WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — With millions in the bank, solid approval ratings and a record of tax cuts and employment gains, long-serving Gov. Terry Branstad was in an enviable position as he announced Wednesday night that he will run for re-election.
The Republican governor declared his plans to seek an unprecedented sixth term before about 200 supporters in a conference center in West Des Moines. Branstad is already the nation's longest-serving state governor and the race is undoubtedly his to lose.
"It has been an honor to serve as your governor, but there is much more to be done," Branstad said during a brief speech. "I am energized. I am encouraged to dream bigger. I pledge to you that I will work hard always."
Branstad, 67, has been laying the groundwork for a race since last summer. He announced last week that he had just over $4 million in his campaign account at the end of December. During his annual "Condition of the State" speech Tuesday, he boasted about tax cuts, education investments and a decline in unemployment.
"He's in the strongest position I can ever remember," said longtime Branstad adviser Doug Gross.
First elected governor in 1982, Branstad is far and away Iowa's longest-serving chief executive, and one of only two to serve, retire and serve again. He served four terms in office before leaving in early 1999. Branstad then worked in the private sector, including as president of Des Moines University before announcing in 2009 plans to run again. He handily beat incumbent Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and returned to his Capitol office in 2011.
"Four years ago I came back to lead the Iowa comeback and we've done it," Branstad said Wednesday night.
After entering politics as a feisty upstart, Branstad guided the state through the dark days of the farm crisis during his first stint as governor and returned to office portraying himself as a steady fiscal steward after economic decline in 2008. A father of young children when he first took residence in the governor's mansion, today he is a doting grandfather.
A poll released by Quinnipiac University in December showed that 58 percent of registered voters approved of the job Branstad is doing; 32 percent disapproved. That poll of 1,617 voters had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
Still, Iowa Democrats said they weren't conceding. Longtime state Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, is the leading candidate to oppose Branstad and Democrats insisted they have a shot at capturing the governor's office.
"There's no doubt that at this point, Gov. Branstad has the money and the name ID," said Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Troy Price. "It's still 10 months until Election Day."
Hatch, 63, has been billing himself as a progressive alternative to Branstad, with a focus on issues such as raising the minimum wage and increasing college access. He has not announced his 2013 fundraising totals.
So far, the race does not appear to be getting the same attention from national Democratic donors as some other states where the races for governor are more competitive, including Maine, Florida and Pennsylvania. But Hatch said he thinks he can make a case for resources.
"There's no doubt that we have to impress national fundraisers," Hatch said. "I just got into this formally in September. I'm not well known, obviously. We hope by the early summer, we'll be able to have some recognition."
But some said Iowa Democrats may be better served focusing on maintaining their 26-24 majority in the Iowa Senate, where half the seats will be up for re-election in November. Republicans control the state House.
"If they are realistic, their goals aren't defeating him. Their goals ought to be aimed at stopping policy in the next term," said Nick Ayers, who served as executive director of the Republican Governors Association in 2010, when Republican governors replaced Democrats in a band of northern swing states that President Barack Obama carried stretching from Iowa to Pennsylvania.
States where Republicans have taken full control of the legislatures and governor's offices have pushed through conservative agendas on issues such as abortion access and gay marriage.
Branstad is also working to leave a lasting legacy within the Iowa Republican Party, which has come under attack nationally over the past eight years as being disproportionately influenced by the Christian right. Branstad is now trying to get supporters to Iowa's GOP precinct caucuses next week. It's his way of broadening the GOP's base, in light of Republican Mitt Romney losing Iowa in the presidential election last year.