Popular Iowa Governor Keeps Endorsement Door Slightly Ajar — For Gingrich?
Branstad says he "might" endorse a candidate if polls indicated that a candidate had a clear chance to win the Republican presidential nomination. That appears to fit the criteria to endorse Newt Gingrich.
If former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can maintain his frontrunner status in the polls, he may land an endorsement from Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the most significant nod for any GOP presidential candidate heading into the state's Jan. 3 caucuses.
Branstad, a popular governor who served four terms ending in 1998 and then was elected to an unprecedented fifth term a year ago, has said publicly that it’s “unlikely” he will make an endorsement. Now, though, he seems more unsure of that stance.
“If I became convinced one candidate was clearly the strongest candidate and has the best chance to win, I might [endorse] under those circumstances,” Branstad told Patch in an interview.
That endorsement criteria comes at least close to fitting Gingrich, who has maintained his place atop the GOP field in most state polls longer than any of the other Republicans in the crowded race for the party’s nomination. Gingrich was at 25 percent in the last Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, with Texas Congressman Ron Paul the closest to him, with 18 percent.
“I think the Iowa Poll has a good history of being an accurate indicator of what Iowans are thinking,” Branstad said.
The Register's pollster, Ann Selzer said in an interview with The Atlantic magazine that the paper's final poll before the caucuses will publish Jan. 1.
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Steffen Schmidt, a longtime Caucus watcher and professor of political science at Iowa State University, told Patch in an email that he has been hearing rumblings that the governor will, indeed, endorse Gingrich.
"Yes, I've heard speculation from other sources, too," Schmidt said. "Branstad carries a lot of weight and respect with an important segment of the Iowa GOP."
The endorsement would also be important to Gingrich because of his relatively weak ground game in Iowa. With a Branstad endorsement, the governor's considerable polticial aparatus could be kicked into action on Gingrich's behalf.
Former Iowa GOP Chairman Mike Mahaffey said most Iowans get to see candidates up close, so endorsements are not as valuable here as they may be in other states, but he added that Branstad's backing is significant.
"Of all the political endorsements, the governor's would be the most meaningful," Mahaffey said. "He's successful and knows a lot of people."
Gingrich has been going out of his way to pay favor to Branstad.
He practically batted his eyes at the governor at the recent dinner gathering of Republicans in Iowa's largest and most important county to GOP hopefuls.
“I like coming to a state where you could have been out of office for a while and you can be a little, you know, older, and you can return and win the governorship,” Gingrich told Polk County Republicans. “I was at Terry’s birthday the other night and told him what an inspiration to me he was.”
Again Saturday, at the most-watched debate so far in the campaign, Gingrich gushed over the governor and called him his “role model.”
Theoretically, Branstad’s endorsement would be a good get for Gingrich.
A consummate pragmatist, Branstad was recruited out of political retirement last year by Doug Gross, Branstad’s former chief of staff and a former gubernatorial candidate himself, after Republican poo-bahs saw the party moving sharply to the right. They persuaded Branstad to run against conservative Bob Vander Plaats, who lost in the primary and established the Family Leader to oust Iowa Supreme Court judges who ruled that same-sex marriage is legal.
Branstad said he doesn’t think endorsements mean much to independent-minded Iowans.
“Even though they voted for me many times for governor, it doesn’t mean they would choose a candidate I endorsed,” Branstad said. “Iowans are thoughtful, independent people.”
Branstad said he has “tried to be a good host” by remaining neutral, though he noted Gingrich’s dizzying rise in the polls — a surprise for a campaign that most Iowans, including the governor, had given up for dead.
For now, Branstad said he will refrain from naming a favorite and instead encourage Iowans to go to their neighborhood precincts and “choose who they think has the best plan to restore fiscal integrity.”
“I respect each and every one of the candidates,” Branstad said. “My feeling is that I should play a role in helping whoever is the nominee win this state, and not necessarily endorsing before the caucus.”
So far, the only Iowa statewide elected official to endorse a candidate is Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who is backing former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Santorum has campaigned in each of Iowa’s 99 counties and has spent the better part of a year in the the Hawkeye State, but is polling near the cellar at 6 percent.