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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Steve King: Ted Cruz is the "constitutional conservative" who can "restore the soul of America"

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Representative Steve King endorsed Senator Ted Cruz for president a few minutes ago, calling the senator from Texas "the answer to my prayers, a candidate God will use to restore the soul of America." After going through several key issues, including the need to stop President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration and to repeal "root and branch" the 2010 Affordable Care Act, King said his candidate would need to be committed to those policies. In addition, King said a successful candidate needs to be able to appeal not only to establishment Republicans, but also to "constitutional Christian conservatives" and libertarians. The candidate must be able to raise enough money to run a strong campaign, and must be able to inspire Christian conservatives for a large turnout. In King’s view, one reason Republicans lost the 2012 presidential race was millions of Christian conservatives staying home.

King argued that Cruz is "unmatched in his tenacity to take on the Washington cartels" and has "consistently stood on principle" against the D.C. elites. He "does listen, and he does think." Asked how much he will do to support Cruz before the Iowa caucuses, King joked that "if they’ll let me," he is prepared to hit the campaign trail, adding, "I’m in with both feet, I’m in all the way." Asked to sum up his reasoning in one sentence, King said, "Ted Cruz is the full package, the constitutional conservative that can restore the soul of America."

King didn’t endorse a candidate before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, and didn’t take a stand the previous cycle until shortly before the 2008 caucuses, when he endorsed Fred Thompson. I suspect that coming out so early for Cruz reflects King’s concern about Donald Trump’s and Ben Carson’s long ride at the top of the Iowa and national polls. During the Q & A, King said he hopes his endorsement will add "clarity" to Cruz’s position on immigration, and asserted that some others are trying to distort Cruz’s stance on that issue. When a reporter asked King why he doesn’t see Carson as a candidate who can restore the soul of America, King praised Carson’s intellect but suggested that Washington, DC is not "a zone that he is familiar with." Later in the Q & A, King made a similar point about Trump—he doesn’t know enough about how Washington works. He made clear that he would support Trump if he became the GOP nominee and said he appreciated that Trump has raised some of the issues King has worked on for a long time.

UPDATE: Added below some reaction to today’s news and the official video of King endorsing Cruz, which the senator’s campaign sent out a few minutes before King made the big reveal at his press conference. One of the pro-Cruz super-PACs also announced King’s endorsement before the congressman did.

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Claire Celsi challenging Peter Cownie in Iowa House district 42

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Claire Celsi announced on Monday that she is running against Republican State Representative Peter Cownie in Iowa House district 42, which covers most of West Des Moines in Polk County. A detailed district map is below, along with background on both candidates. Celsi’s campaign is on the web at and on Facebook here. Celsi is also on Twitter. Her key campaign promises are to "fight for strong public education, protecting our environment and for sensible economic development that includes the district’s small business owners in the mix."

House district 42 is relatively balanced politically, with 6,242 active registered Democrats, 7,097 Republicans, and 6,676 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. The HD-42 precincts voted slightly more Republican than Iowa did as a whole in the 2012 presidential election, giving Barack Obama 49.85 percent of the vote while Mitt Romney won 48.83 percent. On the other hand, Joni Ernst outpolled Bruce Braley here in the 2014 U.S. Senate race by a little less than her winning margin statewide: 51.55 percent to 45.51 percent.

Cownie outperformed the top of the Republican ticket in the last two general elections, winning 56.61 percent of the vote in 2012 and 60.17 percent of the vote last year. He comes from a well-connected family in Polk County, which helped him raise far more money than a typical Iowa House incumbent for his 2012 and 2014 re-election campaigns. Cownie spent very little of those funds on his own race, kicking most of the cash over to the Republican Party of Iowa and its Eisenhower Club for use in other statehouse contests.

