White Ghost, the 12-foot fiberglass statue by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, dominates the northwest corner of the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park with its simultaneously sweet and sinister face. 

My friend K.C. stood nearby with an equally vague smile.

“Are you communing with the ghost?” I asked. 

“I’ve been thinking about the ghosts of elections past and why campaigns seem to get nastier every cycle,” he said.

“They get nastier because it works,” I said. “I think it’s written somewhere that you can’t win unless you trash your opponent more than he or she trashes you.”

“There is definitely some truth to that,” said K.C. “Just look at Iowa’s two most successful politicians.” 

“I assume you mean Terry Branstad and Tom Harkin,” I replied. 

Republican Branstad never lost a race for governor, and he ran six times. Democrat Harkin had an even longer tenure in Congress, 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 30 years in the U.S. Senate. 

“And how do you think they did it?” K.C. asked.

“I’ll tell you,” he quickly added. “They did it by belittling their opponents every time they ran.”

I smiled and said: “I remember the Halloween cartoons the Register’s Brian Duffy used to draw of Harkin and Branstad as little kids trick or treating in skunk suits. Those were great cartoons.” 

“It wasn’t always that way,” K.C. said. “There was a time when negative campaigning didn’t work. In fact, it backfired on Curly Hultman in 1964.”

Iowa Attorney General Evan “Curly” Hultman, a Republican, tried to unseat Gov. Harold Hughes the first time he ran for reelection. The tradition back then was for the major candidates to make a final joint appearance before the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce on the Friday before the election. 

“Hultman was trailing in the polls and told the chamber that Hughes had been arrested for drunken driving in 1954 in Florida,” K.C. said. 

“Hughes made no secret of his drinking problems. But he had recently told a magazine writer that he took his last drink in 1952,” K.C. explained.

“Hultman asked how could Hughes have quit drinking in 1952 if he was arrested for drunken driving in 1954?

“Hughes said he must have had the dates confused, or maybe the magazine writer confused them,” K.C. said.

“Anyway, the public gave Hughes the benefit of the doubt, and a lot of people, including many Republicans, came down hard on Hultman for taking a cheap shot.

“Hughes wound up crushing Hultman the following Tuesday. It was a lesson that Iowa politicians of that generation never forgot,” K.C. said. 

“Harkin and Branstad were a different generation,” I said. “Both were experts at finding chinks in their opponent’s armor and hammering away. My favorite was when Branstad ran against Bonnie Campbell in 1994, and he made the fact that she was born in New York sound like a crime.”

“The one that puzzles me,” K.C. said, “is Bruce Braley. He was a bright young Democratic congressman who served four terms in the U.S. House before running for Harkin’s Senate seat when Harkin retired in 2014.  

“He seemed like a shoo-in to replace Harkin, and continue the tradition of Iowa having one senator from each party, which had been the case since Chuck Grassley defeated John Culver in 1980.

“But the Republicans got ahold of a video of Braley asking Texas trial lawyers for money. He told them that if Republicans took over the Senate, Grassley, who Braley said was ‘an Iowa farmer who never went to law school,’ would become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

“Heck,” K.C. said, “Grassley wasn’t even running that year. Joni Ernst was, but Braley made the mistake of attacking Grassley.

“Republicans won the Senate that year and Grassley took over the judiciary committee. The fact that he was a farmer didn’t hurt him, but his lack of fair play handling Supreme Court nominations might have.  

“Grassley was a key player in packing the court with conservative justices, and that’s a big part of the reason he is now in the fight of his life,” K.C. said, bowing to the White Ghost as he walked away.