Nussle, in Iowa, tapping into statewide Bush organization

The massive grassroots organization that President Bush deployed last year to pry Iowa away from the Democrats is gravitating toward Rep. Jim Nussle’s gubernatorial campaign, top state Republicans say. Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa) is retiring after two terms.

The massive grassroots organization that President Bush deployed last year to pry Iowa away from the Democrats is gravitating toward Rep. Jim Nussle’s gubernatorial campaign, top state Republicans say.

Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa) is retiring after two terms.

Doug Gross, the president’s finance chairman in Iowa and a former candidate for governor, called Nussle (R-Iowa) “the presumptive nominee,” saying that “the more mainstream people, the establishment Republicans, the Republicans who were part of the president’s team will gravitate toward” the congressman.

The Speaker of the state House of Representatives, Christopher Rants (R), said that since Gross exited the race last month many key Bush supporters have coalesced around Nussle. Gross said he has not endorsed Nussle or his primary rival, Bob Vander Plaats, the president of MVP Leadership, a Sioux City consulting firm.

Leading Republicans working for Nussle include Andrew Dorr, who worked for Bush last year and is now the congressman’s political director; Marlys Popma, the acting political director of the state GOP and a prominent voice on the Christian right; and Vicky Vermaat, a well-known GOP activist who campaigned for Bush in 2000 and formerly worked for Rep. Tom Latham (R), Rants said.

The Iowa campaign network employed by the president includes ground troops in all of the state’s approximately 3,000 precincts, Gross said. Those people — local officials, party volunteers and activists from the anti-abortion and gun-rights communities — can help turn out a huge cache of voters on Election Day.

Iowa backed Al Gore in 2000, giving the vice president 49 percent of the vote compared to Bush’s 48 percent. Last year, Bush eked out a victory in the state over Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry.

“The get-out-the-vote effort that they pulled out in Iowa … was phenomenal as far as voter contacts,” Rants said of the Bush campaign operatives. “They made something like a million contacts with independents.” Referring to the GOP primary, Rants said he is “leaning a certain way, but I haven’t made that public yet.”

Vermaat suggested that many Republicans are lining up behind Nussle early in the campaign — the primary is more than a year away — because they want the governorship after having been locked out for seven years.

Rant called Vermaat’s support for Nussle significant because Vermaat comes from the northwest corner of the state, which is Vander Plaat’s base as well as Rant’s. Nussle’s 1st District hugs Iowa’s eastern border.

The Sioux City area is a critical GOP bastion for Republicans running statewide, Republicans said. In 2004, Rant noted, the president increased turnout in that part of the state by 10 percent.

Vander Plaats countered that, because the Bush campaign included so many Iowans, both campaigns have plenty of Bush supporters. Vander Plaats observed that De Byerly, the coordinator of the president’s grassroots operation in 2004, is backing him.

“We have all 99 counties already organized, and we’re out doing the fundraising,” Vander Plaats said. Referring to Nussle, he added: “I think probably our biggest difference is I come from a real-world experience … whereas Jim comes from a very political background. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m just saying it’s very different.”

Nick Ryan, who is heading Nussle’s gubernatorial effort, said the campaign would bring together seasoned organizers. He added that Nussle will announce his campaign plans “in the spring.”

Several Democrats, meanwhile, are considering a bid, said Mike Milligan, the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. Those Democrats include Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver; Department of Economic Development Director Mike Blouin; Greg Connell, the mayor of Shenandoah, in southwest Iowa; and state Rep. Ed Fallon of Des Moines, Milligan said.

In a sign of how Democrats plan to run against Nussle, should he win the GOP nomination, Milligan blamed the House Budget Committee chairman for “running a national deficit as far as the eye can see. It’s just hanging like a hundred-ton noose around our neck.”

Nussle’s impending retirement from the House gives Democrats a chance to pick up the 1st District seat in Iowa’s traditionally Democratic-leaning eastern flank.

Possible Republican retirees who also could open the way for a strong Democratic challenge include Reps. Henry Hyde (Ill.), who faces health problems; Mark Kennedy (Minn.), who is preparing to run for the Senate; Katherine Harris (Fla.), who is considering a Senate run; Bill Young (Calif.), the immediate past House Appropriations Committee chairman; and Bob Beauprez (Colo.), who has been mentioned as interested in running for governor, a House Democratic source said.

In the wake of an election cycle in which nearly every incumbent was returned to office, vacancies are increasingly viewed as both parties’ best chances for winning seats.