Preview of an Iowa House district 7 rematch: Tedd Gassman vs Dave Grussing

Democrat Dave Grussing announced earlier this month that he will challenge two-term Republican State Representative Tedd Gassman again in Iowa House district 7, which covers Emmet and Winnebago counties plus half of Kossuth County on Iowa’s northern border. A detailed district map is below, along with background on both candidates. Grussing’s campaign is on the web at Grussing for Iowa House and on Facebook here. His key campaign issues include job creation for rural Iowa, more funding for K-12 schools and community colleges, "encouraging veterans and military retirees to locate in Iowa," and raising the minimum wage. Grussing has also expressed concern about Governor Terry Branstad’s unilateral decision to close two in-patient mental health institutions and privatize Medicaid.

House district 7 has been one of the most competitive state legislative districts in recent election cycles. Democrat John Wittneben defeated Republican Lannie Miller in an open-seat race by just 32 votes in 2010. That campaign likely would have ended differently if Iowa Republican leaders and key GOP-leaning interest groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry had not left Miller behind. Redistricting following the 2010 census made House district less friendly territory for a Democrat, and Wittneben lost his 2012 re-election bid to Gassman by just 44 votes.

House district 7 leans Republican, with 5,269 active registered Democrats, 6,323 Republicans, and 8,307 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. Voters living in the district supported Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 51.82 percent to 46.97 percent in 2012 and favored Joni Ernst over Bruce Braley in last year’s U.S. Senate race by 55.71 percent to 38.56 percent, nearly double Ernst’s statewide margin of victory. Grussing’s challenge to Gassman was one of seven Iowa House races the progressive group Democracy for America targeted last cycle, probably because of Gassman’s narrow win in 2012. But Gassman easily won by more than 1,700 votes.

Even in a presidential election year, when more Democrats turn out to vote, Grussing will need to outperform the incumbent substantially among independents and win some crossover Republican votes. That’s not an insurmountable task for a hard-working candidate, though. Especially since Gassman promised during the 2014 campaign to "support education at all levels," saying "his first priority would be to approve a supplemental state aid bill for K-12 education." Although Gassman served as vice chair of the House Education Committee during the 2015 legislative session, to my knowledge he did not speak out for investing more in education as Republican House leaders refused for months to compromise on school funding. Nor did I hear of him criticizing Branstad’s decision to strike nearly $65 million in K-12, community college, and state university funding from the supplemental spending bill lawmakers approved. Gassman certainly didn’t try to override Branstad’s vetoes. Grussing should remind voters frequently that their elected representative stood by while the governor blew a hole in the budgets of K-12 school districts and Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg.

In addition, for lack of a more tactful way to say this, Gassman is kind of weird. He has often put himself way outside the mainstream, even in his own party. For instance, during an Iowa House subcommittee hearing to consider his 2013 bill to end no-fault divorce for couples with children under age 18, Gassman speculated that his daughter and son-in-law’s divorce put his 16-year-old granddaughter at risk of becoming "more promiscuous." Only six of his fellow Iowa House Republicans co-sponsored that no-fault divorce bill. The same year, Gassman was among just ten GOP state representatives to co-sponsor a bill that would have banned county recorders from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples "until such time as an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa defining marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman is submitted to the electorate for ratification." The bill was clearly unconstitutional and would have created a circus like what Kentucky experienced this summer, thanks to rogue county clerk Kim Davis.

Gassman’s not a strong fundraiser, although his campaign disclosure reports for 2013 and 2014 (see here, here, and here) show that he receives a fair amount of "free money" from political action committees that give the same amount to dozens of state lawmakers. During the 2014 campaign, Grussing benefited from a number of labor union PAC donations, which will likely come through again if he can demonstrate he is running an active campaign.

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Iowa Senate district 26 preview: Mary Jo Wilhelm vs. Waylon Brown

After several months of recruiting efforts, Republicans finally have a candidate willing to run against two-term State Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm in Iowa Senate district 26. This race is among a half-dozen or so contests that will determine control of the upper chamber after the 2016 elections. Since Iowans elected Governor Terry Branstad and a GOP-controlled state House in 2010, the 26 to 24 Democratic majority in the state Senate has spared Iowa from various disastrous policies adopted in states like Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Of the senators who make up that one-seat majority caucus, Wilhelm was re-elected by the narrowest margin: 126 votes out of nearly 31,000 cast in 2012.

I enclose below a map of Senate district 26, a review of its voter registration numbers and recent voting history, and background on Wilhelm and challenger Waylon Brown. Cautionary note: although Brown is the establishment’s pick here, he is not guaranteed to win the nomination. "Tea party" candidates won some upset victories in the 2012 Iowa Senate Republican primaries, notably Jane Jech against former State Senator Larry McKibben in Senate district 36 and Dennis Guth against former State Senator James Black in Senate district 4.

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What's the end game for conservation funding in Iowa?

(Thanks to Matt Hauge for flagging this little-noticed but significant shift by the Iowa Corn Growers.   - promoted by desmoinesdem)

(Author note: Thanks to DesMoines Dem for permitting this cross-post originally published on Medium.) 

