How long will Iowa Republicans stand by Kent Sorenson?

State Senator Kent Sorenson has made news lately leading the charge to restore the death penalty for some crimes in Iowa. I wonder whether that popular cause will be enough to save his political career, in light of recent claims by Republicans who have worked closely with him.  

On Friday, The Iowa Republican blog reported on a sworn affidavit from Eric Woolson, who managed Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign in Iowa during 2011. Sorenson was the state chair for Bachmann’s campaign for much of that year before jumping ship to Ron Paul.

In his affidavit, Woolson corroborated former staffer Barb Heki’s claim that Sorenson stole a valued e-mail list from her computer. The Bachmann campaign used the list to contact members of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, a non-profit group uniting mostly socially conservative parents.

NBC News also obtained a copy of Woolson’s affidavit. Heki is suing Bachmann for President and several other former senior staffers and consultants. Woolson was one of the named defendants but “has been removed from the suit,” according to Kevin Hall of The Iowa Republican. He summarized more details from Woolson’s sworn affidavit, indicating that Woolson found out Sorenson took the e-mail list on November 10, 2011, and overheard Bachmann and Heki discussing the incident on January 4, 2012. Heki has said Bachmann told her that Sorenson took the list.

The Urbandale police department is investigating the theft of the list, and Woolson has spoken with the lead investigator. Even if no criminal charges are filed in that case, Heki’s civil lawsuit will likely produce more damaging publicity about Sorenson.

Last month, a former consultant for Bachmann’s presidential campaign asserted in a Federal Elections Commission complaint that Bachmann For President paid Sorenson “$7,500 a month through a third party in an effort to disguise payments.” Iowa legislators are not allowed to be paid by outside political campaigns. If the allegations are accurate, Sorenson earned more working for Bachmann than he received as an Iowa senator ($25,000 annual salary, plus per diem during the legislative session).

Sorenson “vehemently” denies any wrongdoing. For now, the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee has not taken any action against him. By statute, that committee includes three Democrats and three Republicans. I wouldn’t be surprised to see members give Sorenson a pass on concealing payments from a presidential campaign, since technically, Sorenson was paid by a Colorado-based firm. (Sorenson denies receiving compensation from the company mentioned in the FEC complaint.)

A credible accusation of theft is something different. Woolson has been around Iowa politics for a long time. Heki may be able to provide other corroborating witnesses in her civil suit.

Sorenson has faced criminal charges before, but has said, “At that point in my life, I was a different person.” His criminal record was not widely known during his 2008 campaign for the Iowa House, nor did Democrats make it a central issue during the 2010 Iowa Senate race between Sorenson and Democratic incumbent Staci Appel. Sorenson’s official page on the Iowa Senate Republican website doesn’t include any biographical information.

However, prominent Republicans now allege that during 2011, Sorenson participated in a theft and evaded rules against taking a salary from a campaign. Those charges could well be a factor when Sorenson faces re-election in Iowa Senate district 13 in 2014. Covering Madison County and most of Warren County, this seat should be an easy Republican hold, especially in a midterm election year. As of February 2013, Senate district 13 contained 13,457 registered Democrats, 15,076 Republicans, and 15,568 no-party voters. I’ve posted a map of the district below.

Republicans hope to win back the Iowa Senate majority in 2014, but they don’t have as many good Democratic targets as they had in 2012. They certainly can’t afford to lose a seat like Senate district 13, especially when a couple of other Republican incumbents may face tough challenges (namely Mark Chelgren in Senate district 41 and Rick Bertrand in Senate district 7).

If I were a Republican, I’d be looking for a new candidate to run in next year’s GOP Senate primary. Sorenson has big fans in the party, especially on the Ron Paul “Liberty” wing, but I would guess that a Republican who hasn’t been accused of theft and questionable ethics would fare better in a general election.

UPDATE: I should have clarified that Peter Waldron filed the ethics complaint against Sorenson. He is the same person who filed the FEC complaint mentioned above.

The Iowa Republican uploaded Waldron’s full ethics complaint to the Iowa Senate here (pdf). It includes Eric Woolson’s sworn affidavit.

Iowa Senate district 13, Iowa Senate district 13, under the redistricting plan adopted in 2011

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