Republican “possibles” at Sac County GOP gathering

UPDATE:  Read the first Radio Iowa story about the event.  Or, listen to all the speeches.

The time is 8:28 a.m.  I am sitting in a lovely building on the Sac County Fairgrounds, an original  "Chautauqua" building that was constructed in the early 1900s.  This is the site of a Sac County GOP gathering that will feature four men who are considering the idea of running for governor.


Two of them are farther along in the process.  Both Bob Vander Plaats and Christopher Rants, both of Sioux City, have formed "exploratory committees."  Representative Rod Roberts of Carroll and Senator Jerry Behn (pronounced "BAYN") are in the contemplative phase.  Vander Plaats and Rants were first on the scene here, followed by Roberts and Behn,  They've been chatting individually with the folks who have been paying $10 per ticket to attend this breakfast event. 

At 8:33 a.m., a prayer was offered and immediately following the prayer folks started lining up for breakfast. The building is huge, with rows of painted benches as well as picnic tables.  "The media" is stationed at a picnic table near the middle of the hall, near an electrical outlet. In about 20 minutes — at 9 o'clock — each of the four potential candidates will be given a chance to speak (individually) to the crowd.  This is the first time all four have appeared, together.

According to Senator Steve Kettering, a Republican from nearby Lake View, Sac County is a "Republican county."  He says the Sac County GOP had a "pretty good hook" in pledging to share proceeds from the event if one of the four would "formally announce" they're running for governor at this event. 

Kettering, though, considers the 2010 race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination wide open at this point, with "a couple of hands full" of other candidates considering jumping into the race.  "In my judgment, the gubernatorial race has not started," Kettering said moments ago.  "…It's way too early.  Obviously, there are still a couple of hands full of people still talking about it."

There are over 60 people seated now at picnic tables covered by red and blue tablecloths.  They're enjoying a breakfast of egg casserole, fruit and cinnamon rolls. Senator Kettering just showcased his own plate of food for the reporters here, pointing out the cinnamon roll as the "little bit of fun" on his plate.

At 9:07 a.m. the Pledge is recited by the crowd, followed by introduction of county elected officials in the audience as well as GOP precinct chairs.  The emcee is Brian Krause, pastor of the Faith Bible Church in Sac City.  According to Krause, there are about 12,000 residents in Sac County and both Krause and Kettering estimate Republicans comprise about 60 percent of registered voters, with about 40 percent registered as Democrats. 

Krause, by the way, assured the crowd he is not related to Bob Krause, the Democrat who has emerged to challenge Republican US Senator Chuck Grassley's reelection.  "There is nobody in my gene pool who is challenging Chuck Grassley," Brian Krause said.

Senator Behn is first and, after starting a stop watch to adhere to the 15 minute time limit each candidate has been given, he beings with a pledge: "I would spend your money carefully, just like I'll spend your time carefully."

"It is not your fault," Behn says of the state's budget situation.  "(Democratic Governor Chet Culver) blames it on a recession…whereas there is some recession, it's not your fault.  You are paying enough in taxes….(State tax) revenue is almost at record levels."

He tells the drunken sailor joke John McCain often told in 2007 & 2008.  Behn promises to build a "firewall in the governor's office" if he's elected governor.  "You don't rely on debt to balance your budget," he tells the crowd.

Behn also discussed education, job creation and what he termed "social issues." 

"In 1998, I voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.  I thought it was a good idea then.  I think it's a good idea now," Behn said, before adding there should be a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment which would ban same-sex marriage.  "…Let the people decide."

Behn suggested voters should use the judicial retention elections as a means of removing the justices from the Iowa Supreme Court who legalized same-sex marriage in the state. He suggested impeachment of the justices was a less viable option given the make-up of the legislature. 

Behn concluded by suggesting Governor Culver's "bonding scheme" is unconstitutional. 

Vander Plaats, the 2004 GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, was the second to speak.  "I'm thrilled that this event would be in Sac County in western Iowa. The more we get people traveling Highway 20 west of Fort Dodge, the faster it may become four-lane."

"It's harder to hit a moving target," Vander Plaats said as he picked up the microphone and began roaming the crowd.  I left my post at the blog and dashed up front to hold my recorder up to a speaker to get audio from his speech; I cannot do that and type. 

As far as I remember — typing now as the next person introduces the next speaker — Vander Plaats gave his standard stump speech.  The one thing I remember off the top of my head:  "You can fool a fool and you can con a con, but you can't kid a kid," he said, in reference to the idea the GOP must present voters with a vision.  Vander Plaats argued the GOP can't just be the party of no, they've got to tell people what they'll do if elected.