At its annual policy conference in August, the Iowa Corn Growers Association joined the Iowa Soybean Association in supporting Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWLL), a sales tax increase that would provide in excess of $150 million annually to environmental protection and natural resources in Iowa.

Official support for IWLL from both the corn and soybean organizations is significant because a bill in this year’s legislative session to enact the tax increase, SSB1272 (succeeded by SF504), drew opposition from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s agribusiness lobbying powerhouse.

While it received very little attention in the media, this action by the Corn Growers — just maybe — is a sign that something is changing in a good way for clean water in Iowa.

Even if not, at least the Corn Growers’ decision presents a good opportunity to look at what’s going on as Iowa struggles for better conservation performance of its globally significant soil and water resources.

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All Iowans in House vote to block any mandatory labeling of GMOs in food

Late last week the U.S. House approved a bill to make it harder for consumers to find out whether food products contain genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Although national polls have repeatedly shown that more than 90 percent of Americans believe foods with GMOs should be labeled, all four Iowans in the U.S. House voted for the misleadingly named "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015." Opponents nicknamed the bill the "Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act" or the "Monsanto Protection Act."

Follow me after the jump for details on the bill’s provisions, how the Iowans voted on amendments House Democrats offered during the floor debate, and a list of Iowa organizations and business that urged members of Congress either to support or reject this bill.  

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House rebuffs Obama on trade bill; how the Iowans voted

A rare visit to Capitol Hill by President Barack Obama wasn’t enough to bring House Democrats on board with a crucial companion bill for "fast-track" trade authority today. The House rejected the trade adjustment assistance bill by a surprisingly wide margin of 126 to 302 (roll call). A few minutes later, House members narrowly approved the other part of the trade legislation by 219 votes to 211 (roll call). However, the fast-track package can’t reach Obama’s desk without both parts clearing the lower chamber. David Dayen explained the significance of the votes well at Salon. I’ve enclosed excerpts from his analysis below, but you should click through to read the whole piece. Dayen lays out several possible next steps for Congressional leaders who support giving Obama fast-track authority, with a view to approving a new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Splitting the trade bill into two House votes was a gambit to let the trade adjustment assistance language pass with primarily Democratic support, while the fast-track language passed with primarily Republican support. As Dayen describes, the concept has worked for decades but didn’t pan out today. Only 40 Democrats fell in line with Obama, while 144 voted against the trade adjustment assistance provisions, including Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02). Representative Steve King (IA-04) also voted against the trade adjustment assistance language, even as Rod Blum (IA-01) and David Young (IA-03) were among the 86 Republicans to vote yes. All three Iowa Republicans were in the yes column on the subsequent vote for the fast-track language. Loebsack again voted no, as did all but 28 House Democrats. After the jump I’ve enclosed Blum’s statement; I will update as needed with comments from the other Iowans in Congress.

Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst both supported the fast-track trade bill the U.S. Senate approved last month by 62 votes to 37 (roll call). They have consistently supported trade promotion authority for the president. In that Senate vote, Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham voted for fast-track, while Rand Paul voted no, along with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

In case you missed it, I highly recommend State Representative Chuck Isenhart’s warning that the “Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement could threaten our ability to enforce state laws.” Conservatives as well as progressives have reason to fear that outcome.

UPDATE: Added below more Iowa political reaction to these votes. House leaders will bring the trade adjustment assistance legislation up for another vote next week.

SECOND UPDATE: Added a statement from Monica Vernon, one of Blum’s three Democratic challengers in IA-01. She opposes fast-track legislation.

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Iowa legislative state of play on raising the gas tax

Iowa House and Senate members have taken several steps toward raising the state gasoline tax for the first time since 1989. Follow me after the jump for details on where the legislation stands and the latest signals from the governor.

One big political question was answered today, as House Speaker Kraig Paulsen not only endorsed the gas tax bill but personally intervened to make sure it would clear the House Ways and Means Committee. His support may bring some reluctant House Republicans on board. Conservative advocacy groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Iowans for Tax Relief are pushing hard against any gas tax increase. Governor Terry Branstad or Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix appear ready to back this bill but may need to spend more political capital to get it passed.

Two important policy questions remain unanswered. First, what will be done to lessen the blow on low-income Iowans, who would be disproportionately affected by any increase in a regressive tax? Iowa’s tax system is already stacked against people with lower incomes.

Second, will the gas tax hike turn out to be a giant bait and switch? From business groups to road builders to heavyweights in the agricultural sector, advocates of a tax increase cite the poor condition of many Iowa roads and bridges. However, to my knowledge the pending legislation would not guarantee that any new Road Use Tax Fund revenues from gasoline taxes or vehicle fees be spent on repairing torn-up roads or structurally deficient bridges. Unless “fix it first” language or a change to the funding formula is added to the bill, the lion’s share of additional revenues from a gas tax hike could go toward building new roads or new lanes on existing roads, such as U.S. Highway 20 in northwest Iowa or any number of local “economic development” projects. If crumbling roads and bridges are used to justify a gas tax hike, lawmakers should stipulate that most of the new money raised would go toward existing infrastructure rather than new roads and lanes, which only increase future maintenance costs.  

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