I am disappointed that the Democrats did not gain as many seats in the Iowa legislature as I'd hoped. With Barack Obama winning this state by 9 percent and Democrats enjoying a big voter registration advantage, we should have done better in the statehouse races. We need to analyze what sank some of our down-ticket candidates so we can do better in 2010.
None of that should obscure the much bigger problems currently facing the Republican Party of Iowa.
Six days after the fourth straight election in which Republicans have lost seats in both the Iowa House and Senate, the Republicans House caucus voted to replace Christopher Rants of Sioux City as their leader. Kraig Paulsen of Hiawatha (a suburb of Cedar Rapids) will take on the job. According to the Des Moines Register,
Rants and Paulsen have starkly different governing styles. Rants is known at the Capitol as a fighter, often using sharp language to rally for his party. For years, he has been the main go-to guy for his party, advising them on nearly every issue.
Paulsen has been described by his peers as being rather mellow. He's also got a reputation of being able to work well with Democrats. This summer, for example, he was seen frequently working with other legislators such as Sen. Robert Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, on flood-related issues.
With two House races yet to be decided, Republicans are likely to end up with only 44 of the 100 seats in the lower chamber. Eight years ago they had 56 seats. The delegation is not only smaller, but also more conservative than it was in the past. For instance, my own House distict 59 has traditionally been represented by moderates (Janet Metcalf, Gene Maddox, Dan Clute), but incoming representative Chris Hagenow was backed by right-wing interest groups.
Speaking of those two House seats that are still too close to call, let this be a lesson to voters about the importance of filling out the whole ballot. Democratic incumbent Wes Whitead leads by six (!) votes in House district 1, and some ballots are being challenged because an estimated 100 to 120 Woodbury County voters received absentee ballots listing candidates in the wrong state House district.
In House district 37, highly targeted Democratic incumbent Art Staed trailed Republican Renee Schulte by less than 50 votes on election night and by only 14 votes as of Friday. If Whitead's lead holds and a recount changes the outcome of Staed's race, House Republicans would end up with with only 43 seats for the next two legislative sessions.
Speaking of contested ballots, the votes of 50 Grinnell students who listed the address where they receive mail, rather than the address of the dorm they live in, will be counted in House district 75. As I predicted, that race turned out not to be close enough for the challenged votes to be decisive. Targeted Democratic incumbent Eric Palmer beat former state representative Danny Carroll by about 1,200 votes (54 percent to 46 percent).
About those close races: the Republicans might have picked up more seats if the Democrats had not banked so many early votes. Rants announced after being ousted as House Republican leader that "he'll now take on a personal crusade to spark Republican voter registration drives and early voting as a way to help his party rebound." Building an effective early-voting campaign will not happen overnight, though.
Republicans in the Iowa Senate are considering changing their leadership as well, now that their Senate caucus will be the smallest in history. Depending on the outcome of the extremely close race in Senate district 10, Republicans will hold just 18 or 19 seats out of 50.
The national economic and political climate could be very different in 2010, which may give some Republicans hope. But don't imagine it will be easy for them to defeat Governor Chet Culver and win back a net six or seven seats in the House and the Senate. A few years ago, Republicans and Democrats had about the same number of registered voters in Iowa. Yet Culver beat Congressman Jim Nussle (who was considered a strong candidate) by about 100,000 votes in 2006. Culver goes into the next campaign with the advantages of incumbency as well as a Democratic lead in voter registration.
The Republican Party of Iowa also faces divisive battles between social conservatives and moderates. Stewart Iverson announced last week that he will not seek another term as state party chairman. Polk County Republican Chairman Ted Sporer wants the job and wants to make the party more confrontational:
"We need to fight with the Democrats. I want to fight with the Democrats every day," he said. "I want our party leadership to join me in that."
The current GOP leadership has led the party to the bottom, he said.
"If 2009 doesn't look like the bottom has dropped out, I mean if this isn't truly where you bottom out, what's it going to look like?" he said. "We have to turn around and start fighting back."
Sporer said the party must return to its conservative values, from fiscal to social and everywhere in between.
"We were so not conservative in the last election cycle," he said, adding: "[Republicans] are so afraid of losing power that they pander to the middle instead of running hard and proud as who they are."
But even before the election, moderate Iowa Republicans were planning to "fight back against the evangelicals and goofballs who have taken over the party." Goofballs such as U.S. Senate candidate Christopher Reed and Kim Lehman, who was elected Republican national committeewoman this summer at the GOP state convention (replacing Sandy Greiner). Steve Roberts, another moderate Republican who lost his RNC slot to a social conservative, suggested before the election that Lehman should choose between leading Iowa Right to Life and serving on the RNC.
The moderates (including 2002 gubernatorial nominee Doug Gross according to Cityview) think Republicans should not take such a hard line on social issues. Former Republican lieutenant governor Joy Corning, who is pro-choice, took issue with Lehman in this letter to the Des Moines Register:
Pro-life can and does mean pro-choice to great numbers of Republicans. It means they want government to let individual citizens decide on matters best left to each person's dignity, freedom, ability and responsibility.
If Kim Lehman, one of two Iowa representatives on the Republican National Committee, makes being anti-choice a litmus test, it only further divides the Republican Party.
We are defined by principles that have been our foundation since the time of Lincoln - limited government, strong defense, fiscal responsibility, self-determination and opportunity. We are not defined by a National Right to Life survey.
