DES MOINES - With the first phase of his political comeback complete thanks to his decisive win in Tuesday's GOP primary, Republican Terry Branstad now is setting his sights on Democrat Chet Culver.
Branstad, a former four-term governor who is now the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee, promised a cheering post-primary celebration at his campaign headquarters that "change is coming" to state government following his solid victory over Republican rivals Bob Vander Plaats of Sioux City and Rod Roberts of Carroll in a hotly contested primary battle.
For his part, Culver, who had no primary opposition is his bid for a second term, said he was looking forward to facing Branstad in the Nov. 2 general election.
With 100 percent of 1,873 precincts reporting in unofficial results, Branstad, 63, of rural Boone, held a comfortable lead with 50.4 percent of the Republican ballots, while challengers Vander Plaats, 47, a Sioux City business consultant making his third bid to become governor, garnered 40.9 percent and Roberts polled 8.8 percent.
Early returns showed a fairly tight race, but Branstad slowly pulled away as the night progressed, stretching his winning cushion to about 21,500 votes.
The more than 227,000 Republicans who cast ballots in the governor's race was the highest turnout since 2002, when just under 200,000 participated, but fell short of the 312,475 votes cast in 1994 - the last time Branstad was on a primary ballot. Vander Plaats' second-place finish with an unofficial total of 92,759 votes bested his previous tally of 63,077 ballots he received in the 2002 GOP primary, when he came in third.
After conceding defeat Tuesday night, Vander Plaats said he planned to meet with Branstad at some future time to discuss their differences with "the hope and goal" to unify the Republican Party. Leaders of at least one key group that backed the Sioux City Republican had indicated they will advise their members to sit out the November election now that Branstad is the GOP nominee.
Tuesday's gubernatorial balloting was viewed as a clash among the party's business-oriented conservatives and centrists who backed Branstad and the religious, social and tea party conservatives who primarily split their support between Vander Plaats and Roberts, 52, a five-term state representative making his first run at statewide office.
"Tonight we stand united to move Iowa in the right direction," Branstad told a raucous celebration at his campaign headquarters.
"Tonight Iowa Republicans have decided that our state is ready for a comeback, and I'm ready to lead that change," he added. "We did it before and we can do it again."
Branstad, who previously served four terms as Iowa governor from 1983 to 1999, announced in October he was stepping down as president of Des Moines University to re-enter the political arena with hopes of defeating Culver in the fall and charting a new course of fiscal responsibility by cutting corporate and property taxes, easing business regulations to grow private-sector jobs, raising Iowans' income levels, and shrinking state government.
The Boone County lawyer, who previously served as a state representative and lieutenant governor, successfully won his 11th straight contested election by amassing more than $3 million in campaign contributions. He used that fundraising advantage to fend off criticism from Vander Plaats and from a separate outside group led by a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman produced commercials and mailings attacking him as a liberal for raising taxes and growing government during his previous stint as governor.
During the campaign, Vander Plaats focused on the marriage issue as the defining difference in the race, noting that he was the only candidate who pledged that on his first day in office he would issue an executive order to halt same-sex marriages legalized via an Iowa Supreme Court decision until the Legislature addressed the issue or authorized a public vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman. He said he believed he would pull a surprise upset because Iowans were looking for fresh, bold leadership.
Branstad succeeded in bucking an anti-political establishment mood by touting his experience and leadership skills that drew endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the state's largest tax relief organization.
Vander Plaats countered with endorsements from an array of social conservatives, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee - winner of the 2008 GOP presidential caucuses -- author and radio commentator James Dobson and action-movie star and martial arts champion Chuck Norris. However, the surprise upset he predicted in run up to Tuesday's voting fell short.
Roberts ran a relatively low-key campaign given his difficulty in raising money once Branstad declared his candidacy. He focused on his ability to draw independents and conservative Democrats with his mild-mannered style on building consensus.