An early look at the 2010 Iowa Senate races

Conservative blogger Craig Robinson argued last week that “Iowa Republicans Have Plenty of Opportunity in the State Senate” in 2010. The GOP has almost nowhere to go but up. Republicans currently hold 18 of the 50 seats in the Iowa Senate, fewer than at any previous time in this state’s history. After making gains in the last four general elections, Democrats now hold 19 of the 25 Iowa Senate seats that will be on the ballot in 2010. Also, several Democratic incumbents are in their first term, having won their seats during the wave election of 2006.

To win back the upper chamber, Republicans would need a net gain of seven seats in 2010, and Robinson lists the seven districts where he sees the best chances for the GOP.

I generally agree with John Deeth’s view that only a few Senate districts are strong pickup opportunities for Republicans next year. Winning back the upper chamber will take the GOP at least two cycles, with redistricting likely to create who knows how many open or winnable seats in 2012.

After the jump I’ll examine the seven Iowa Senate districts Robinson views as worthwhile targets as well as one Republican-held district that Democrats should be able to pick up. Here is a map (pdf file) of the current Iowa Senate districts.

I’ll address these districts in the same order Robinson presents them, starting with the longest of the long-shots.

7. Like Robinson (but for different reasons), I would love to see wingnut Bill Salier challenge Senator Amanda Ragan in district 7 (Cerro Gordo County). Democrats have a big voter registration edge, and Ragan won re-election in 2006 with more than 70 percent of the vote. Crushing Salier would be particularly sweet, because it would show that Iowans are not interested in electing someone who’s done little lately besides speak out against same-sex marriage. I doubt Salier would take on this challenge. He seems more interested in threatening to support primary challengers against mainstream Republicans he views as insufficiently committed to overturning the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v Brien.

6. Robinson thinks Steve Warnstadt is vulnerable in Senate District 1 (Woodbury County) because the Democrats representing the two Iowa House districts in this Senate district only won by narrow margins in 2008. He thinks either of the Republican candidates who almost won House races in 2008 would be strong challengers to Warnstadt. Don’t get your hopes up, Republicans. In 2008 the Obama campaign’s GOTV was extremely weak in western Iowa, leading to poor Democratic turnout in Woodbury County and elsewhere in the fifth Congressional district. Don’t count on the Iowa Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign repeating this mistake in 2010.

5. Robinson would like to see Mariannette Miller-Meeks take on Senator Keith Kreiman in district 47 (Wapello, Wayne, Appanoose, Davis Counties). I actually agree with him that Miller-Meeks has a better chance of getting elected to the statehouse someday than of beating Dave Loebsack in the Democratic-leaning second Congressional district. However, I don’t see her beating Kreiman, who won his district in 2006 by almost a 2-1 margin. Miller-Meeks would do better to run for an open Iowa House or Senate seat. Anyway, after seeing her speak at an Iowa Politics forum in Des Moines late last year, I got the impression that she plans to run for Congress again.

4. Robinson thinks Staci Appel is vulnerable in district 37 (Warren and Madison Counties) because she won by only 772 votes in 2006 despite “raising massive amounts of money […] She is also the wife of Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel, adding a unique twist to her re-election campaign.” State Representative Kent Sorenson would be the perfect candidate against Appel, having upset Mark Davitt in House district 74 in 2008: “An Appel/Sorenson race would be ground zero for the debate on gay marriage in Iowa.” To which I say, bring it on. Let the Republicans run Sorenson, who has endorsed Bob Vander Plaats for governor and whose clerk erroneously told the Warren County recorder that she did not need to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Then let Appel talk about her many achievements during her first term in the Senate.

Another reason I would welcome this challenge is that it would open up House district 74. House Democrats were caught napping in 2008; they didn’t hire a campaign manager to focus on Davitt’s re-election, and he wasn’t the hardest-working incumbent in terms of voter contacts. We should be able to win back the district with a Democrat willing to pound the pavement and knock on doors–especially if Sorenson vacates the seat to challenge Appel.

