State Watch

Iowa New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack could be eyeing another term in 2014.

By 4.24.13

One of the worst kept secrets in Iowa is that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, is considering a run for governor.

Many in the state's Democratic Party see Vilsack as potentially the only one among them capable of beating Republican Gov. Terry Branstad in a 2014 match-up. Vilsack, who served two terms as Iowa governor between 1999 and 2007, has the uncommon ability to raise the money needed to challenge Branstad, one of the best fundraisers Iowa has ever seen. Vilsack’s name recognition, popularity and campaign prowess give him an advantage over others in his party.

And Vilsack knows it.

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack — could he seek another term leading the state?

Back in the heady days of January when President Barack Obama’s second inauguration was imminent, reclaiming Terrace Hill, the governor's mansion, was at the top of the agenda for Iowa Democrats. Vilsack was wining and dining with a group of Iowans in Washington D.C., including outgoing Iowa Democrat Party Chair Sue Dvorsky. They were all confident about the party’s future — and none more so than Vilsack.

When the topic turned to Branstad, Vilsack provided a self-revealing, albeit, backhanded compliment to Congressman Bruce Braley, then the Democratic party’s likely gubernatorial candidate.

“There are only two people in Iowa who can beat Branstad, me and Braley,” Vilsack said.

Well, as is the case with most barroom boasting, those words are haunting Vilsack three months later.

A few days into President Obama’s second term, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, announced he would not seek re-election after holding the post for more than three decades. It was a game changer for Democrats, whose focus went from ousting Branstad to maintaining their hold on Harkin’s seat. The party’s current golden boy, Braley, quickly jumped to the senate race.

That has left an open field in the Democratic primary for the governorship — and many look to a reluctant cabinet secretary to come home to be the party’s hero.

Although hardly substantial, some see the purchase of a house near Booneville by Vilsack and his wife Christie, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, as a sign of Vilsack planting his feet in Iowa soil.

Others think the recent website www.runtomrun2014.com that seeks people to sign an online position is proof of a sprouting organization.

Democratic strategist Jeff Link nixed that suggestion. Link maintains close ties to Vilsack and said he doesn’t relish another Iowa campaign.

“He is running a vast and complex organization as ag secretary and I am not sure he is ready to return to the stump,” Link said.

The match-up of two governors -- Vilsack and Branstad -- would draw attention because they are so similar in their appeal.  Both men carved out electoral success in Iowa based on their ability to appeal to the vast group of voters who shun partisan politics. They were both able to position themselves as the reasonable, safe candidate.

As the incumbent, Branstad owns the place, for now at least.  Vilsack will have to reinvent himself and attack Branstad for being out of step. Vilsack has never been comfortable or effective in the role of attack dog and that kind of partisan sniping isn’t selling well these days.

While it is unlikely Vilsack will make an announcement about the governor’s race any time soon, his clout buys him time few others can afford.  During the coming weeks and months, he will watch Hillary Clinton position herself for the 2016 presidential race and ponder his political future.

I am betting he will decide to take his chances and ride out his gig in the federal department of agriculture. If that happens, it gives Branstad a better shot at re-election and frees up money for the party to spend on other candidates.

The truth is both parties need to start grooming candidates for future races and stop going back to those like Branstad and Vilsack when times get tough.

Photo: UPI.


Reprinted with permission from IowaWatchdog.org.

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About the Author
Graham Gillette is a former staff member for state and national political candidates and has served as a senior government adviser. He lives in Des Moines where he works as a public affairs and communications consultant to corporate and nonprofit organizations. He began his career in Florida before moving to Washington, D.C. Gillette returned to Iowa in 1993.