Iowa House district 39 preview: Jake Highfill vs. Maridith Morris

Iowa House district 39, covering much of northwest Polk County, is represented by the youngest current member of the state legislature. Republican Jake Highfill pulled off a shocking upset in his 2012 primary against then House Majority Whip Erik Helland. He was the only successful one of a dozen primary challengers to sitting Iowa House Republicans that year. Highfill benefited from some blunders by Helland and some help from fellow supporters of Ron Paul’s presidential bid as well as former State Representative Walt Tomenga, whom Helland had beaten in the 2008 GOP primary. Highfill beat Democrat Kelsey Clark in the 2012 general election and Tom Leffler in 2014, but underperformed the top of his party’s ticket both years.

A new Democratic challenger to Highfill emerged last week. Maridith Morris is a nurse at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. She is also a personal friend (not through Democratic Party politics), and I can vouch for her commitment to helping others, in volunteer capacities as well as through her vocation.

I enclose below a district map and background on Highfill and Morris. House district 39 leans Republican, with 5,863 active registered Democrats, 9,291 Republicans, and 8,206 no-party voters according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. (Those numbers do not include voters who changed party affiliation on February 1 to participate in the Iowa caucuses.) Mitt Romney outpolled President Barack Obama among voters in this district by 55.76 percent to 43.02 percent in 2012, and Joni Ernst had nearly a 20-point margin over Bruce Braley here in the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

While the district is a long-shot for a Democrat, Highfill is weaker than the average GOP statehouse incumbent. He chairs the relatively insignificant International Relations Committee, which has met only once this session and does not appear to have any legislation pending. Quite a few House Republicans from the 2012 cohort and even a few colleagues serving their first terms have better committee assignments than Highfill.

Last year, when then House Speaker Kraig Paulsen needed to yank one opponent of raising the gasoline tax off the Ways and Means committee, he picked Highfill. This year, Highfill was assigned to the Appropriations, Education, State Government, Local Government, and Government Oversight committees as well as International Relations. He has not floor-managed any significant bills, to my knowledge.

In a sense, Highfill is fortunate to remain in the legislature. He drew two primary challengers in 2014, which allowed him to win the GOP nomination despite gaining less than 50 percent of the vote. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Republican with more stature run here this year, though at this writing I am not aware of any rival GOP candidate in House district 39.

Highfill’s campaign raised $16,990 last year, about half from individuals and the rest from political action committees that give to numerous legislative incumbents. His campaign spent $12,670.17, mostly on a $10,000 contribution to the state party. He entered the election year with $13,283.48 cash on hand and $6,100 in outstanding loans—not a lot to fend off a primary challenge, if one materializes. Assuming Highfill wins the GOP nomination again, House leaders could chip in more funds if they felt he were in trouble during the general election campaign.

Any comments related to the House district 39 race or either candidate are welcome in this thread. I found it strange that a 2012 Ron Paul supporter Highfill endorsed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie before this year’s Iowa caucuses. But some big movers and shakers in Iowa Republican politics were supporting Christie, including Gary Kirke, one of Highfill’s larger individual donors.

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Kent Sorenson sentencing delayed as he cooperates with federal investigators

Nearly six months after he pled guilty to receiving hidden payments for endorsing Ron Paul, former State Senator Kent Sorenson still hasn’t been sentenced and won’t be for some time. Jason Noble reported for the Des Moines Register,

In a [February 19] hearing before U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt, attorneys for the government and for Sorenson agreed to delay sentencing in the case until April. The reason, Justice Department lead attorney Robert Higdon Jr. said, was that the government was “engaged” and “making progress” on a “larger investigation” into the 2012 presidential race. […]

It is unclear exactly who may be the target of the ongoing investigation, but questions have been raised about top aides in Paul’s 2012 campaign.

Sorenson received shady indirect payments from Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign for months, but his guilty plea was related to a payment scheme he negotiated with Ron Paul supporters. Russ Choma reported last year for the Open Secrets blog,

Sources say two grand juries are looking into the 2012 campaigns of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), whom Sorenson originally endorsed, and Paul, to whom Sorenson switched his support just days before the Iowa caucuses. A number of individuals confirmed to OpenSecrets Blog that they had been interviewed by FBI agents, the grand juries, or both.

Click through for more speculation on angles federal investigators may be pursuing.

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Kent Sorenson pleads guilty over hidden payments scheme (updated)

The U.S. Department of Justice announced today that former State Senator Kent Sorenson has pleaded guilty to two charges related to hidden payments in exchange for supporting Ron Paul for president. When he abandoned his position as Michele Bachmann’s Iowa campaign chair to endorse Paul less than a week before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, rumors immediately circulated about alleged payments for his support. Sorenson repeatedly denied those rumors. However, he has now admitted that he received $73,000 in concealed payments after endorsing Paul. As part of his plea agreement, he also admitted lying to journalists and giving false testimony to an independent counsel appointed to investigate various charges. Sorenson resigned his Iowa Senate seat last October, the same day that independent counsel filed a devastating report. Federal authorities have been investigating the case since last year.

After the jump I’ve enclosed the full Department of Justice press release, with more details about the plea deal. Sentencing has not yet been scheduled. As far as I can tell, these charges are unrelated to any payments Sorenson allegedly received from the Bachmann campaign earlier in 2011. A former Bachmann campaign staffer made those claims in complaints he filed with the Federal Election Commission and with the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee. Another former Bachmann staffer signed an affidavit containing details on Sorenson’s compensation for work supporting that campaign.

One mystery I hope someone will solve someday is whether Sorenson’s attorney, Ted Sporer, lied on behalf of his client, or whether Sorenson lied to Sporer along with everyone else. Even on the day he resigned from the state legislature, Sorenson maintained he was an innocent victim of a “straight-up political witch hunt.” A separate lawsuit that had alleged Sorenson stole a valuable e-mail list from a Bachmann staffer’s computer was eventually settled without any admission of wrongdoing by Sorenson.

