Want to be governor of Iowa?
Campaigning is like running a business - it's about raising money. And free office furniture
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James Q. Lynch
CEDAR RAPIDS — In addition to a good head of hair, a firm handshake and a winning smile, running for governor takes money.
A candidate for governor of Iowa should be prepared to raise upward of $5 million, according to Matt Paul, who has worked on campaigns from city hall to the White House.
In 2014, former Gov. Terry Branstad raised about $10 million. His opponent raised less than $2 million. Campaigns aren’t all about money, but Branstad carried all but one of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Potential candidates generally know they’ll have to raise a lot. But whatever they think they’ll need to raise, “they’re usually they’re off by a factor of five,” said Paul, who joined Cornerstone Government Affairs in Des Moines after working for two Cedar Rapids mayors, former Gov. Tom Vilsack and more recently as Iowa director of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and as chief of staff for vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine.
There are a lot of similarities between launching a campaign and “an entrepreneur going out and setting up company ABC to sell widgets or whatever,” said Brian Dumas of Davenport-based Victory Enterprises.
“You’ve got to have a business plan. You’ve got to have a salesman, basically, in the candidate selling their ideas and vision,” he said. “Then you have to build a team around them. And if you run out of money or can’t raise enough venture capital or sell enough widgets you close your doors.”
As in business, he added, “You’ve got to be able to adjust and move quickly — maybe even more so in politics than in business.”
Even before raising “venture capital,” Paul said a candidate must have “an absolutely rock solid answer why they are the best person for the office.”
A gubernatorial campaign can last two years, involve three or more nights a week away from family, time away from a job, travel and hours on the phone raising money.
“Candidates have to come to be their own north star on why they are doing this in order to get through the day-to-day of the very unglamorous life of being a candidate,” Paul said.
It’s “a troubling sign” if a candidate can’t articulate why she or he is running, said Jeff Link of LPCA Public Strategies in Des Moines, who works with Democratic candidates. In those cases, he tries to talk them out of running because “the work is too hard, too tedious to continue unless you are really passionate.”
Those second thoughts happen with “some regularity,” according to David Kochel, founder of Redwave Communications in Des Moines. “They think about. Take a few steps. Then decide against it.”
Paul has had four or five conversations in the current election cycle with potential candidates who decided against it after having that conversation.
However, if candidates can answer the “why” question, then it’s time to “start putting together the building blocks of the campaign,” said Kochel, a former Harvard Institute of Politics fellow who worked on campaigns for presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst.
The basic building block is money.
Link, who has worked with former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and Barack Obama in 2008 as well as with campaigns in the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Africa, asks potential candidates to make a spreadsheet of all the names in their phones and on their Christmas card and wedding guest lists, and next to them write how much money each person would give to the campaign if asked. In 25 years, he’s had about three candidates follow through.
Paul tells candidates “write the name of every person you will call and ask for $1,000, and come back when your notebook is full.”
“It’s easy for a candidates to say they can raise $300,000, for example, but when you start writing down names and numbers, the numbers get real, real fast,” Link said.
For an Iowa gubernatorial primary race, he estimates a candidate must be able to raise at least $1.5 million to run a viable campaign.
From a functional standpoint, launching the campaign is similar to starting a business venture, according to Sam Roecker, Link’s colleague at LPCA. In addition to employees, a campaign needs to recruit motivated volunteers, people who know how to organize, how to schedule the candidate’s time, how to keep the campaign on message, get that message out and when, where and how to advertise to build a statewide presence. And, Roecker said, a campaign needs a logo, a slogan, perhaps, and an office.
“Nothing too glamorous,” he said, because donors don’t want to think their money is being spent on prime office space, nice furniture and fancy campaign swag. “You do what you can to get by. Look for free furniture.”
Technology has made the traditional campaign headquarters less important than in the past, Dumas said.
“Twenty years ago, everyone came to the office to make phone calls,” he said. “Today, you log in from your home computer and make calls or you share a campaign message on Facebook and Twitter.”
Candidates can run the day-to-day campaign operation, but Dumas said their time is better spent making personal appearances and raising money.
Campaigns “are almost always about the candidate: Who they are, their background, their capacity to lead and how prepared they are,” Kochel said. So to maximize their impact, candidates running for governor generally rely on campaign consultants to recommend and recruit professional staffers to help develop messaging and campaign strategies, and help with the fundraising how-to.
To a large degree, Dumas said, Terry Branstad set the precedent for Iowa gubernatorial campaigns and everyone after him is using some variation of the Branstad approach, including “the whole 99-county thing,” which was borrowed from Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Although there are agencies that will provide a “campaign-in-a-box,” Kochel and his colleagues are skeptical that off-the-shelf plans work in a state where running for governor is personal.
“Iowans want to press the flesh, see and hear the candidate speak, to look them in the eye, have a conversation,” Dumas said. “They want to personally know their governor.”
“A candidate has to have a relationship with activists, with volunteers, with voters,” Kochel said. “You can’t hire a professional to provide those things.”
In the end, campaigns are “sophisticated strategic organizations” and the process tests candidates, Paul said. That’s not a bad thing considering the candidates are asking voters to trust them with the leadership of a state of three million people.
“As frustrated as we all are with the fundraising side of this, this system does put candidates through the paces in preparation for what is a really complex challenge that impacts people on a daily basis,” Paul said. “If you’re running for governor of Iowa, you’re running to be the CEO of a $9 billion operation. So you should be able to handle a $9 (million) or $10 million election budget.”
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