First elected in 2008 to replace retiring Republican lawmaker Libby Jacobs, Cownie has chaired the House Commerce Committee since 2013 and led the State Government Committee for two years before that. He is not what you’d call a workhorse at the Capitol. He has co-sponsored various bills and resolutions, but I’m not aware of any particular legislative achievements or causes he has tried to advance. Although many moderate Republicans live in West Des Moines, I can’t think of a time Cownie voted independently from his caucus or stuck his neck out to advocate a less conservative stance on a high-profile issue. For instance, even though he represents an LGBT-friendly district and is of a generation that mostly supports marriage equality, Cownie voted just like everyone else in the GOP caucus for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in 2011. (He opted not to co-sponsor the marriage amendment in subsequent legislatures, but to my knowledge he has never spoken out for equal marriage rights.) Nor did Cownie criticize, let alone try to over-ride, Governor Terry Branstad’s education funding vetoes this summer, which blew a $1 million hole in the West Des Moines school district’s budget after the start of the current fiscal year.

Cownie was rumored to be interested in the House speaker’s chair in 2013, but when the position became available this summer, he did not put his name in as an alternative to Linda Upmeyer.

Iowa House Democratic leaders have not made this district a top target in the past. However, Celsi has been involved with enough Democratic campaigns to understand what successful candidates need to do. If she can raise enough money to run a credible effort, HD-42 could become a targeted race. At the very least, Cownie will need to spend more of his energy and money on his own turf. I consider Celsi a friend and will make time to volunteer for her campaign next year, when I’m not knocking doors for the Democratic nominee in my own House district. (Jennifer Konfrst and Jon Neiderbach are competing for the chance to take on House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow in HD-43.)

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Thoughts on the Iowa Democratic Party's final Jefferson-Jackson dinner

The Iowa Democratic Party held its final Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night, drawing some 6,000 activists to hear three presidential candidates speak in Des Moines. Last night’s spectacle won’t loom as large over the Iowa caucus campaign as the JJ did in 2007, when it took place in November and the caucuses were scheduled for early January, rather than February. But some new tactics emerged during the speeches by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton. My thoughts on the evening’s highlights are after the jump.

I am a sucker for hand-made political signs, so I also enclose below my favorite pictures from the crowds in the bleachers. I put "Feel the Bern" in lights up top because I’ve never seen electrified signs at the JJ before.

While I see the value in supporters waving signs (or glow sticks, as many did last night) at a big rally, the "sign wars" some campaigns stage before multi-candidate events have always struck me as pointless. How does it demonstrate "organizational strength" to send a few staffers to put up printed materials in windows or along a road? Why would anyone want their volunteers to stand around yelling for hours before the dinner, rather than saving their energy and voices to show that enthusiasm inside the hall? For those who disagree with me and love the show, Pat Rynard chronicled the morning and afternoon activities by all three campaigns at Iowa Starting Line.

As for why I called it the "final" JJ, the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual fall fundraiser will continue under a to-be-determined name honoring icons considered more inclusive. You can send your suggestion to the state party using this form through February 15, 2016.

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Throwback Thursday: When Steve King said counties denying marriage licenses was "no solution"

I suppose it was inevitable that Representative Steve King would insert himself into the national debate over a Kentucky county clerk using her religious beliefs as an excuse not to do her job. King’s immediate reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality was to urge states to "just abolish civil marriage, let’s go back to holy matrimony the way it began." A couple of weeks later, he introduced a Congressional resolution saying states "may refuse to be bound by the holding in Obergefell v. Hodges" and "are not required to license same-sex marriage or recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states."

This past weekend, King lit up Twitter by saying of the Rowan County clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses,

In 1963, we should not have honored SCOTUS decision to creat a wall of separation between prayer & school. Kim Davis for Rosa Parks Award.

On Tuesday, King doubled down in an interview with KSCJ radio in Sioux City: “Cheers for [Mike] Huckabee and [Ted] Cruz, whoever else has stepped up to defend Kim Davis. I think she deserves the Rosa Parks Award.”

Would you believe there was a time when King said calling for county officials to refuse to abide by a Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality was “no solution” in the battle to “protect marriage”?

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