Iowa Senate district 28 preview: Mike Breitbach vs. Jan Heikes

Hours after Democrats across the country had begun to celebrate President Barack Obama’s re-election on the night of November 7, 2012, Iowa’s political junkies were still on the edge of our seats, waiting for votes to be reported in the last few state Senate races. Sometime after 1 am, results from Senate district 42 in Iowa’s southeast corner confirmed that Democrats would control at least 26 seats in the upper chamber. For at least two more years, that firewall would stop Republicans from implementing some of the disastrous policies seen in places like Wisconsin, Kansas, or Ohio.

Democrats are still clinging to the ledge with a one-seat Iowa Senate majority. While Republicans have several districts to target in their quest for 26, Democrats have only one obvious pickup opportunity: Senate district 28 in the northeast corner of the state. This race was the "one that got away" four years ago, as former State Representative John Beard fell an agonizing 17 votes short against Republican Mike Breitbach in the battle for an open seat. Now Breitbach has the advantages of incumbency as he seeks re-election against Jan Heikes.

Follow me after the jump for more on this district’s political make-up and voting history, along with background on both candidates and Breitbach’s first television commercial.

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Enter Bleeding Heartland's 2016 Iowa primary election prediction contest

It’s that time of year. For your chance at bragging rights in the Bleeding Heartland community, post a comment in this thread with your answers to the following fifteen questions sometime before 7 am central time on Tuesday, June 7.

Anyone can enter, whether you now live or have ever lived in Iowa. It’s fine to change your mind about some or all of your answers, as long as you post a comment with your new predictions before the deadline.

Only comments posted in this thread will be valid contest entries. Predictions submitted by e-mail or posted on Facebook or Twitter will not be considered. Please try to answer every question, even if it’s just a wild guess. We’re all guessing anyway, since no public polls have been published for most of these races.

Bleeding Heartland user ModerateIADem won this blog’s primary election prediction contests in 2010 and 2012. There was no clear winner two years ago.

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Another Iowa House Republican in a competitive district retires

First-term GOP State Representative Darrel Branhagen announced yesterday that he will retire this year rather than seek another term in Iowa House district 55.

He is the eighth of the 57 House Republicans to announce retirement plans since last summer. The others are Kraig Paulsen (House district 67), Linda Miller (House district 94), John Kooiker (House district 4), Ron Jorgensen (House district 6), Quentin Stanerson (House district 95), Brian Moore (House district 58), and Josh Byrnes (House district 51).

Kooiker’s district is the most solidly Republican in the state. Based on current voter registration numbers, Republicans will be favored to hold House districts 6, 67, and 94. On the other hand, the seats being vacated by Branhagen, Byrnes, Moore, and Stanerson will be strong pickup opportunities for Democrats. Bleeding Heartland previously discussed the political balance and recent voting history of districts 51, 58, and 95.

House district 55 covers most of Winneshiek County (including Decorah), part of Fayette County (including West Union), and a small area in Clayton County (including Elkader). A map is after the jump. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, the district contains 5,539 active registered Democrats, 6,568 Republicans, and 6,499 no-party voters.

President Barack Obama took 55.19 percent of the vote among House district 55 residents in the 2012 general election. Joni Ernst outpolled Bruce Braley here in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, but by 50.28 percent to 45.60 percent, substantially less than her statewide margin of victory.

House district 55 was open for the 2014 general election following the retirement of longtime Democratic State Representative Roger Thomas. Branhagen defeated Democrat Rick Edwards by just 27 votes, the closest Iowa legislative result of the cycle.

Two Democrats had already begun campaigning here before Branhagen made his retirement plans known. I enclose below a press release with background on Pat Ritter, an attorney from West Union who launched his campaign in December. Former Winneshiek County Supervisor Steve McCargar announced his candidacy last month. A press release noted McCargar "was a co-manager at Oneota Food Coop for 25 years, helped start Hometown Taxi in 1987 and is currently a pre-school teacher and farmers market manager in Decorah." I have not yet heard of a Republican candidate in House district 55, but Decorahnews.com reported yesterday that an "announcement is expected soon."

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20 Iowa House races to watch tonight

Thanks to Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process, we have an unusually large number of competitive state legislative districts. In any given general election, depending on candidate recruitment, between one dozen and two dozen of the 100 Iowa House districts could be up for grabs. Democrats and Republicans spend big money on a much smaller number of districts; this year, only seven Iowa House races involved a large amount of television advertising. But the parties and candidates invest in direct mail and/or radio commercials in many more places than that.

Republicans go into election day favored to hold their Iowa House majority, which now stands at 53 seats to 47. Carolyn Fiddler has pegged seven “districts to watch” at her Statehouse Action blog, and in September, the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble discussed five districts he viewed as “key to Iowa House chamber control.” I see the playing field as much larger.

Follow me after the jump to review 20 Iowa House seats that will determine control of the chamber for the next two years.

Caveat: most years, there’s at least one shocking result in an Iowa House district neither party had their eye on. I’m thinking about Tami Weincek defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent in Waterloo in 2006, Kent Sorenson defeating a Democratic incumbent in Warren County in 2008, three Democratic state representatives who had run unopposed in 2008 losing in 2010, and Democrat Daniel Lundby taking out the seemingly safe Republican Nick Wagner in the Linn County suburbs in 2012. Wagner had run unopposed in the previous election.

So, while I don’t expect any of the “favored” seats discussed below to change hands, I would not rule out a surprise or two. That would be excellent news for the stealth challenger’s party.

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How not to retire from the Iowa legislature

Most election years, at least one Iowa House or Senate incumbent reveals retirement plans shortly before the filing deadline. During the last midterm, three Iowa House incumbents gave their constituents only a day or two’s notice that they were not planning to run for re-election.

Qualifying for the ballot is relatively easy here; candidates can collect the 50 signatures needed for an Iowa House district or the 100 needed for a Senate district in a day. But deciding whether to run for the state legislature is not so simple. Common courtesy demands that incumbents give their constituents at least a few weeks, or preferably a few months, to talk things over with family and friends, weighing what would be involved in a campaign and part-time work as a lawmaker. Lots of politically active people might want to serve. Most would not challenge an incumbent in a primary, but the calculus is different for an open seat.

Longtime State Senator Dennis Black announced on March 10 that he would not run for re-election. Presumably some insiders had advance warning, but every other Democrat in Senate district 15 had at most three days to consider this race, plus one day to collect the signatures and drive petitions to Des Moines.

Longtime State Representative Roger Thomas officially announced his retirement in a press release that went out  at 4:50 pm on March 13, barely 24 hours before the filing deadline. He gave the scoop to local activists at the Winneshiek County Democratic convention on March 8, but that news would only reach a small circle of insiders. A wider audience didn’t learn of Thomas’ retirement until he informed the Decorah Newspapers on the morning of March 12. Democrats in House district 55 (covering parts of Winneshiek, Fayette, and Clayton counties) deserved more than five days to think about running for the legislature, collect signatures, and make the four-hour drive to Des Moines. Nothing against Rick Edwards of Decorah, who has stepped up to run, but others should have had more time to consider the opportunity Thomas created.

Note: Iowa House district 55 will likely be a very competitive race this November, and Senate district 15 may also be in play, but my feelings about last-minute retirements also apply to seats that are safe for one party.

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