UPDATE: Russ Choma has more details at Open Secrets, including the full plea agreement. Highly recommend clicking through to read that whole post. I’ve enclosed excerpts below.

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Weekend open thread: Big Iowa GOP changes

The Republican Party of Iowa and the Iowa Democratic Party held district conventions yesterday. Nothing particularly important happened at the Democratic conventions, but the GOP gatherings continued the march toward overthrowing the "Liberty" faction that gained control soon after the 2012 caucuses. No one from the Ron Paul orbit won a seat on the newly-elected State Central Committee, which will take over after the party’s state convention in June. They are likely to replace Danny Carroll and Gopal Krishna in the party’s top leadership positions.

I’ve listed the new State Central Committee members after the jump. Notable names include Governor Terry Branstad’s legal counsel Brenna Findley and William Gustoff, both elected to represent the third district. Gustoff is a partner in the law firm headed by U.S. Senate candidate Matt Whitaker and State Representative Chris Hagenow. In 2011, Branstad named Gustoff to the State Judicial Nominating Commission, but the Iowa Senate did not confirm him. Findley briefly was an attorney with Whitaker Hagenow after she left Representative Steve King’s staff to run for Iowa attorney general in 2010.

According to Kevin Hall of The Iowa Republican blog, “Liberty” activists handed out flyers at all four district conventions urging delegates not to vote for fourteen State Central Committee candidates. All fourteen of them won seats on the committee anyway.

Another interesting development: the GOP platform committee in the first district removed the plank declaring marriage to be between one man and one woman. Katherine Klingseis reported for The Des Moines Register that the new platform language asserts the government should have no role in marriage. Some delegates tried and failed three times yesterday to restore the traditional marriage plank through amendments. UPDATE: According to conservative blogger Shane Vander Hart, one of the IA-01 convention votes on platform language went 116 to 89 to remove so-called “defense of traditional marriage” from the district GOP platform.

Kathie Obradovich wrote up the six IA-03 candidates’ pitches to Republican convention delegates. For now I consider it more likely than not that the nomination will be decided at a special district convention.

UPDATE: More thoughts on the Iowa GOP State Central Committee changes after the jump.

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Weekend open thread: Liberty movement missing in action edition

Here’s your weekend open thread: all topics welcome.

I’d like to hear views from the Bleeding Heartland community on a question that’s been on my mind lately, as the “Liberty” movement ceases to be the dominant force in the Republican Party of Iowa. Why haven’t more people from the large contingent of Ron Paul/Rand Paul admirers stepped up to run in this year’s Iowa Republican primaries?

Despite plenty of speculation, no one associated with Ron Paul’s presidential campaign went for Iowa’s first open U.S. Senate seat in 40 years. Why not? This opportunity won’t come around again soon, not with Senator Chuck Grassley already planning to seek a seventh term in 2016. Did fundraising concerns or some other factor keep Drew Ivers, David Fischer, or others from believing they could run a strong Senate campaign?

In Iowa’s open third Congressional district, none of the six Republican candidates publicly endorsed Ron Paul for president, as far as I know. Nor did any of the three Republicans running against Representative Dave Loebsack in IA-02.

Iowa’s most prominent “Liberty” candidate is Rod Blum in the open first Congressional district. There are a few Paulinistas running in GOP primaries for the Iowa House and Senate, but not as many as I would have expected, given the Liberty movement’s takeover of the Iowa GOP apparatus in 2012.

Twilight of the Iowa GOP's Liberty era (updated)

Time for a discussion thread on news that broke over the weekend: A.J. Spiker will step down early as chair of the Republican Party of Iowa in order to serve as an adviser to U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s political action committee. I’ve posted the Iowa GOP’s official announcement after the jump. It puts a positive spin on Spiker’s tenure, which began after Matt Strawn was forced out early over the 2012 Iowa caucus vote-counting debacle. Spiker’s critics have complained of poor fundraising and an insufficient focus on party unity and electing Republican candidates.

Spiker was a leading supporter of Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns in Iowa and benefited from the “Paulinista” dominance during the 2012 county, district, and state GOP conventions. However, Ron Paul loyalists were unable to repeat that performance at this year’s county conventions on March 8. In fact, some high-profile Paulinistas weren’t even able to win district convention delegate slots.

David Fischer, another prominent figure in the “Liberty” camp, stepped down as state party co-chair earlier this year. Danny Carroll, a former Iowa House Republican and unsuccessful candidate to lead the state party in 2009, won a very close State Central Committee election to succeed Fischer in that role.

Longtime social conservative activist Steve Scheffler made a deal with the Liberty crowd in the summer of 2012 to retain his position as Republican National Committeeman. He told the Des Moines Register that he expects “a huge turnover” on the Iowa GOP’s State Central Committee after district conventions on April 26. Scheffler would like to see Carroll serve as the Iowa GOP’s interim leader until new State Central Committee members begin their terms this summer.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. P.S.- Some observers believe Spiker’s departure will spell doom for the Ames Straw Poll. I suspect the Iowa GOP will still organize some kind of candidate forum a few months before the Iowa caucuses, perhaps even a fundraiser. But new party leaders will likely be swayed by Governor Terry Branstad and other straw poll critics in planning that event next year.

UPDATE: Speaking to a conservative breakfast club on March 12, Danny Carroll confirmed that he will run for party chair this month and again after the new State Central Committee members are selected. He told Radio Iowa he’d like to see the straw poll continue, while making sure tickets are not overpriced and candidates are not charged “exorbitant rent for space at the venue.”

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