As of today, Terry Branstad is the nation’s longest-serving governor. Today is Branstad’s 7,642nd day as governor. He’s run a total of 19 successful primary and general election campaigns in Iowa.
Like many politicians, Branstad has adhered to the “always run like you’re 10 points behind” mantra. Many of the people who’ve been involved in Branstad’s campaigns say he always stresses that “the harder you work, the better your luck.”
But it’s this piece of advice many cite as crucial to the Branstad formula: “Say you go to a tough county that you’ve never won before and so you try to get somebody that doesn’t know that it can’t be done. So you recruit ’em and you get all ’em all fired up and they go out and do what no one has done before — because they don’t know that it can’t be done.”
Branstad says as he launched his first statewide race in 1978, he attended a candidate school in Milwaukee where he learned to “set specific vote goals.”
“Then recruit people that will work for you based on those goals, so it might be a really tough precinct where a Republican only gets an average of 30 percent of the vote, so your goal might be 35 percent in that precinct,” Branstad says. “Then you go to another precinct where a Republican gets 70 percent of the vote and your goal there might be 75 percent. Then the people that are in those tough precincts or tough counties where they almost always lose aren’t be demoralized. If they’ve done a great job and they’ve exceeded expectations, they need to know it.”
Branstad’s late mother was a member of the Democratic Central Committee in Winnebago County.
“She was a very strong woman and she had a big influence on me,” Branstad says. “…She said: ‘Get a good education because they can’t take that away from you.'”
While Branstad’s mother may have planted the seeds, Branstad credits his eighth grade teachers for inspiring him to choose politics as a career. Once he got elected, Branstad credits “a lot of different people” with steering him in the right direction.
“Berl Priebe was my senator. I learned a lot from him,” Branstad says of the late state senator, who was a Democrat from Algona. “Bob Ray, my predecessor as governor, I learned a lot from him. I admired Lamar Alexander who, when I first became governor, was governor of Tennessee and now is a senator from Tennessee.”
In 1983, when Branstad first took over as Iowa’s governor, he was the nation’s youngest governor. Today, there is only one governor in the country who is older. Branstad says the speed of politics today is dramatically faster than when he started, due to social media.
“I’m kind of an old dog,” Branstad says, laughing, “and I learned a long time ago you can’t do this by yourself and you need to surround yourself with capable, talented people and certainly the new thing that is so different than from when I was governor before is communications through social media.”
Branstad at one point held a news conference daily during the 1994 campaign and admits he relishes engaging with the news media. Nearly every Monday, Branstad holds a news conference in his statehouse office.
“The press is an important vehicle by which to get your message across to the people,” Branstad says. “…I enjoy the challenge of staying on top of things and, you know, by having a press conference every week you know you’re going to be asked all kinds of questions and you’ve got to be prepared.”
Branstad says his willingness to speak for himself rather than having staff do it for him contributes to his “very high name recognition” in Iowa. His 7642 days in office may have something to do with it, too. Over 1100 people are expected to attend a party tonight on the Iowa State Fairgrounds to mark Branstad’s new status as the nation’s longest serving governor. The money raised from ticket sales will go to the non-profit Branstad has set up to promote Iowa history.
At 10 o’clock Branstad will be in his formal office at the capitol for an open house for the public.