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Vilsack decision opens “the floodgates” for other candidates; state treasurer ponders race

A long-time Iowa Democratic operative says Tom Vilsack’s decision to remain as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture rather than run for governor in 2014 opens the door for other Democrats who’ve been thinking about the race.

“I think this does open the floodgates,” says Jeff Link, who heads a consulting firm based in Des Moines. “Now that the (legislative) session is over and Secretary Vilsack has made his intentions known, I think for anyone who’s been thinking about running for governor, it’s time to stop thinking and start acting.”

State Representative Tyler Olson, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids who is serving as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, has said he’s considering the idea of running for congress or for governor in 2014. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs said last week he’ll decide by the end of this summer whether he’ll run for governor. State Senator Jack Hatch of Des Moines says today’s announcement from Vilsack doesn’t change his plan to go on a three-month “listening tour” around the state before making a final decision about running for governor.

“But it certainly reinforces that Iowa Democrats are going to have new choices…in a primary,” Hatch says, “that there are going to be a couple of good candidates and that I look forward to a campaign of ideas.”

Democrat Michael Fitzgerald has won eight terms as state treasurer, but he may try to move his name up the statewide ballot in 2014.

“I’m seriously considering running for governor,” Fitzgerald told Radio Iowa this afternoon. “That means I’m talking to my family and friends and supporters. I’ve had a number a folks talk to me about it and so I’m giving it full consideration.”

Fitzgerald won his first, four-year term as state treasurer in 1982.

“I’ve served in state government for 30 years,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m passionate about state government. I care a lot about what happens to the state of Iowa.”

Fitzgerald is a native of Marshalltown who worked as a marketing analyst for Massey Ferguson for eight years before being elected state treasurer. Fitzgerald says by comparison, a race for governor would be run on a “much larger scale” with “high intensity” on a wide range of issues.

“I have run statewide,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m talking to the same good old Iowans and, hopefully, when they’ve trusted their money with me, maybe they’ll seriously consider me in a larger fashion.”

Joe Shannahan, an Iowa political consultant who worked as Vilsack’s communications director for three years, predicts Democrats will have a “healthy” primary to pick the party’s nominee for governor.

“I’m just not certain at what point we’ll have a frontrunner,” Shannahan says.

Link suggests the Democratic gubernatorial primary will be a sort of “jump ball” and a lack of statewide name recognition won’t be a hindrance to the candidates, just as it wasn’t an impediment to Tom Vilsack in 1998.

“The Vilsack analogy is a good one because when he announced everyone expected Governor Lightfoot to waltz into the office in 1998 basically unchallenged and, you know, this unknown state senator from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, threw a wrench in the works and became governor,” Link says, “so I think we could be in a very similar situation in 2014.”

Republican Terry Branstad has been raising money and is expected to seek a sixth term as governor in 2014. No other Iowa governor has served longer than Branstad and, if he does win a sixth term, Branstad would become the nation’s longest-serving governor.

“Should Governor Branstad decide to run again, he is confident his record of job creation, balanced budgets and educational reform will stand strong against any opponent,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said in a written statement. “The governor will not be outworked, and looks forward to sharing that story with Iowans in the months to come.”