Last week's election results strengthen the moderate Republicans' argument, in my opinion. Lynda Waddington of Iowa Independent showed in this piece that Republican statehouse candidates who emphasized abortion as a campaign issue did not do very well.
But who will take on and defeat Sporer in a campaign to lead the state party? His belief that the GOP has been losing because it's not conservative enough is shared by most Republicans, even if the overall electorate disagrees.
I don't give the moderates much chance against the "goofballs" if Republican activists are doing the choosing.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that as a rule, the party out of power sees more of its members retire from the state legislature. It's not much fun being in the minority during the legislative session. In all likelihood, Republicans will go into the 2010 cycle with more open seats to defend in the Iowa House and Senate.
I also want to link to a few conservative bloggers' commentaries on the situation facing the Republican Party of Iowa.
At his own blog, Ted Sporer lays out his vision for a "Republican Rebirth" in Iowa. Many of his ideas are grounded in the Republican mainstream, but make no mistake: Sporer is more closely aligned with the "goofballs" than with the moderates.
After Christopher Reed went way over the top in his debate with Tom Harkin last month, Sporer defended Reed's description of the four-term incumbent as the "Tokyo Rose of al-Qaeda." To hear Sporer tell it, this phrase was "accurate," and "we need more discussion of objective factual truths in politics." Furthermore, he argued that Reed's line of attack against Harkin could have been a winning message if only Reed had had "more money, a staff and some TV advertising." This tells me that if Sporer does become Iowa GOP chairman, we're in for a lot of Newt Gingrich-style rhetorical bomb-throwing in 2010.
The well-connected Krusty Konservative notes that groups of Republican moderates and conservatives have met in recent days to discuss the way forward:
While I'm glad that both the establishment crowd and conservative activists are meeting, I just wish they would sit down and meet together. If this turns out to be a battle between the two groups only one thing will come of it; defeat.
Krusty also wants social conservatives to be "more inclusive and tolerant of people and candidates who don't comply with a strict anti-abortion litmus test." But he had this to say to the Republicans who blame the religious right for losing elections:
It amazes me that the social conservatives are being blamed for the lack of message within the Republican Party. This couldn't me farther from the truth. The liberal media would lead you to believe that our candidates only talk about gay marriage and abortion. [...]
When you look at the message breakdown on economic/kitchen table issues it's been the establishment candidates who have failed us. In this last presidential campaign we saw John McCain lose the kitchen table issues to Obama, but we shouldn't have been surprised, our Republican standard barers [sic] have not been able to win the debate on economic issues vs. their Democrat challengers for more than a decade.
Commenting on my post about the problems facing Republicans nationally, Bleeding Heartland user dbrog recommended watching the latest Iowa Press program on Iowa Public Television. The video is here, and you can download the transcript at the same page on the IPTV website.
Krusty Konservative wasn't optimistic after watching:
Interestingly enough both National Committeeman Steve Scheffler and Doug Gross discussed the future of the Republican Party in Iowa on Iowa Press this past weekend. The interview didn't generate any real fireworks, but it also lacked any specific ideas to move our party forward. All I took out of it was to expect more of the same, which means we should prepare to lose more legislative seats in 2010 and maybe a statewide elected Republican unless we can rally around the cause of winning elections.
Blogger abregar of the Iowa Defense Alliance describes what he wants to see in a party chairman:
The Republican Party of Iowa is in crisis. As a party we have just come off another losing election cycle. There were a few areas that provided a sense of optimism, but they are few and far between. It has become obvious that the current party leadership does not know how to win. Their strategy has led us down the road to defeat yet again. The party is fractured and in need of healing yet our leadership has not attempted to do just that. The next RPI Chair needs to be someone that understands and supports all the values and ideals that our party stands for. Essentially the next Chair should eat, sleep, and drink the party platform. The next RPI Chair must unite our crippled and fractured party. There are deep divisions in the party right now that current leadership has done little to heal.
To my mind, a GOP chair who "eats, sleeps and drinks the party platform" will be unable to heal the party's divisions, because social conservatives have been so dominant in crafting that platform. But that's not the most interesting part of abregar's analysis:
I cannot deny that under normal circumstances I think that [Sporer] would excel as Chair of RPI. Ted is solid on all the issues that represent the Republican Party here in Iowa. He most definitely is outspoken and has great ideas. At this point in time, Ted may not be the right person for the job. Far too many people across the state Ted is a symbol of the Polk County political machine and they resent that. [...] Other party members across the state see the influence that Polk County has and they resent it. I hate to say this, but I don't think that Ted would bring the party together like we need.
Right now RPI needs a leader that can reach across the state to bring Republicans together. We need someone that is going to be a strong leader that will promote our issues and values. We need a strong leader that will loudly and vocally support all of our candidates, not just one or two. We need someone that is going to be solid on all Republican issues. In order to do this RPI is going to need to look outside of Polk County.
Not surprisingly, the most influential Republican moderates in this state are based in Polk County, which contains Des Moines and most of its suburbs. Polk County is also where a lot of the heavy-hitter Republican donors live (both moderate and conservative). If the state GOP takes abregar's advice and looks outside Polk County, will unifying the party become any easier?
The bottom line is that there is no easy path forward for the Republican Party of Iowa.
They have taken control of the state Republican Party. That makes it all the more important that Democrats recruit credible candidates for every race. The crazies seem to have a minimum base of 35 to 40 percent diehards, more in hardcore Republican districts. A credible candidate with party support can beat them.