DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, favored to win re-election and a historic sixth term in November, credits his famous facial hair for his political success.
“I’ve never lost, and I’ve always done it with a mustache, so I’m going to keep it,” he told me.
First elected governor in 1982 at the tender age of 36, he went on to serve four terms, stepping down in 2000. But he came out of retirement six years ago and rode a GOP wave back into office. If voters return him to office this fall, the 67-year-old will have served over 20 years as governor, making him the longest-serving executive in American history.
One reason for Branstad’s winning streak is that he’s much more of a hardball politician than his aw-shucks Midwestern demeanor suggests. Earlier this year, Branstad, the definition of an establishment Republican, successfully deployed his political machine in an effort to reclaim the Iowa GOP from the clutches of tea party leadership.
So far this year, in his race against Democrat Jack Hatch, he’s been able to weather administration scandals and accusations of corruption. One Democrat told me that for Iowa voters, Branstad is “like an old sweater” — just the comfortable choice.
Branstad was talking about his whiskers while giving me a private tour of the picturesque Iowa state capital for the latest episode of “Hambycast,” showing off the knick-knacks and ceremonial gifts that decorate his hideaway office, normally off-limits to reporters.
He pointed proudly to his hunting trophies, a photo with Pope John Paul II, and an Iowa Hawkeyes football jersey with “BRANSTAD” emblazoned on the back. Upstairs in the state capitol, we examined baseballs signed by players who had jogged the bases at Field of Dreams in Dyersville. Then we were guided up to the very top of the gilded state capitol for a stunning autumn view of downtown Des Moines.
As the talk turned to 2016 and the looming parade of Republican presidential contenders set to march through Iowa, Branstad brushed off criticism that the caucuses favor uncompromising social conservatives over more moderate Republicans.
He has a point. Mitt Romney, not exactly a favorite son of the Christian right, almost won the caucuses. There’s a sizable pool of mainstream Republicans here waiting to be courted, and in a crowded presidential field, a candidate can win the state with a plurality — and without unified support from social conservatives.
“You need to come here early and often,” Branstad said, invoking the example of Rick Santorum, who came out of nowhere to win Iowa after campaigning in the state’s 99 counties (and, it should be noted, after wearing his conservative Catholic faith on his sleeve).
Branstad would not say if he would endorse a candidate but said he’s favorable to Republican governors — no surprise there — a comment that should warm the hearts of Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Mike Pence.
As for the (in)famous Ames Straw Poll, that media-saturated, oft-criticized and nonbinding summertime test of candidate support, Branstad backed away from previous suggestions that the fundraiser should be scrapped.
I asked him if the GOP-run Straw Poll will actually happen next summer in the run-up to the caucuses. Branstad said maybe, but floated another option.
“It’s going to depend on the candidates and who is willing to participate,” he said. “I think having a series of fundraisers regionally around the state would be a good alternative.”
Democrat Jack Hatch is running against Gov. Branstad in November’s election.