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Vander Plaats supporters split on backing Branstad
A 40 percent showing in Tuesday’s Republican gubernatorial primary may give second-place finisher Bob Vander Plaats strong bargaining power to affect policy positions in the November general election.
Deep ideological differences on same-sex marriage, abortion and other social issues separated Vander Plaats and the Republican nominee, Terry Branstad, Iowa’s longest serving governor. Branstad retired from politics in 1998, but agreed to seek a fifth term at the urging of Republican moderates who believe social conservatives are fracturing the party. Branstad, the winner with roughly 50 percent of the vote, will face one-term Democrat Gov. Chet Culver in November.
Vander Plaats’ support Tuesday far surpassed his showing in the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, which put his support at 29 percent. Vander Plaats’ campaign manager, Eric Woolson, told The Iowa Independent the Sioux City business consultant’s 40 percent finish gives Branstad a strong incentive to listen to the candidates’ concerns and appeal to social conservatives.
In his concession speech, Vander Plaats stopped short of asking his supporters to get behind Branstad’s campaign, but said he would work for party unity.
“To be clear, Gov. Branstad and I both know there were differences in this primary, but we have agreed to sit down and discuss these differences and get them all on the table to unify the party around leadership the state of Iowa desperately needs,” he said.
Vander Plaats declined to reveal the exact nature of the conversations, or what position changes Branstad would have to make to appeal to social conservatives who made up Vander Plaats’ base.
“That’s a private conversation,” Vander Plaats said.
He said the issues that resonated strongly with his supporters haven’t disappeared.
“There are very loyal people out there and they are not going anywhere,” he said. “They are staying in the fight.”
As the party’s nominee, it’s Branstad’s responsibility to “reach out and bring people together, not just uniting the Republican Party, but all of Iowa,” Vander Plaats said.
Some of the candidates’ supporters gathered at the Embassy Suites in Des Moines Tuesday night said Branstad can unify the party, but Iowa Family Policy Center Chairman Danny Carroll said he will concentrate on some key legislative races in the November general election.
“It’s easier for Branstad supporters to get behind Bob Vander Plaats than the other way around,” Carroll said. He credited Vander Plaats with having the “willingness to confront an activist Supreme Court, while Terry Branstad was much softer on the issue.”
“It’s also of considerable concern that Terry Branstad has a record of growing government and increasing taxes, and we’re particularly bothered by the increase in racing and gaming,” Carroll said. “These are not values that we can embrace.”
To win the support of the Iowa Family Policy Center’s political action committee, the Branstad camp would have to “convince us he has had a change of heart” on issues of contention. The IFPC invited Branstad in January to respond to the organizations’ concerns, “but he hasn’t done so,” Carroll said. That same month the organization formally endorsed Vander Plaats and promised to sit out the fall campaign if Branstad is the nominee.
One of the legislative races of interest to Carroll is in Senate District 37, where Democrat incumbent Staci Appel faces a strong challenge from GOP state Rep. Kent Sorenson. When he announced his candidacy in January, Sorenson said that if Republicans nominated a career politician like Branstad, “the Republican Party may end up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory next November.”
Sorenson hasn’t softened in the ensuing months.
“I’m entirely focused on running my own race,” he told The Iowa Independent.
Another leading conservative voice, Christian radio host Steve Deace, said he won’t support Branstad, a choice that reflects a conscious decision to support term limits in his own voting practices.
“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “I support Bob Vander Plaats, but I don’t think he needs to be governor for more than two terms. I won’t be voting for [Sen. Chuck] Grassley, either.”
Deace thinks Branstad is as intent on defeating social conservatives as he is reclaiming the governor’s mansion from Culver. He doesn’t believe the policy positions of Branstad and Culver are substantially different.
Other Vander Plaats supporters were more optimistic that the deep wounds of a bitter primary can be healed and the Republican Party will unite behind Branstad.
“It’s up to each individual voter who they are going to support,” said state Rep. Jodi Tymeson, R-Winterset, Vander Plaats’ campaign chair. “But I believe Republicans will be united against Chet Culver and his failed leadership.”
Debbie Brooks, a Vander Plaats campaign volunteer from Benton County, is confident Republicans will unite behind Branstad, no matter how bitter the primary. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said.
The mood at the Vander Plaats campaign party was spirited in the first several minutes after the polls closed and their candidate was running within a percentage point with Branstad. In Polk County, Vander Plaats finished with 46 percent, compared with Branstad’s 47 percent, and campaign leaders thought they had pulled off an upset. Only 133 votes separated the two candidates in Iowa’s largest county.
“We’ve got to believe they were fairly nervous early,” Vander Plaats said.