Five Iowa Senate races to watch in 2014

It’s the time of year for blog posts about notable candidates and upcoming elections. Every politically engaged Iowan knows already that 2014 will be an unusually exciting year. We haven’t seen an open U.S. Senate race since 1974. The last time Iowa’s first Congressional district was open was in 2006. The last time Iowa’s third Congressional district was open was in 2002, but it wasn’t a wide open seat, since incumbent Representative Leonard Boswell moved into Polk County to run. Amazingly, 1940 was the “last time there was a Congressional race in Polk County without an incumbent seeking re-election.” All of Iowa’s statewide elected officials are up for re-election as well this year, and the secretary of state’s position may become open if Matt Schultz decides to go for the Republican nomination in IA-03.

Since Bleeding Heartland readers already know about the big Iowa races to watch, I want to focus today and tomorrow on the elections that are likely to determine control of the Iowa House and Senate in 2015 and 2016.  

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Timothy Junker first GOP challenger against Amanda Ragan in Iowa Senate district 27

Three-term Democratic State Senator Amanda Ragan has her first declared challenger, as Timothy Junker announced yesterday that he will seek the Republican nomination in Iowa Senate district 27.

Ragan’s race is one of a handful of contests that will likely determine control of the Iowa Senate after 2014. As of December 2013, Senate district 27 contained 11,997 registered Democrats, 13,396 Republicans, and 17,747 no-party voters according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. I’ve posted a district map after the jump. It covers Franklin County, part of Butler County, and most of Cerro Gordo County, including the population center of Mason City.

Junker is from Butler County and served six terms as the elected county sheriff before President George W. Bush appointed him U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Iowa in 2006. Since leaving that position in 2010, “Junker has been selling real estate for Schuck Realty Co., served on the Allison City Council and Allison Tree Board, and is an active member of Trinity Reformed Church, Allison Am Vets and the Am Vets/Legion Drill Team.” He has been exploring this candidacy for some time and held a meet and greet with Franklin County Republicans earlier this month.

I’ve heard rumors of several other Republicans considering this race. This fall, some Mason City residents received telephone polls asking whether they would support former Mayor Bill Schickel or Ragan for the Senate seat. Other possible candidates include former Mason City Mayor Roger Bang and former State Senator Merlin “build my fence” Bartz, who runs Representative Steve King’s Mason City office. Bartz would have to move from his Worth County farm to run against Ragan, though. Cerro Gordo County GOP Chair Gabe Haugland was on my radar because he considered running for the Iowa House during the last election cycle. But he told me today that he is “99 percent sure” he is not running in Senate district 27.  

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Health insurance compromise will be key issue in Iowa Senate district 27 (updated)

Many questions remain to be answered about Iowa’s new plan to provide health insurance to low-income citizens, but this much is clear: resolving the impasse over Medicaid expansion will be a major theme in State Senator Amanda Ragan’s re-election campaign next year.

Follow me after the jump for background on Ragan and more details about Iowa Senate district 27, sure to be targeted by both parties in 2014.  

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Iowa GOP picks Ron Paul's man over Terry Branstad's choice

The Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central Committee met on Saturday to consider a successor to Matt Strawn, who resigned as chairman in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses.

When a Democrat is governor, the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee defers to the governor’s choice for party chair. But a majority of the 17 voting Republicans elected A.J. Spiker, co-chair of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in Iowa, over co-chair Bill Schickel, Governor Terry Branstad’s strong preference.

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Roberts is the politically correct Republican alternative to Branstad

State Representative Rod Roberts continues to line up endorsements in his long-shot gubernatorial campaign. Bill Schickel just resigned as secretary of the Iowa GOP in order to endorse Roberts. Party officers are supposed to remain neutral in Republican primaries, but  

“I can no longer remain neutral,” said Schickel, a former state representative and Mason City mayor. “Our party is currently divided. Neither of the frontrunners has shown that they can bring the two sides together. If the current division continues we will certainly lose in November. Rod Roberts has the best chance of beating Chet Culver.”  

“He is the only candidate who has demonstrated he can bring together the fiscal and social conservative wings of our party. He has also proven that he can attract the Independents and Democrats that are critical to victory,” Schickel said. “He has done it during the campaign. He did it as a state representative. And he did it in five previous elections.”  

“Rod is an underdog right now, but he is also the candidate with momentum,” Schickel said. “While the numbers for the frontrunners have remained essentially flat, Rod in the past three months has gone from almost no voter recognition to capturing 19 percent of the Republican vote in the Dallas County straw poll and winning the Guthrie County straw poll this past weekend.”  “Whenever Republicans meet him, they are won over,” Schickel said. “He is a solid fiscal and social conservative who is also a fresh face. That is exactly what our party needs, and more importantly, what Iowa needs.”

Schickel also maintains the the conservative news aggregator The Bean Walker, a task he took over when Tim Albrecht signed on with Terry Branstad’s campaign for governor.  

Over the weekend, the Roberts campaign announced two more supporters in the Iowa House: State Representatives Cecil Dolecheck (district 96 in southwest Iowa) and Mike May (district 6 in northwest Iowa). They join four current and one former Republican legislator who previously announced their support for Roberts.  

Branstad is the heavy favorite to win the primary, but many GOP activists don’t want to go back to the future. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that any gains for Roberts will come largely at the expense of Bob Vander Plaats, who needs as much support as possible from western Iowa conservatives. Vander Plaats has been winning straw polls, but he hasn’t picked up many endorsements from within the Republican establishment since Branstad entered the race.

I suspect Roberts wouldn’t be landing these endorsements unless the donors behind Branstad had signaled that they won’t hold grudges against Roberts supporters. Or, to put it another way, my hunch is that Schickel would not go out on a limb to endorse Roberts if he feared doing so would threaten future funding for the Iowa GOP or The Bean Walker. (Albrecht launched The Bean Walker while working for the American Future Fund, and many business figures associated with the American Future Fund have made large contributions to the Branstad campaign.)

Perhaps Roberts has the inside track to become Branstad’s running mate, or the candidates have an informal non-aggression pact. Or maybe Roberts doesn’t criticize Branstad as harshly as Vander Plaats does because that’s not his personal style. Whatever the reason, Roberts is shaping up as the politically correct alternative for Republicans who aren’t wild about a fifth term for Branstad.

In related news, I was surprised to see that Branstad accepted three invitations to debate Roberts and Vander Plaats: in Sioux City on April 7, in Cedar Rapids on May 1, and in Des Moines on a date to be scheduled later.

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