests attending the Story County Democrats barbecue Saturday, Sept. 4.

Tyler Kingkade

Iowa has the ninth lowest unemployment rate in the country.

CNBC ranked the Hawkeye state as having the lowest cost to do business in the country, and the conservative magazine Forbes named the state’s capital and largest city, Des Moines, as the number one place in America for “Business and Careers.”

Despite all of the positive economic indicators, incumbent Gov. Chet Culver is far behind in the polls and fighting to stay in office, and it’s driving Democrats nuts.

At the Story County Democrats barbecue event Saturday, a woman shouted at State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, “Why can’t we get any of this into the media?” as he gave a speech to supporters.

Fitzgerald responded that they were the leaders, and said to tell people to “look at the facts,” a theme repeated by Secretary of State Michael Mauro and First Lady Mari Culver.

Culver faces a former four-term Iowa governor, Republican Terry Branstad, with whom Iowans are already familiar and who dealt with similar major events during his time in office: record flooding, a national recession and the issue of same-sex marriage.

When the GOP gubernatorial field began to shape, many candidates like Bob Vander Plaats and Christian Fong made changing the legality of gay marriage a top priority.

Branstad later joined the field but made the economy a larger issue to run on, despite the fact he signed the Defense of Marriage Act which was struck down by Iowa’s Supreme Court during his final term in office.

A KCCI News poll, done by Research 2000, found 53 percent of Iowans supported same-sex marriage rights to 41 percent who opposed. But the Des Moines Register found it overwhelmingly remained a big issue for Republican voters.

Branstad won the June primary with 50 percent of the vote, beating out Bob Vander Plaats who garnered 40 percent. Prior to the primary, polling suggested any of the GOP candidates would be able to beat Culver.

Culver’s administration suffered scandals in 2009 concerning a lack of oversight on film-making tax credits and worldwide recession leading to an unpopular across-the-board 10 percent cut, greatly impacting public schools.

Culver’s campaign traded attack ads through the summer with Republican nominee Branstad.

One of the first ads by Branstad, who was Iowa’s governor from 1982 to 1999, said Iowa’s unemployment rate was at a 25-year high.

Culver responded in a June 4 news conference that 25 years ago, Branstad was in office. It didn’t take long before Branstad had an ad to respond, touting how he left office in 1999 with unemployment at a historic low, although it was just prior to the “dot-com” bubble burst.

Mari Culver said she believes people have “Branstad amnesia” and people near age 45 or younger don’t know what Iowa was like during Branstad’s term.

“I think they bank on that, and they misrepresent their own record and they certainly misrepresent Gov. Culver’s,” Culver said.

I-JOBS, flooding

One area Branstad has hammered Culver on is I-JOBS, which Culver maintains has worked and has done a lot of work to restore Iowa after historic flooding.

The Quad City Times Editorial Board wrote in July:

“Challenger Terry Branstad’s campaign condemned I-JOBS as creating ‘short-term jobs … costing Iowans over $240,000 a piece.’ The unfair criticism completely discounts Iowa’s urgent need for flood repair. It ignores the value of permanent investment left behind. And it shortchanges the jobs impact of this program.”

The top five counties to receive money under I-JOBS are Johnson, Linn, Polk, Story and Black Hawk, all counties who suffered great damage from flooding in 2008 and 2010. The Board added I-Jobs remains a program focused on “I-flood.”

Democrats like State Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) outspokenly criticize Branstad for his response after the 1993 floods. The Iowa Supreme Court declared on Sept. 3 a lawsuit against the state could move forward concerning a highway bridge which obstructed a flood plain and allegedly led to multiple homes and businesses being flooded in 1999.

The I-JOBS program is a $875 million program created in 2009 to invest in infrastructure for flood recovery and to alleviate the recession struggles. The money came through the issuance of bonds rather than raising taxes.

Fitzgerald said Iowa’s bond rating — ability for a state to repay its debt —has a AAA rating by agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, although S&P placed I-JOBS bonds on its CreditWatch list Thursday.

In August, State Auditor Dave Vaudt, Republican, released a report which stated Iowa’s debt to $3.2 billion, which Branstad’s campaign quickly seized upon.

“Gov. Culver deliberately released a deceptive and misleading report in an attempt to hide Iowa’s true debt,” said Branstad 2010 campaign manager Jeff Boeyink. “Iowans are shackled with a debt load that is in reality 14 times greater than what Gov. Culver asserted it was.”

Branstad’s campaign said the Business Tax Index 2010 ranked Iowa’s business tax climate at 45th of the 50 states, but in addition to other various economic ratings, four Iowa cities made CNN Money’s list of Top 20 Places to Start a Business.

Still, Branstad said he would get rid of the Department of Economic Development and replace it with a public-private partnership. He said he’d also lower property taxes to below the Midwest average, and traveled the state on a “Ready to Create Jobs” tour.

Democrats hope to turn things around

“The stakes are high,” Mauro said Saturday. While the number of registered Democrats dropped with the primary in June, the number is still 699,972 to 644,838 registered Republicans in Iowa.

Republicans held an advantage in those numbers until July 2006 and the number of registered Iowa Democrats has still grown since 2006, mostly around the 2008 elections.

Mari Culver dismissed the notion there might be an enthusiasm gap this year among Democrats and insisted, as they launch new ads this week, support would return to her husband.

Both Culver and Mauro said they highly doubt Iowans will vote as a referendum on national conditions and believe voters will look at things in the state.

Culver, looking forward to the scheduled debates this month and in October, said she “cannot wait.”

Culver said they would be a chance to “call Terry Branstad on his lies,” since she said Branstad often has a spokesman quoted on his behalf.

“You know, Chet’s dad, John [a long-time U.S. Senator, whose seat now belongs to Sen. Charles Grassley] used to say, ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth is heard,'” Culver said.

As Democrats in Story County discussed how to become more active to get the story of the good news under their governor’s time in office, Gov. Culver was given a chance to go live on CNBC Friday morning.

But a glitch and technical problems at the IPTV studios where Culver was to be interviewed from forced the governor to speak by phone. Then CNBC had to cut to President Barack Obama giving a news conference on the economy.

After all the trouble, Gov. Culver reportedly said to IPTV employees, “The irony is, we’ve been trying to get this good news story out.”