By Mike Glover
The Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Christian Fong isn’t easily intimidated.
The 32-year-old Cedar Rapids businessman is running for the Republican nomination for governor despite never holding public office and competing against several more experienced candidates, likely including a four-term governor. Then comes the prospect of trying to defeat an incumbent governor, an achievement not accomplished since 1962.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Fong said the key is the “next generation” of younger voters that President Barack Obama energized in his campaign. Those voters, Fong said, view the world outside the prism of traditional party politics, instead thinking more in generational terms.
“We have a very active next-generation vote,” said Fong. “They are largely independents. The key voting block that Republicans ignore at their peril is eastern Iowa independents. If the Republicans lose the independent voting block in eastern Iowa, they lose any statewide election.”
Fong, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and a Nebraska farm mother, graduated from high school in Underwood, a southwest Iowa town of about 800 people near Council Bluffs. He then graduated from Creighton University in Omaha before getting a master’s in business administration from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
He’s an executive with AEGON USA, a Cedar Rapids-based insurance company, and was a leader in the recovery efforts after disastrous flooding hit eastern Iowa last year. He continues to head a program aimed at rebuilding hundreds of flood-damaged homes in the Cedar Rapids area.
He’s among many who have announced their campaigns for the Republican nomination or are considering joining the race. Others include former Gov. Terry Branstad, Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats, state Reps. Christopher Rants of Sioux City and Rod Roberts of Carroll, and state Sens. Jerry Behn of Boone and Paul McKinley of Chariton.
Fong said his campaign is not only based in generational issues, but regional politics as well.
“Two-thirds of Iowans live east of Interstate 35,” said Fong. “My ability to win the next generation vote and the east Iowa independents is unmatched in the Republican field.”
Although Fong has drawn compliments from political strategists, some have also expressed puzzlement about his decision to shoot for the governor’s office in his first try at public office.
“He’s a bright young man and if he labors in the vineyard, so to speak, he could have a future in Republican politics,” said David Roederer, a veteran of Iowa politics who managed John McCain’s campaign in the state. “I would not have advised him to run for governor,”
GOP strategist Eric Woolson agreed.
“He should consider running for another office,” Woolson said. “Everybody makes their own decisions, and he’s got to decide for himself if that will be a hurdle he will be able to clear in terms of making his case for voters.”
Of course, both Roederer and Woolson are aligned with other contenders, Woolson with Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats and Roederer with former Gov. Terry Branstad. The view, however, is shared among some Democrats.
“For most Iowans, he’s a mystery candidate in a large field of fairly unknown candidates,” said Democratic strategist Ron Parker.
The emergence of Branstad as a potential rival has lengthened the odds, Parker said.
“He was a long shot before, and now it’s kind of a moon shot kind of a thing,” said Parker.
None of that appears to faze Fong, who just wrapped up a series of events around the state aimed at getting to know Republican activists.
He describes himself as a social and fiscal conservative, who has called for phasing out the state’s income tax. He also sides with social conservatives on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
“Hopefully, social conservatives will see somebody who believes the way that they do, who holds similar convictions not as a matter of political expediency, but because they are my convictions,” said Fong.
Fong added, though, that the economy would initially be his primary focus as governor.
“When it comes to what you’re going to accomplish in your first four years, the list had better include a lot of economic items. That’s what Iowans are most concerned about,” he said. “If you’ve just lost your job, you’re not as concerned with what is going on next door.”
Fong says he’s been encouraged by the reception he’s received and by his initial campaign fundraising, where he said he’s raised “well over $100,000.”
“I truly am optimistic about Iowa, I wouldn’t be in Iowa if I wasn’t optimistic about Iowa,” said Fong. “With an MBA from Dartmouth, I could be anywhere in the world. It’s just that general sense of optimism.” ♦