- Associated Press - Sunday, June 8, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Gov. Terry Branstad began his re-election campaign in earnest last week, and even his Democratic opponent’s campaign acknowledged that most people expect the Republican to win a record sixth term.

With the state’s economy growing and nearly $5 million available for his campaign, Branstad’s supporters and opponents said it would likely take something dramatic, such as a major scandal or sudden downward shock to Iowa’s economy, to derail the governor and elect state Sen. Jack Hatch. Even a key Democratic campaign donor has contributed to Branstad and said he has no doubt about the election’s outcome.

“There’s no way Jack Hatch or anyone can beat the governor, and I’m a Democrat,” said Bill Knapp, Sr., a wealthy Des Moines real estate company founder who was a leading donor for Iowa’s past two winning Democratic governors. “He’s doing a good job and I don’t think Hatch or anyone else can beat him.”

Knapp has contributed $40,000 to Branstad’s 2014 campaign, including $10,000 two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, the day after the Iowa primary election, Branstad began airing a television ad focused on Iowa’s declining unemployment, recent reductions in property taxes and funding increases for teacher salaries. Branstad, who left his position as Des Moines University presidency to run for governor in 2010 after 12 years out of office, also launched a statewide road trip Wednesday.

Branstad is among several Republicans in the upper Midwest who replaced Democratic governors in 2011. Unlike the others in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, Branstad didn’t have the luxury of one-party control of the Legislature, as Democrats had a majority in the Senate.

As they seek re-election, Branstad appears in the best position among those governors - John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

All of them enacted strict spending restraints upon taking office, dealing with severe revenue declines as the recession hit tax revenue. For Branstad, that meant working with legislators to resolve Iowa’s structural deficit of $900 million, out of a budget of roughly $6 billion.

“Hatch will have to make a compelling argument that there is a reason to replace Terry Branstad, with unemployment down thirty percent and Iowa in strong fiscal health,” Branstad’s campaign manager Jake Ketzner said. “That will be a hard sell for him to make.”

Hatch, of Des Moines, could have a difficult time even making that argument, as Branstad begins the general election campaign with $4.7 million on hand, a 19-to-1 cash advantage over Hatch. Hatch had said he needed to raise $1 million by the end of 2013 to be considered viable. Yet, approaching halfway through 2014, he had raised just $574,000, including a $140,000 loan from himself and a personal contribution of $40,000.

“I think there’s a skepticism of whether any Democrat can beat Gov. Branstad. But it’s something we’ve seen coming for a long time,” Hatch spokesman John Hedgecoth said. “The core of it is we know we have a challenge and we will be competitive.”

At this stage, it’s not clear if Hatch can count on help from the Democratic Governors Association, which contributed $2.3 million to Culver’s losing campaign in 2010. The group had no plans to spend money in Iowa as of last week, although spokesman Danny Kanner confirmed that the group had reserved millions in advertising time for the Michigan race, where Snyder narrowly leads former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer. Kanner also noted that the group had to date not reserved time in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine, where the incumbent Republican governors are face competitive challenges.

In describing his goals for a sixth term, Branstad speaks broadly about improving the state’s economy and ensuring fiscal solvency in government.

His detractors argue he needs to give voters more of a reason to re-elect him.

A year ago, a Quinnipiac University poll found 51 percent of Iowa voters approve of Branstad’s performance, compared to 33 who didn’t. But asked whether he’d been governor long enough - first serving from 1983 to 1999, then back in 2011 - 54 percent said it was time to give someone else a chance.

Former state Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky of Iowa City said questions about settlements for laid-off employees that included confidentiality agreements were among issues that could lead to political problems for Branstad between now and November.

“Is it an uphill climb? Of course,” Dvorsky said. “But our system was never intended to carry an executive indefinitely.”

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