By Graham Gillette | Special Contributor
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 Iowa’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, a former Iowa governor, 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.
Back in the heady days of January when President Barack Obama’s second inauguration was imminent, reclaiming Terrace Hill 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 confident about the party’s future – 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.
Braley went from eyeing at run for governor to winning Harkin’s seat in the U.S. Senate. And, the party’s current golden boy, Braley, who was ready to make the gubernatorial run, quickly jumped to the senate race. That has left Vilsack supporters looking 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 the Iowa soil for a run.
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.
Link admits his party has problems fielding candidates for the state’s top offices. Without Braley and Vilsack, the Democrats don’t have anyone with clout needed to win either position, which gives Republicans an advantage in gaining a foothold on two top posts in 2014.
“If Democrats choose to run Vilsack and Braley – two Washington insiders – against Terry Branstad, whose life focus has been being Iowa’s governor, and Kim Reynolds, a fresh face with a proven record, we will have an excellent year,” he said.
The match-up of two former 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, Vilsack’s 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 what his political future will be.
I am betting he will decide he will take his chances and ride out his gig in the federal department of agriculture. If that happens, it gives Branstad a better shot at election and frees up money from 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.
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.