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Iowa GOP zero in on wealth of Democratic governor candidate

Iowa Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell speaks during an Iowa Primary night rally with supporters, Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Fred Hubbell, a former life insurance executive whose family wealth dates back to the mid-1800s, won the Democratic nomination Tuesday and will face Gov. Kim Reynolds in November.

Posted: Jun 8, 2018 6:35 AM
Updated: Jun 8, 2018 6:53 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For a Republican Party that celebrates capitalism and the American dream of building wealth, the GOP's initial line of attack against the new Iowa Democratic nominee for governor appears a bit out of character.

Fred Hubbell, a former life insurance executive whose family wealth dates back to the mid-1800s, won the Democratic nomination Tuesday and will face Gov. Kim Reynolds in November. Almost immediately, Reynolds and party leaders questioned how voters could trust a candidate who was born rich and later served in leadership roles at several companies. Hubbell's family businesses in Des Moines include ties to real estate and insurance.

"The issue isn't that Fred Hubbell has been rich his entire life, it's that he has no idea what it's like not to be," said Reynolds during her election night speech. "He has no idea what it's like to balance a family checkbook or to make the tough decisions most of us make each and every day when we're trying to make ends meet."

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann has chimed in by repeatedly referring to Hubbell, 67, as "Prince Frederick." On election night, the party posted a photo-shopped image of Hubbell on its Facebook page as the Monopoly board game mascot, with a top hat, monocle and bags of money surrounding him.

Never mind that Reynolds and Iowa GOP party leaders are big supporters of President Donald Trump, a rich businessman who surrounds himself with conspicuous wealth at his lavish properties such as Mar-a-Lago. In the Iowa governor's race between a woman of modest means and a man who donated nearly $3 million of his own money toward his primary race, the GOP so far is zeroing in on personal wealth.

It's a strategy tried before as more rich candidates run for office from both parties, many of them also funneling millions of dollars to fund their own campaigns. In neighboring Illinois, for example, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire member of the family that founded Hyatt hotels, has put more than $100 million of his own money into his bid to unseat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a wealthy former private equity investor. When he won in 2014, Rauner was accused of trying to buy the election.

Jesse Dougherty, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, said they're trying to show a clear contrast between Hubbell and the 58-year-old Reynolds. The former county treasurer was elected lieutenant governor and elevated to governor in May 2017 when Terry Branstad became U.S. ambassador to China under Trump. She's now seeking a full term.

Reynolds grew up in a rural Iowa community with less than 1,000 people, once worked at a grocery store and waitressed for the Younkers retail store chain — which Hubbell headed as company chairman.

"Hubbell doesn't understand Iowa because he's never shared the same experience as everyday Iowans — he's never walked a day in their shoes, and he never will," Dougherty said.

Troy Price, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, said the GOP is taking personal attacks against Hubbell, and his party will instead focus on Reynolds' work alongside Branstad and at the helm of state government, adding: "We're going to continue to talk about facts and talk about record."

Reynolds signed into law what is considered the nation's strictest abortion law — banning most abortions around six weeks of pregnancy. Hubbell is a former board member of Planned Parenthood and strong supporter of abortion rights. Hubbell has promised to undo the abortion ban and reverse the state's privatized Medicaid program amid reports of reduced services.

Hubbell has also been critical of Reynolds signing into law more than $2 billion in tax cuts over several years, though he says he won't undo them now because they're in effect. Republicans argue Hubbell has been inconsistent on the issue.

Rachel Paine Caufield, a Drake University professor of political science, said Reynolds believes she has a small town story that Iowa voters can relate to, citing U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, who won a five-way primary in 2014 and garnered national attention for running an ad about castrating hogs.

Caufield said Reynolds is aiming to show the public someone "who's just been really fortunate and worked her way up, worked hard, connects with average everyday Iowans."

For Hubbell, his family's wealth can be traced back to Frederick M. Hubbell, the candidate's great-great grandfather. The elder Hubbell was often referred to as the wealthiest man in Iowa, according to biographical information maintained by the University of Iowa. The elder Hubbell created an estate trust for his family that was eventually valued at about $200 million.

The family owned an ornate residence called Terrace Hill, and gave it to the state as the governor's mansion in the early 1970s — meaning that if he wins, Hubbell could move into a home that once belonged to his ancestors.

Hubbell has tried to flip the script in part by highlighting his years of philanthropy. It includes roles in multiple organizations that have focused on the environment, health care and higher education. At a debate last month, he said Iowa residents are less concerned with where a politician grew up and his or her wealth than knowing whether that public official cares about them.

"Do you listen to them? Are you going to help improve their lives?" he said. "Or you just talking about it, but you never do anything?"

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