Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) spoke sense about the Ames straw poll last week when he told fellow Republicans that it “has been a great fundraiser for the party, but I think its days are over.” The Iowa state GOP chair was quick to pipe up that the governor doesn’t get the final say on the straw poll. But Branstad was smart to begin the conversation on the GOP primary process and to acknowledge that the hoopla surrounding the straw poll mainly benefits the media, not the primary process. (In 2012 it forced Tim Pawlenty out, perhaps prematurely and gave Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) an ultimately meaningless boost.)

In general, the GOP process would benefit from earlier contests earlier that are going to test the candidates’ appeal in critical states and allow candidates to set up as early as possible ground operations that will be useful in the general election. Having candidates outbid each other for a tiny sliver of the Iowa electorate, which is not even representative of the Iowa caucuses (which are hardly representative of the GOP electorate more broadly), is counterproductive.

It is important for Republicans to begin looking at the primary process from a more utilitarian perspective. What helps the party find the best candidates? What mix of states and debate structure helps sift through the field to find the most viable nominee?

Aside from the straw poll, Branstad will be pressed to defend the Iowa caucuses’s placement in the primary calendar. In 2012 the caucuses couldn’t announce a definitive winner for weeks. Moreover, the caucuses have consistently hyped social conservatives who don’t win the nomination and tend to pull the rest of the field to extreme positions and encourage fiery rhetoric on social issues. The Republican National Committee may have a tough time trying to move the Iowa event, but moving up other states’ contests would minimize the impact of the Iowa caucuses on the selection process.

Branstad also played another positive role last week in inviting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to headline the governor’s birthday bash and fundraiser. The Iowa Republican reported:

It’s easy to see why Governor Branstad pegged Marco Rubio to headline his Second Annual 65th Birthday Bash. Last year, many of the GOP presidential hopefuls showed up to honor the Iowa governor. This year, the presence of Marco Rubio drew a larger crowd, topping 700, and the event raised more than $600,000, a new record for Branstad, who has always excelled at raising money.

“With this event we’ve turned the page and we look toward the future,” Branstad said. “I’ve always been one that’s learned that never fight the last battle or look at the last campaign. You look to the future and you learn from the mistakes of the past and do a better job in the future and Marco Rubio is the kind inspirational leader that is going to help point us in the right direction.”

Whether Rubio or someone else becomes the man to beat in 2016, Branstad is correct in saying the 2016 presidential election should be about a new generation of leaders, ones who are better able to articulate a conservative message and are more effective in taking that message to a diverse electorate. (Rubio did not disappoint, delivering lines like this: “We need to do a better job in going out and convincing our fellow Americans, who perhaps don’t see things the way we do, that free enterprise and limited government is the best way forward for them. Free enterprise and limited government is the only system that has allowed people to climb out of the circumstances of their birth. It’s the only system that’s ever allowed a vibrant, widespread middle class to take root.”)

So kudos to Branstad, first for recognizing the primary process has to change and second for pointing the party forward, not backward. We’ll hear some GOP throwbacks say that the problem in 2012 was that Republicans were insufficiently vehement in defense of things like border security and opposition to gay marriage and not harsh enough in attacks on the president. We’ll hear some rail against attempts to broaden the electorate as “pandering” or useless. Candidates, however, should take Branstad (and Rubio’s) advice: Explain how conservatism works for all Americans — and make the message inclusive and positive. The alternative is losing election after election.

Well done, governor.