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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 24, 2018

Corbett’s gamble: hoping to fight his own party

By B.A. Morelli, The Gazette | Apr 02, 2018

CEDAR RAPIDS — Ron Corbett envisions winning his appeal, getting on the Republican ballot and defeating Gov. Kim Reynolds in a June primary.

But if his prescience doesn’t come to pass, what will become of the former Cedar Rapids mayor and speaker of the Iowa House?

Corbett said if it comes to that, he would pivot away from politics, at least for now. Ideally, he’d resurrect Engage Iowa, a conservative think tank he formed in 2015 to explore the state’s challenges and raise his profile as he eyed a gubernatorial run. But leading Engage Iowa would require more fundraising, which could prove difficult.

“The first thing is to keep Engage Iowa going, and if that isn’t possible, then I’ll have to make a living like anyone else, so I’ll be looking for something in the private sector,” said Corbett, who has been an executive for the trucking company CRST International and president of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

Last week, a state panel rejected a number of signatures on Corbett’s petition to get on the 2018 ballot, leaving him just eight shy of the 4,005 signatures required.

Some signatures were duplicates. Others were ascribed to the wrong city or county. In a lawsuit challenging the result, Corbett’s campaign argues that names it had crossed off the petition should now be counted.

A ruling — which Corbett said he would honor — could come in the latter part of this week.

His biggest supporters and donors, while disappointed by the panel’s 2-1 vote to boot him from the ballot, stood by their candidate and by their donations to him.

Corbett raised $844,637 in his campaign, largely from business leaders in the Cedar Rapids area, a January filing showed.

“It was a very legitimate mistake. Mistakes happen all the time,” said Dyan Smith, wife of CRST International Chairman John Smith, who donated $100,000. “We are always a big supporter of Ron. He was a wonderful mayor of Cedar Rapids and was very instrumental in bringing the city back from what I consider a brink of total chaos. He has great leadership abilities and whatever he decides to do I would support him.”

Steve Gray, chairman of Gray Venture Partners who has worked to bring a casino to Cedar Rapids, stood by his $50,000 in contributions, noting he invests in people and will not “portend the future yet with Ron.”

“I am not going to criticize Ron or his campaign for what we could have or should have done,” he said.

Randy Ramlo, chief executive and president of the United Fire Group, said he considered the petition problems an “avoidable error,” but has no regrets. He said he will not think less of Corbett because of this.

“Anytime you make a campaign contribution there’s a whole lot of things that can go wrong right up to the person losing in the final election,” said Ramlo, who contributed $15,000. “I guess it ended earlier than I probably would have hoped and wanted, but I am not going to think anything less of Ron Corbett for this, that’s for sure.”

Should the campaign be declared over, Corbett said he plans to prorate and return the $350,000 to $375,000 left in his campaign fund to donors.

“But we are anticipating winning and using it to become governor,” Corbett said.

Some point out that a successful appeal coupled with news coverage of the signature mishap would help raise Corbett’s profile, which has been a challenge since his campaign began. But he’s also likely to face critical questions.

Political insiders have varying opinions on the longer-term impact.

“I don’t think this is the kind of mistake that hurts him long-term,” said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “Some people may say it looks like he is not ready for prime time. It’s an embarrassing thing, but it’s not a big scandal type of situation.”

Doug Gross, a former GOP gubernatorial nominee, said failing to meet the signature threshold could turn off potential donors should he run for office again. But Gross also sees the lack of a GOP primary as bad news for Reynolds, too.

“For her, she was appointed to the position, it was assumed through vacancy rather than an election,” he said. “It would be a benefit for her to win a primary in a decisive way, and sharpen her up. But it looks like the GOP didn’t want a primary challenge.”

Corbett has lamented what he perceived as his party turning his back on him simply because he challenged the incumbent governor.

“I’ve been slugging out the last 10 months going to all 99 counties, going to central committees, and to have it end by my own party throwing me off the ballot is disheartening,” Corbett said.

Two Republicans on the state review panel — Secretary of State Paul Pate and State Auditor Mary Mosiman — voted to keep Corbett off the ballot. The only Democrat on the panel, Attorney General Tom Miller, voted to let Corbett keep taking on Reynolds.

Eric Woolson, a longtime political strategist and founder of Concept Works, had a harsh assessment of how Corbett is handling the setback.

“He always had the brand of being a very credible, very competent, very common sense leader,” Woolson said. “America loves a second act, but I think he has severely damaged his brand because it goes against everything he’s been about. All this time we thought, here’s a leader who gets things done. The Cedar Rapids flood. His time as House speaker, able to get stuff done. And here he is, he can’t get enough signatures to get on the ballot. And instead of saying, ‘We made a mistake. We didn’t get the job done. I’ll look forward to serving in another position in another day,’ he claims it was vast conspiracy to do him in. He just at this point looks ridiculous.”

Within his campaign, Corbett has taken the blame for failing to get enough signatures to withstand a challenge, but he has criticized “the party establishment” for putting up roadblocks.

Corbett acknowledged unexpected struggles in getting signatures, such as being turned away from a rally for Vice President Mike Pence and a snowstorm blanketing the state on caucus night in February.

Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor and department chair at Drake University, said Corbett challenging the incumbent may be the biggest obstacle to a political future.

“The thing that may cause him a problem is not that he misfired on the signatures, but that he was willing and interested to challenge a quasi-incumbent,” Goldford said.

“He’s sort of starting a fight in the family, and obviously people on the Republican side simply because she is the incumbent — many do like her for good positive reasons — but mainly it’s incumbency. She’s the political daughter of (former Gov. Terry) Branstad. So they are supporting her and he is saying, ‘I am not sure of that.’ That, I think, could potentially cause him more trouble in the future, especially if she wins.”

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