Iowa governor faces tough reelection as another state sours on incumbents

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010; A03

MASON CITY, IOWA -- Republican Terry Branstad's lines have a familiar ring as he campaigns to return to the governor's office after 11 years away. He blasts the incumbent Democrat for "mismanagement," promising an "economic comeback" and the end of "more government than we can afford."

The pitch is working. Early polls show Branstad with a lead as large as 20 points over Gov. Chet Culver (D), who is battling a poor economy and frustration fueled by Capitol Hill vitriol that incumbent politicians are not delivering.

The state that launched Barack Obama toward the presidency just two years ago is looking like a tough sell for Democrats in 2010. Culver is in trouble, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) is threatened and President Obama's popularity has dropped by one-third since he took office.

Since the beginning of 2009, unemployment has risen by half, to about 6.5 percent -- high for Iowa, although lower than the national average. Tax revenues are down and social service needs are rising. The legislative news from Des Moines, where both chambers are controlled by Democrats, is often gloomy.

As for Obama, Ron Cline, a founder of the North Iowa Tea Party, put it this way: "He said he was going to change things. He did. They're worse."

A tea-party billboard in downtown Mason City reads, "Socialism. Change We can't afford!"

Culver and Obama are suffering from different problems in a state where the pull of party is limited, and where 47 percent of voters called themselves "independents" in a recent poll. Evidence suggests that confidence in Obama could return if the economy continues to improve and if he engineers a few legislative successes.

"I don't think people think he's a lost cause," said J. Ann Selzer, who has been polling Iowans for years. "What he doesn't have is a Congress that works very well, and he was hands-off. If he's able to make things happen and explain things differently, people's support will come back."

None of that is certain, of course. A fierce battle is underway over Obama's proposed health-care reforms, the economy is still sputtering and the administration is struggling to solve conundrums from terrorism trials to financial regulation.

Republican strategist Craig Robinson sees "a dissatisfaction with everything Washington," but he noted starkly different attitudes toward Culver and Obama, who worked Iowa hard as a candidate. "Both times we have done polls -- July 2009 and January 2010 -- Obama's numbers were above 50 percent and Culver's were in the dumps," Robinson said. "I don't think Iowans necessarily approve of his agenda, but . . . like him personally."

Against the tide

Emily Bowers, an unemployed northern Iowa factory worker, is one of those holding out hope for Obama. "He's trying. You've got to give him time," she said. "Especially with the big hole he came into." She is not so generous to Culver -- Bowers expects to vote for Branstad if he wins the GOP primary in June. She remembers him positively from his previous 16 years in the state Capitol, which ended in 1999.

"We're calling this the comeback campaign," said Branstad, 63, referring to his political career and the state's economy. He criticized Culver for what he called poor personnel choices and "huge deficits."

Culver said in an interview that Branstad "is not up to the job." In the primary, Branstad faces state Rep. Rod Roberts from Carroll and Bob Vander Plaats, a businessman and social conservative supported by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Culver, 44, says he is "not distracted by any polls." A former high school history teacher, son of a former U.S. senator, and three-sport athlete at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, he sees the anti-incumbent feeling and considers it largely beyond his control.

"I understand these cycles. That's just how it is," Culver said in a statehouse interview. "The key is to just get up every single day and work as hard as I possibly can to help Iowa families."

Culver said he intends to remind voters of Branstad's record, inviting a comparison on tax policy and the size of Iowa's government. His own tax record, Culver said, deserves support from the anti-government, anti-tax followers of Iowa's tea parties. "I hope they're really paying attention to the governor's race," Culver said.

Branstad, too, has an eye on frustrated tea-party adherents, saying he welcomes "their interest and involvement."

Selzer said that Culver's troubles stretch beyond the economy and that she is skeptical about his chances. His approval rating is 36 percent, matching the worst readings for any governor in 40 years.

"He's losing the Democrats," Selzer said. "That's really shocking -- if you're the party in power and the party's defecting." In a February poll for the Des Moines Register, she found that Culver's approval rating with Democrats was 57 percent. Obama was at 83 percent among Democrats. Overall, Obama was at 46 percent, down from 49 percent in November and 68 percent on the eve of his inauguration.

National battleground

Republican disaffection with Obama is vast, with only 15 percent of GOP poll respondents approving of president's performance. His approval among independents -- who were critical to his election -- fell to 38 percent, a drop of 10 points in three months.

The biggest issues were the deficit, health care and the economy, with 90 percent of Republicans and tea-party supporters saying the federal government is spending too much. Selzer said, "It's the sense that government's out of control."

"I'm seeing people who have never e-mailed me in four years getting involved in issues," said state Rep. Pat Grassley (R), 26-year-old grandson of U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley. "There's frustration out there."

Robin Anderson, a former banker who is executive director of the Mason City Chamber of Commerce, caucused for Obama in January 2008 before voting for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in November. She sees a deeper dissatisfaction with Washington.

"People look at both parties and they can't identify with them. Where are the centrists?" Anderson asked as she collected name cards after Branstad's visit.

Insurance agent Casey Callanan, 29, who advised Branstad to reach out to young voters, said later that people are just as anxious for "change" as they were when Obama won 54 percent of the vote in November 2008.

"Right now, it's anti-incumbent. Nobody's happy with what's going on," Callanan said. "Everybody's starting to consider themselves independent. They want progress and things to move forward, and stop the bickering."

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