Staff Columnist

Tenacious Ron Corbett sees path to victory, but narrow one

In Iowa: 68 percent of Iowans surveyed don't know him well enough to have an opinion

Ron Corbett (right), a Republican candidate for governor, records a campaign commercial Jan. 24 at the Blue Strawberry in Cedar Rapids. The ad is the first by a Republican gubernatorial hopeful leading into the June primary. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Ron Corbett (right), a Republican candidate for governor, records a campaign commercial Jan. 24 at the Blue Strawberry in Cedar Rapids. The ad is the first by a Republican gubernatorial hopeful leading into the June primary. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Time is running out for Ron Corbett to dent the all but unstoppable, cash-flush juggernaut that is Gov. Kim Reynolds’ campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Still, don’t rush him.

“People always ask me, ‘What’s your 30-second elevator speech?’ Corbett, a Republican candidate for governor, said during an interview last week. “I don’t have a 30-second elevator speech. The issues facing this state require more than 30 seconds.

“So if you want to ride the elevator up 10, 15 stories, we can talk about tax reform. We can talk about water quality. We can talk about mental health and Medicaid. But do people want to go for the ride?” Corbett asked.

The answer may be no, if they’re averse to riding with a stranger.

According to the latest Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, 68 percent of Iowans surveyed don’t know enough about the former Cedar Rapids mayor to view him favorably or unfavorably. Among the rest, he’s viewed favorably by 15 percent and unfavorably by 18 percent. His favorable number slipped since a poll in December, although it may be because pollsters dropped his mayoral title from the latest questions.

He’s got some cash. Corbett raised $844,000 in 2017, mostly from a who’s who of Cedar Rapids business owners, executives and developers. He kept Cedar Rapids open for business as mayor. Now business is opening its checkbook. He’s got a TV ad up with more to come, he says.

But, speaking of elevators, you might need one to get to the top of Reynolds’ cash pile. She’s got more than $4 million in the bank after raising $3.7 million in 2017. Her campaign finance filings look like a social registry of wealthy donors who helped put Terry Branstad in the governor’s office six times.

So after nearly eight months on the campaign trail, Corbett remains little-known and underfunded heading into the June primary.

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On the bright side, in a strictly formal sense, he’s the only official GOP candidate, the front-runner, perhaps, according to the Reynolds campaign.

“Governor Reynolds has not yet formally launched her campaign, so it would be premature to accept or decline any debate invitations,” said Pat Garrett, communications director for the still very informal Reynolds campaign. I asked him via email this week if Reynolds is open to debating Corbett.

But seriously folks, is there any way Corbett makes this thing a race?

“Although I’m the underdog, I don’t feel like I have no path. It’s probably narrow, a narrow path, but there is a path to victory. And the path isn’t exclusive to how much money I raise,” Corbett said.

Corbett insists Reynolds is vulnerable on a number of fronts, from a mismanaged state budget to the ongoing Medicaid privatization fiasco to an ailing mental health system she has no solid plan to repair. Funding for public schools has stagnated and, with Iowa facing a water quality crisis, the governor settled for flawed legislation that fails to meaningfully address it.

The same poll showing Corbett as an unknown shows Reynolds leading top Democratic challengers by just 4 or 5 percentage points. Corbett compares this moment with 1998, when, two years after Republicans grabbed the Statehouse trifecta, the GOP establishment went all in for Jim Ross Lightfoot as its nominee for governor.

“And he was 30-plus points ahead to an unknown state senator by the name of Tom Vilsack. Can history repeat itself?” Corbett said. “Because the establishment accepted the establishment candidate, we ended up losing the general election.

“I don’t want the conservative agenda to be stopped for 10-12 years,” Corbett said.

Corbett has his own vulnerabilities.

The Associated Press’ Ryan Foley recently reported Corbett still is receiving an annual $184,000 paycheck from his Engage Iowa think tank. Corbett formed the policy outfit to raise his statewide profile, but suspended its operations when he joined the race for governor in June. Apparently, its payroll functions still function.

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The nonprofit organization doesn’t disclose its donors, which is legal. But still, dark money always casts a shadow.

“I think I’ve tried to answer the questions asked,” said Corbett, who has no plans to release a list of think tank donors. “I have a day job like most people do. In the governor’s case, she gets paid by the taxpayers to campaign around the state.”

But only informally.

Regardless of what you think of Corbett or his chances, the Reynolds debate dodge is no laughing matter. Republican voters, Iowa voters, deserve to see these candidates share a stage and hash out these big issues, even if Republican political consultants are more interested in big strategy.

As the nominee for lieutenant governor in 2010, Reynolds ducked debating then-Lt. Gov. Patty Judge. In 2014, she dodged debating Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Monica Vernon. At what point is Reynolds willing to stand up in public without a net or a text and explain her stands on issues?

“Why would you just blindly give someone your vote? Don’t you want someone competing for your vote?” Corbett asked.

But Corbett’s got a lot of work to do to actually become competitive. Otherwise, he’ll be asked to make a short concession speech. And from there, you have to take the stairs.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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