DES MOINES – State Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll, a self-described conservative who has run unopposed for the better part of a decade in a politically mixed district, says he will bring a straightforward, bridge-building style to his now official campaign for governor.
After months of speculation about a possible gubernatorial bid, Roberts this week announced the formation of an exploratory committee in a news conference at the state capitol in Des Moines. About 150 people attended the event, which was covered by major television, radio and print reporters – as well as political bloggers.
“I can’t think of a time personally, just in terms of my own reflection, when there have been so many people, who are unhappy, dismayed and upset with the way things are, particularly when it comes to leadership and decisions that are made on their behalf by leaders in state government,” Roberts said.
As the Republican Party nationally and statewide seeks to recover from electoral thrashings in 2008, Roberts and his supporters are positioning the ordained evangelical pastor as a candidate who can maintain the Christian right base – with his biography and voting record – while reaching out to more moderate voters.
“I really believe that Rod has that Reagan-esque characteristic where he can hold to his principles, he can communicate those principles in a positive way, and at the same time reach out to the independents and the conservative and Reagan Democrats,” said State Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, in an interview. “That’s what it’s going to take. Rod has the demeanor and he has the personality to do just that.”
The crowd at Roberts’ announcement included many family and friends, and a number of people from Carroll. The Roberts audience also represented a cross-section of the Iowa Republican Party as rural Christian conservatives mixed with prominent business-first GOP leaders from Des Moines.
“Rod is a person who can disagree with you and then not demonize you,” Carroll attorney Art Neu, a former lieutenant governor, said in an interview. “We have too much of that going on, and in the Republican Party as well. If you disagree with somebody on some of the key issues you are immediately demonized or harassed. I think Rod is the kind of a man who can disagree with you and you’ll have a rational discussion.”
A key selling point in the Roberts argument for his candidacy is the fact that he’s done exceptionally well as a Republican in a district that is historically Democratic and now peopled largely by independents. Roberts Iowa House District 51 includes all of Carroll County and parts of Sac County and Crawford County.
Of the registered voters in the dominant county, Carroll, only 21 percent are Republicans. Thirty-six percent of Carroll County voters are Democrats and the growing block is made up of independents, who are now 44 percent of registered voters here.
Roberts described himself as a native Iowan who is “friendly and approachable” to those with whom he disagrees. But Roberts said there are certain principles on which he will not compromise.
“I also believe friends in protecting the life of the unborn,” Robert said. “I also believe in the traditional definition of marriage.”
Roberts received among the most sustained applause of his announcement for that line.
Roberts believes Iowans should be able to vote on a constitutional amendment that would change the practical effect of the April state Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage.
According to Project Vote Smart, Roberts has had 100 rankings from the Iowa Right To Life Committee on abortion issues in recent legislative sessions.
“In other areas I can be very open and certainly receptive to all kinds of people coming to together,” he said.
Before making his announcement, standing behind a podium with the campaign slogan “Roberts For Governor,” the five-term Carroll Republican filed papers with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to switch his legislative apparatus into one for a gubernatorial campaign.
“I have spoken with countless Iowans who have told me that Iowa needs a change in leadership and a change in direction for our state,” Roberts said.
Roberts, who has traveled the state extensively in recent months, says he thinks Iowans are hungering to hear the truth from their leaders, no matter how bad the news may be.
“I will be real with the people of Iowa,” Robert said. “Iowans expect their governor to be upfront, candid, transparent, and willing to be forthright about the condition of our state and the challenges that we face. People want truth and transparency.”
Roberts has said in earlier interviews that he planned to make budgetary and economic issues central to his campaign, saying his “chief priority” is to see that Iowans’ tax dollars are spent wisely.
“I will be as careful with your money as I am with my own money and I am very careful with my money,’ Roberts said.
Roberts, 51, has served as statewide development director for the Christian churches/Churches of Christ. Roberts and his wife, Trish, have two grown children, Brett and Lindsey, and four grandchildren. Roberts was born in Waverly, grew up in Zearing and has resided in Carroll since 1985.
Although Roberts is an assistant minority in the Iowa House, he’s not been in the statewide spotlight much. Now he’s under the lights of what is expected to be a spirited gubernatorial primary race.
“I thought he handled himself very well,” Neu said. “He was very articulate, bright. It was a good opening statement. I can’t conceive him doing my better.”
Neu, who was in attendance at the announcement in Des Moines, said he’s worked closely with Roberts on a number of local matters.
“I think he’s off to a good start but it’s going to be a long, long, long race and there are so many people that are looking at it,” Neu said. “I think he’s got a chance at it. It’s worth the risk.”
Des Moines businessman and former Iowa GOP co-chairman David Oman, who is not supporting any candidate at this early juncture of the campaign, said Roberts clearly is prepared for prime time in Iowa.
“He was ready and he delivered a very good announcement,” Oman said. “He handled the questions with good answers. He spoke to what Iowans are talking about. He introduced himself in a very sincere, modest, humble way. But he has a quiet confidence about himself. I thought the announcement went very well.”
Oman said Roberts is a “very strong addition” to a Republican primary field that is expected to include Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats, the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006 who is making his third run for Terrace Hill, State Rep. Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, State Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, State Sen. Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, the Senate Republican leader, and Cedar Rapids businessman and party activist Christian Fong.
While many in the party are waiting to see how the field shakes out over what will be nearly a year before the June GOP primary, State Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, is already in the Roberts camp.
Kaufmann, who has served with Roberts for five years in the legislature, says Iowa Republicans must have a candidate who can earn voters outside the conservative base within the party.
“He can unite the moderates and the conservatives and I’ve seen it happen a million times,” Kaufmann said. “Part of it is personality. Part of it is trust. Part of it is his realization that we have to have a big tent in order to win.”
Kaufmann said Roberts has an intangible political quality that is important in the modern media age as well.
“He looks like a governor, he acts like a governor, he just as well be governor,” Kaufmann said. “I feel very strongly.”
In making the announcement with the slogan: “Roberts for a Better Iowa,” the campaign released the following information on staff and supporters:
Roberts campaign manager will be Frank Severino of Urbandale. Severino has worked on the successful campaign of Iowa Republican Auditor Dave Vaudt. Additionally, he worked with 1998 GOP gubernatorial candidate David Oman as well as the Iowa presidential campaign effort of Jack Kemp, the late New York congressman who was Sen. Robert Dole’s vice presidential running mate in 1996.
Tami Lehmann of Carroll will be Roberts’ treasurer. His communications director is Diana Clay of Clive.
The campaign’s key supporters or surrogates at this point are:
Carroll attorney and former Iowa lieutenant governor Art Neu.
State Rep. Jeff Kaufmann of Wilton.
Wayne Seaman of Carroll, retired general manager of West Central Cooperative.
Steve Siemens of Des Moines, CEO of Siemens People Builders.
Chuck Gorsch of West Burlington, a retired trucking executive.
Martin Graber of Fort Madison, financial advisor.
Tony Liston of Davenport, pastor.
James Romer of Ames.