Eight Democrats that could join 2018 Iowa governor race

With Branstad out of the mix, party seeks to redress drubbing

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Hall o
Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Hall of Fame Dinner, Saturday, June 2, 2007, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — The shape of Iowa’s next gubernatorial election was redrawn with news that GOP Gov. Terry Branstad will resign next year to become the U.S. ambassador to China.

The midterm exit of the nation’s longest-serving governor means his lieutenant of the past six years, Kim Reynolds, gets a two-year tryout as governor ahead of the 2018 election.

Branstad’s exit also gives the gubernatorial election more clarity for Democrats, who will be trying to win back the office for the first time since they held it for three terms from 1999 through 2010.

There will be much at stake for Iowa Democrats when voters choose their next governor.

Democrats are coming off consecutive elections — in 2014 and 2016 — in which they suffered significant defeats. The 2018 election will be the first opportunity to right the ship for them, and the governor’s race will stand alone atop the ticket because there are no U.S. Senate or presidential races.

It also will be Iowa Democrats’ first opportunity to break up the Republicans’ trifecta of state power: For the next two years, the GOP controls the state’s lawmaking agenda with a Republican as governor and GOP majorities in the Senate and House.

For all those reasons, Iowa Democrats are in need of a victory.

“Obviously, with the shellacking that has occurred with Iowa Democrats the last couple cycles, the party needs to do quite a bit of soul-searching. And on paper, we’re still a purple (politically divided) state in some ways,” said Grant Woodard, a former Democratic political operative who worked on Jack Hatch’s unsuccessful 2014 gubernatorial campaign. “I think (2018) is going to be an immensely important year and really a time for leaders to step up in the party, whoever they may be.”

At least a half-dozen Democrats are commonly mentioned by political observers and party insiders as potential candidates for governor. They include current and former legislators Liz Mathis, Rob Hogg, Jeff Danielson and Mike Gronstal, and outgoing state Democratic Party Chairwoman Andy McGuire.

The list of potential candidates surely will grow in coming months.


Whomever wins the June 2018 Democratic primary will carry the party’s hopes in a crucial election.

“I think there’s no question that this is going to be a critically important election for Democrats,” said Brad Anderson, who was the party’s candidate for Iowa Secretary of State in 2014 and led President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in Iowa.

Anderson said he is optimistic about Democrats’ chances because the first non-presidential election in a new president’s first term historically favors the party out of power — Democrats, in this case.

“We need to make sure we take advantage of that opportunity,” Anderson said. “So I think the question is if (2018) does set itself up to be a change election, if a majority of voters nationally and in Iowa think that the Republican rule is heading in the wrong direction policy-wise, the thing that we need to do most is figure out and articulate exactly what kind of change we have to offer. This is something we struggled with in this last election and in many of the Obama years, is articulating in a compelling way what we want to do when we get control.”

Multiple party activists and insiders spoke of a need for a candidate who can articulate the party’s vision.

Bret Nilles, chairman of the Linn County Democratic Party, said he thinks a candidate should have strong name recognition and be someone “who is able to really articulate what the Democratic Party stands for, not so much on the extreme ends, but more of the core values of Democrats and what that means to urban counties, what that means to rural counties, what it means to lower-income people and what it means to middle-income people.”

Several Democrats also said the party’s candidate must be able to raise a significant amount of money. Unlike 2010 and 2014, there will be no U.S. Senate or presidential races to assist the gubernatorial candidate in 2018. Although national political groups may get involved, the candidates largely will be on their own to raise money.

“I think that’s the first thing people need to have, because running for governor is an incredibly expensive ordeal,” Woodard said. “Running for governor is not glamorous. It’s just you and that phone, trying to drum up resources to run that race.”


Anderson said the Democratic candidate must be fully motivated to run — not just because he or she was asked to — and also must be able to motivate voters. He said recent elections show Democratic voters need to be inspired to turn out.

“We tend to get really passionate about elections and turn out if we are inspired, whereas Republicans will vote regardless. They just vote, “ Anderson said. “Our party needs a little dose of inspiration to nudge us to the voting booth, and it’s really important for our candidate to figure that out. ...

“If there isn’t that intangible, inspiring effect, we just see low turnout, and we can’t afford to have that in 2018.”


Based on public comments and interviews with Iowa Democratic activists and insiders, here are some potential candidates for governor in 2018 for the Democratic Party:

Liz Mathis

The state senator from Cedar Rapids just won re-election to a third, four-year term, which means she would not have to resign her seat to run for governor.

Mathis just survived a heavy campaign by Republicans to defeat her; she was one of the few Senate Democrats to survive such an effort.

A television reporter before serving in the Iowa Senate, Mathis is well-known in Eastern Iowa. More recently, she has been one of the Statehouse Democrats’ leading voices expressing concern with the Branstad administration’s move to shift management of the state’s $5 billion Medicaid program to three private health care companies.

Rob Hogg

Another state senator from Cedar Rapids, Hogg is halfway through his third term. While seen as a rising star in the state party, Hogg would have to run for governor and not for re-election to the Iowa Senate. And he was just elected minority leader of the Iowa Senate Democrats, so he may choose to remain in and focus on that new role.


But Democrats note Hogg was very well received by party activists during his unsuccessful run in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary race this year.

Jeff Danielson

The state senator from Cedar Falls just won re-election to a fourth term, also surviving a challenge during what was a dismal year for Senate Democrats.

Danielson is known for being a moderate Democrat and has considered running for governor in the past.

Todd Prichard

Prichard is a relative newcomer; he was just re-elected to his third, two-year term in the Iowa House.

But multiple Democrats spoke of Prichard as a potential candidate and said one strength would be his background as a legislator from rural Iowa. He is from Charles City in northeast Iowa.

Andy McGuire

It has been widely believed that McGuire would, after serving her term as state party chairwoman, run for governor in 2018.

McGuire has extensive experience in health care, having served as a doctor, medical researcher and executive. She was the running mate to gubernatorial candidate Mike Blouin in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Richard Leopold

Leopold is director of the Polk County Conservation Board and was director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from 2007 to 2010 under Gov. Chet Culver.


He also has served in a variety of posts with various environmental and conservation groups. Multiple Democrats said he is exploring a run.

Mike Gronstal

For years, Gronstal — as majority leader of the Iowa Senate — was the firewall that stopped legislation favored only by Republicans from becoming law. Might Gronstal, who lost his re-election bid in the November wave that gave Republicans control of the Iowa Senate, seek to become that firewall again, only as governor?

He has considered it in the past. Gronstal also is running to succeed McGuire as state party chair.

Tom Vilsack

The popular former two-term Iowa governor is completing eight years as U.S. agriculture secretary and insists he will return to Iowa with more to give politically.

But he also insists he will not run for elected office, and almost every Democrat asked says they believe him. If Vilsack would change his mind and decide to run, it would be a dream come true for most Iowa Democrats.

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