Lee County Supervisor Rick Larkin suspects he knows why Gov. Terry Branstad has made 10 trips to the area since he began his fifth term as governor in 2011.
“He's doing a lot of things here because he has this goal to win Lee County. It's something he's never done,” said Larkin, a former state representative and chairman of the Lee County Democratic Party.
“You have the fertilizer plant, and then the state is putting $5 million for the Keokuk hospital. That's why he's been here so much.”
Since January 2011, Republican Branstad has visited Keokuk twice, Fort Madison seven times and Wever once. That's more visits than a majority of the state's 99 counties got, but they still represent only a small fraction of the 2,280 public appearances recorded by the governor's office since Branstad was elected in 2010.
The records were the subject of a Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau public records request.
Keokuk is home to Keokuk Area Hospital, which stands to get access to up to $5 million in Iowa Finance Authority loans thanks to a provision in a budget bill Branstad signed last month.
Wever is the closest town to the under-construction Iowa Fertilizer plant project, which the state offered $107 million in incentives to locate here.
Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers downplayed the idea governor's sojourns to Lee County have anything to do with electoral fortunes.
“The Iowa Fertilizer plant was chosen by a site selector hired by the company. The hospital funding was in a budget bill,” he said.
Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa, is the only other county Branstad has never won. He has been there 23 times since taking office — 18 trips to Iowa City, four in Coralville and one in Solon.
POLITICS OF TRAVEL
Branstad thinks one of the secrets to his political success is visiting each of Iowa's 99 counties at least once a year. The trips give the governor a chance to engage in the type of retail politics — a handshake, a photo, and maybe a quip about his brother Monty — at which he excels.
Chris Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, thought it “impressive” the governor has kept his 99-county pledge.
“I think the dispersion of visits reflect a candidate who is very confident, who understands that a single visit is not sufficient for Iowans — this is a mistake Michelle Bachmann made — Iowans need and expect multiple opportunities for interactions with their governor,” Larmier said.
Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, made a 10-day, 99-county tour of Iowa in December 2011 before dropping out of the Republican presidential race following the Iowa caucuses.
Polk County and its immediate neighbors get most of the public appearances even when some events, such as proclamation signings at the Capitol or his weekly news conference, are eliminated from the mix, proving convenience is key.
Larimer sees other patterns, too.
He notes the most Republican counties since 2000 in terms of party registration, including Lyon, O'Brien, Sioux, Osceola and Montgomery, have seen relatively few visits.
“This makes sense in terms of vote share as these are counties Branstad will carry but amount to relatively few votes,” Larimer wrote in an email.
Still, some of the most Democratic counties, including Johnson, Wapello and Dubuque, have been visited 10 or more times, while cities such as Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Davenport have had more than a dozen visits.
“This has the dual effect of building support in populous areas where vote share is critical while also making life more difficult for a Democratic challenger who will have to spend time and money on get-out-the-vote efforts in Democratic strongholds,” he said. “Turnout is always a problem for Democrats in midterm elections, but the Branstad strategy seems to be focused on taking advantage of this pattern.”
It also appears the governor has some favorites.
For example, his five visits to northern Emmet County were all made to Estherville, home of Aero Manufacturing and the Estherville Meteorite, while his five visits to neighboring Dickinson County were spread out over four towns — Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Milford and Arnolds Park.
Centers said administration staff handles thousands of invitations each year and several staff have access to the governor's calendar to check for potential conflicts. A map in the governor's basement-level offices colored and pinned each time the governor visits a county.
In western Crawford County, you would have to be in Denison if you wanted to see the governor on one of his three stops there.
“That's the same as Barack Obama,” said Mayor Brad Bonner, noting the president traveled to Denison once in 2008 during his campaign and twice after being elected.
“We're a county of 17,000 people, 9,000 of which live in Denison, so it makes sense to stop here,” he said. “We're the population center, the commerce center and the only city in the county that's growing.”
He added wryly, “It's also where the highways meet so you can stop here on your way to someplace else.”
Bonner said he hopes the governor would continue to visit Denison but hopes he'll visit other Crawford County communities, too.
Still, despite Branstad's best efforts, an annual 99-county run has become known as a “full Grassley,” after Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has a similar each-county-every-year commitment to Iowans.
“The governor and lieutenant governor enjoy traveling around the state and meeting Iowans,” Centers said. “If other Iowa politicians have things named for them, that's fine.”