He also made an odd reference to his 2004 runningmate Jim Nussle, saying if you "called Mr. Nussle" today and asked how many times Chet Culver had consulted him on policy, Nussle would say zero.  The point Vander Plaats was making was that you have to win to have an impact.  I found it interesting he refered to Nussle as "Mr. Nussle" rather than "Jim."

Christopher Rants, the former House Speaker is third, and he began with an economic message. "We have to talk to Iowans about the issues that are most important to them right now…and in a way that they can relate to…They're nervous about their jobs.  We've got 96,000 Iowans who are out of work today."

"…I can understand and relate to that nervousness," Rants said, referencing his own experience in the 1990s at a Sioux City-based bakery which downsized; he didn't lose his job but assumed new duties as others were laid off.  "…I understand the anxiety…and there's a lot of anxiety among Iowans and that's why I believe that we need to have a governor who puts economic development…at the top of the agenda."

Rants said his goal would be to make Iowa "one of the top 10 states in the nation to operate a business."  He admitted it was a "lofty goal" and Rants identified property taxes as one of the major impediments to meeting that goal.

"We have to have a plan to lower property taxes," Rants said, suggesting that as governor he'd "set up a property tax reduction account so that new dollars that come into government…those dollars first go to reducing property taxes in Iowa."

Rants suggested this is a vulnerability for Governor Chet Culver. "We have a governor who hasn't paid much attention to economic development," Rants said. "…We need to have a governor who every day gets up and say, 'How do we sell Iowa?' 

Rants next brought up education, the state debt.  "I want to be a governor who reduces the size of state government spending," Rants said, saying the budget had been balanced and taxes had been cut in each of the four years he served as speaker. 

"This next year we will enter a fiscal crisis," Rants predicted.  "…This governor took a billion dollars in federal money and spent it all."  Rants accused Culver of using some of that money to "operate the governor's office."

Rants brought up party building, mentioning Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's speech in Des Moines Thursday night.  Rants repeated Barbour's assertion that party building is "about addition and multiplication; it's not about subtraction and division," suggesting the party has to be home for both social and fiscal conservatives. "We have to be about embracing both of those concepts," Rants said. This got applause, the first time Rants was interrupted by applause. "We need a nominee who can bridge both gaps."

Rants got a second round of applause when he talked about his efforts to ban gay marriage in Iowa.  He wrapped up by saying he'll stick around after the program and answer any questions anyone may have.

Rod Roberts was the final speaker.  He began by talking about the day, about a year ago, when the idea was hatched to give the proceeds from today's event to the candidate who would use the forum to "formally declare" their candidacy for governor.  "I decided right then and there I would commit to being present today," Roberts said.

"…Like Christopher, I've been engaged in a conversation with the people of Iowa…Friends, there's a great deal of concern on the part of Iowans about the direction the state's going in and the nation's going in…There's anxiety…and, for some people, there's anger. 

"…People are very interested in a change in direction.  When you draw the straw and you come out last in the order, the challenge is…to share similar thoughts, but recast them.

"…When it comes to those who lead in government…be real with Iowans.  Don't beat around the bush.  Don't ignore the challenges and the problems that are before us.  Be truthful, be upfront and be real with the problems we are facing."

Roberts said Culver is "wishing for better days" to deal with the state's budget problems rather than offering solutions to "confront" the situation. "Be real about what we're facing," Roberts said.

Roberts made a pitch for streamlining state government. "Let's make government more efficient," Roberts said, to follow the example of businesses and individuals who are making reductions in the midst of this recession.

Next, Roberts became the first of the four to talk about the natural disaster the hit Iowa last year and the call for a special legislative session last fall to address flood-related issues.  The governor did not call a special session. 

"That's not taking responsibility," Roberts said, adding there's a need for a special legislative session now to deal with the state's budget problems.

Roberts next mentioned the gay marriage ruling and Culver's delay in issuing a response to it.  "Friends, for me personally, it became clear for me…when (Culver) could not bring a response immediately to that decision and instead waiting four days…to say where he stood on marriage. I thought, 'We've got a problem here,'…I knew then, we can do much, much better than that."

Roberts next criticized House Speaker Pat Murphy for kicking out the audience out after a rowdy public hearing at the statehouse this spring over a tax issue.  Roberts called that a "great mistake."

Roberts, like Behn, quoted Abraham Lincoln, then he talked about GOP prospects in the 2010 election.

Roberts argued Republicans will benefit from "winds of change" as "the public is ready for a new direction," adding that "people are ready for new ideas and a new direction."  Roberts suggested the key was to ensure Republicans are "friendly, approachable, engaging and willing to work with others."

The goal, he said, was a GOP sweep in 2010.  "That can be done with the right standard-bearer," Roberts said in conclusion.

UPDATE: You may listen to each of the candidates speak by clicking on this link.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.