DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad told a debate audience Thursday he has the fire and desire to lead Iowa for a sixth term, while Democratic challenger Jack Hatch said he would offer a “fresh start” in contrast to the Republican’s “scandal-ridden” administration.
In their first face-to-face debate, Hatch, 64, a three-term state senator from Des Moines, and Branstad, 67, the state’s longest-serving governor, traded knocks on infrastructure funding, education reform, gambling regulation and tax policy for an hour before 400 spectators and a statewide television audience at the Iowa State Fair.
Branstad touted successes in his current term of enacting the largest property tax cut in state history, reforming Iowa’s teacher pay system, attracting almost $9 billion in capital investments and new jobs and lowering unemployment.
“I have only just begun,” said Branstad, who vowed to serve a full sixth term if re-elected in the Nov. 4 general election.
However, Hatch painted a different picture of Branstad’s current term — pointing to confidential “hush money” settlement agreements with former state workers, allegations of cronyism in hiring and employment practices, concerns about the objectivity of administrative law judges handling workforce cases, and questionable bidding, purchasing and contracting policies that have dogged the administration.
“This is something that is not in the Iowa values tradition,” said Hatch, who called Branstad’s current term the “most scandal-ridden administration” in the state’s history.
“I think people feel that we need a fresh start,” said Hatch, who was participating in his first televised debate as a statewide candidate. “I think people feel that the governor has been there too long; that the governor is not in charge of his administration.”
Branstad dismissed Hatch’s criticism as “wild accusations” that Iowans know are untrue.
“All these wild accusations he makes. Iowans know better. They know me well. I go to every county every year. They know they’re not true,” he said. “These are just crazy accusations made by somebody who has never really represented the whole state of Iowa.”
Hatch said he would bring a new approach that would include support for increasing the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10, expanding broadband access in Iowa and making needed infrastructure upgrades with the help of a boost in the state gas tax by 10 cents over five years.
Branstad lamented that his “connect every Iowan” broadband initiative failed to win legislative approval last session, but he pledged to come back with a new approach to “connect every acre” that would ensure farmers have the capability they need to operate high-tech equipment in an increasingly competitive market.
Branstad said he is looking for a new way to fund transportation needs, but he did not say what that approach would entail. He also parted ways with GOP legislative candidates seeking to eliminate the state’s personal income tax, saying that proposal is “not realistic.” However, he also rejected Hatch’s plans to raise the state gas tax and revamp the income tax system in a way that would benefit middle-class Iowans at the expense of upper-income brackets.
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“More debt, higher taxes, that’s a typical Democratic approach,” Branstad told reporters after the debate.
Hatch said his GOP opponent wants to “kick the can down the road” regarding infrastructure needs. He also took a shot at Branstad’s excessive use of state tax breaks and other incentives to land a large fertilizer plant in southeast Iowa, saying the governor should withhold a promised $25 million in state help that Branstad said would renege on the deal and shut down jobs in Lee County.
“That was a stupid move, and he’s going to have to debate me in Burlington next, right near where that fertilizer plant is being built,” Branstad said after the debate. “It’s is wildly supported by local officials, both Democrats and Republicans in that part of the state” and would save farmers $740 million a year in fertilizer costs, he said.
After the debate, Branstad’s campaign declared that the governor hit “a home run” with his debate performance, and Branstad told reporters he felt “really good” about the hour-long discussion.
On the opposite side, Hatch campaign manager Grant Woodard described Branstad’s performance as “arrogant, angry and tired” while Hatch said he was surprised by how much the incumbent Republican relied on the blame game as a defense.
“He came out swinging because he’s very defensive, but I don’t think he landed any punches,” Hatch said after the debate. “He blamed everybody else — he blamed Democrats, he blamed the federal government and he blamed bureaucrats. I’m not going to use as an excuse somebody else as a fall guy for my failures, and that’s all that he did today.”