Next year’s campaign in Iowa Senate district 37 will be closely watched statewide and may draw some national attention. Republican State Representative Kent Sorenson has decided to challenge first-term Senator Staci Appel instead of seeking re-election to Iowa House district 74. The socially conservative Sorenson made a splash this summer with his open letter imploring Senator Chuck Grassley to provide "principled and bold leadership" to advance the Republican Party platform. Appel is assistant Senate majority leader and chairs the State Government Committee. Her husband is one of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices who unanimously struck down our Defense of Marriage Act in April.
Republican blogger Craig Robinson is upbeat about Sorenson’s chances.
My opinion on this matchup hasn’t changed since Robinson first discussed the prospect in May: Bring it on.
Here’s Robinson’s case for Sorenson as a strong challenger:
In 2008, Sorenson defeated State Representative Mark Davitt by 163 votes. Sorenson’s victory surprised many Republican insiders that year. Since his campaign wasn’t on their radar as a potential pick-up, Sorenson was left to himself to orchestrate a winning campaign. With the help of a dedicated volunteer base, Sorenson pulled off the upset of the night when he sent Rep. Davitt home after serving three terms in the Iowa House.
Sorenson will not be flying under the radar in his race against Staci Appel. This time around, he finds himself as one of the top recruits for Senate Republicans. Making things more intriguing is that the Sorenson-Appel match-up will be ground-zero for the gay marriage debate in Iowa. Sorenson is an unabashed supporter of traditional marriage. Appel is one of the most liberal members of the Senate and is also married to one of the Iowa Supreme Court Justices who ran roughshod over Iowa’s marriage laws.
Despite raising huge amounts of money for her campaign in 2006, Appel only won her seat by 772 votes. Her opponent in 2006 was relatively unknown and underfunded. Sorenson brings a number of attributes to the race. First, Sorenson already represents half of the district. The part of the district that he already represents is the most difficult for a Republican candidate to win. Second, Sorenson has shown that he has the determination to do what’s necessary to win. While some candidates look for help from the day they are recruited, Sorenson and his crew of volunteers work tirelessly at the grassroots level.
Another factor to consider is that Sorenson and Steve Deace, the afternoon drive radio host on WHO Radio, are good friends and share a similar worldview. While many Republican candidates are hesitant to go on Deace in the Afternoon, Sorenson has embraced it. Deace will have to offer Sen. Appel air time as Election Day nears, but there is no chance she would walk into that studio and sit across the table from Deace. Sorenson’s access to WHO Radio’s listeners will help him counter the fundraising edge that many people expect Appel to have.
Appel faced a “relatively unknown and underfunded” opponent in 2006 because her strong fundraising and hard work on the ground scared Republican incumbent Doug Shull out of seeking re-election. She won by “only” 772 votes at a time when Iowa Democrats did not have the large voter registration advantage over Republicans that they now enjoy. Four years ago, Appel was a community volunteer seeking elective office for the first time. Now she chairs a Senate committee and has plenty of achievements under her belt.
I give credit to Sorenson for his narrow victory in House district 74 last November. It shocked and disappointed Iowa Democrats and prevented us from passing some important bills during this year’s legislative session. But as Robinson himself acknowledges, Sorenson is not going to be an under-the-radar challenger next year.
He now has a public record that he lacked as a first-time candidate in 2008. Sorenson was an early endorser of Bob Vander Plaats for governor. As the GOP primary unfolds, more and more Iowans will learn about Vander Plaats’ unworkable plan to halt gay marriage as well as his other wacky policy ideas. Sorenson appears to be ignorant about the separation of powers, as his clerk in the Iowa House erroneously told the Warren County recorder that she did not need to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.
This summer, Sorenson criticized Chuck Grassley for not being staunchly conservative enough and not flatly ruling out a compromise over health care reform. That will put him out of step with many moderates. Grassley’s approval rating has fallen this year, and the Des Moines Register’s recent statewide poll showed that “52 percent of Iowans would rather see Grassley compromise with Democrats than walk away from the [health care reform] negotiations. Thirty-nine percent would rather see him drop out of the talks than support proposals he disagrees with.”
Sorenson is willing to take his message to voters’ doorsteps, but Appel’s a hard worker with years of experience canvassing this district.
I’m not convinced that Sorenson will benefit much from WHO drive-time host Steve Deace’s assistance. Deace tends to go on the warpath against insufficiently right-wing Republicans (like John McCain), and next fall the GOP nominee for governor may be on his hit list. Deace has a big audience, but I think his blessing will only emphasize how far Sorenson is outside the Iowa mainstream.
Finally, I doubt Sorenson will get much traction against Appel on the same-sex marriage issue. The Varnum v Brien decision was unanimous; it’s not as if Justice Brent Appel cast the deciding vote on the Supreme Court. A barrage of television ads highlighting gay marriage didn’t win the day for the Republican candidate in the Iowa House district 90 special election. The Register’s recent statewide poll indicates that Iowans are not eager to vote for a constitutional amendment to overturn marriage equality. If public opinion trends in Vermont and Massachusetts are any guide, Iowans are likely to be more tolerant of same-sex marriage a year from now than they are today.
Appel will have to work hard against Sorenson, but I am confident that she will be able to bring this race home, with the help of a strong coordinated campaign by the Iowa Democratic Party.
Sorenson’s decision to run against Appel improves Democratic prospects in the Iowa House next year. Republicans have just about zero chance of taking back the majority in the Iowa Senate (where they hold only 18 of the 50 seats), but the GOP has more realistic pickup opportunities in the House (where they hold 44 seats out of 100). Sorenson has just given Democrats an excellent chance of winning back House district 74, which would make the hill steeper to climb for Republicans. Mark Davitt will decide this fall whether to run for his old House seat again. I would like to hear from Bleeding Heartland readers about other strong potential candidates. (UPDATE: According to Bleeding Heartland user MrScarletW, Scott Ourth is running in House district 74. Here’s a short bio on Ourth.)
Incidentally, State Representative Jodi Tymeson of House district 73 (the more Republican-leaning half of Senate district 37) has announced that she will not seek re-election next year either. That’s another open seat for the GOP to defend and another sign that Republicans are not confident about their chances to win back the Iowa House.
Final note for political trivia buffs: I’ll wager that Iowa Senate district 37 will be the country’s only state legislative race next year in which both major-party candidates have six children.
Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.