3. Now we’re getting to the more realistic pickup opportunities for Iowa Republicans. Democratic Senator Rich Olive won district 5 (Wright, Hamilton, Story Counties) by only 62 votes in 2006. Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the district. Even though Olive is not particularly liberal, Iowa Democrats will need to work hard to hold this district.

2. If Republicans can convince former State Senator Sandy Greiner to run against Becky Schmitz in district 45 (Washington, Wapello, Jefferson, Van Buren Counties), I agree with Robinson that this would be a very competitive race. Schmitz won narrowly in 2006 and is in her first term.

1. I don’t share Robinson’s opinion that former State Representative Bill Dix would be a particularly strong challenger to Bill Heckroth in district 9 (Butler, Bremer, Black Hawk, Fayette Counties). That said, Heckroth is a freshman and Republicans have a registration edge, so defending this seat will be high on the Iowa Democrats’ agenda.

Generally speaking, recruiting strong Senate candidates won’t be easy for Republicans, because the party is perceived to have a much better chance of retaking the Iowa House. Life in the minority isn’t much fun.

With only six Republican-held Iowa Senate seats up for grabs in 2010, there’s not much room for Iowa Democrats to make further gains in the upper chamber. It goes without saying that we should leave no Republican unchallenged, but most of the Republican incumbents will cruise. Deeth thinks Republicans may need to play defense in Senate district 35. I am less optimistic. Democrats had a strong and well-known candidate in 2006, former Ankeny Mayor Merle Johnson. The party spent a lot of money in the district, but Johnson lost to Larry Noble by more than 1,200 votes.

Instead, I would encourage the Iowa Democratic Party to make a major play for Senate district 41 (Scott County), held by David Hartsuch of Bettendorf. Here’s why:

1. Hartsuch is a first-term incumbent who won by only 436 votes in 2006.

2. Since then, Democratic voter registration has grown significantly in Scott County.  

3. A lot of moderate Republicans dislike Hartsuch because he defeated the well-regarded incumbent Maggie Tinsman in the 2006 GOP primary.

4. He is a polarizing figure. It’s fine to be a Steve King sound-alike if you represent a heavily Republican district, but Hartsuch doesn’t.

5. Deeth says of Hartsuch, “His failed Congressional bid [in 2008] may have helped his name ID, but not necessarily in a good way.” That’s putting it mildly.

Compare the results from the 2006 and 2008 elections in Iowa’s first Congressional district.  You can find them, along with the results of the state legislative elections from that year, on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website. Both years the Republicans nominated a candidate from Scott County. Bruce Braley won the district with about 55.1 percent of the vote against businessman Mike Whalen in 2006.

Now look at how Hartsuch underperformed in 2008. IA-01 has a partisan voter index of D+4, meaning that in a typical year we would expect it to vote about 4 percent more Democratic than the country as a whole. In 2008 Democratic candidates averaged 56 percent of the vote in U.S. House races, so we would expect Braley to win about 60 percent of the vote given the lean of the district. In fact, he won 64.6 percent against Hartsuch. Granted, Democratic turnout tends to be higher in a presidential year, and Braley turned out to be remarkably effective for a first-term Congressman. Still, Hartsuch’s performance was underwhelming.

Hartsuch didn’t look particularly strong in his home base of Scott County either. Whalen kept it close in Scott County in 2006, winning about 25,142 votes in the county to 29,465 for Braley. In 2008 it was a blowout, with Braley beating Hartsuch by 49,732 to 32,766 votes in this county. I did not look up the precinct-level results for the Congressional voting; presumably Hartsuch did somewhat better in the precincts that are in Iowa Senate district 41. Still, he doesn’t look like a hometown favorite to me.

I have no idea who would be the ideal Democratic candidate against Hartsuch in 2010. I hope Bleeding Heartland readers with more knowledge of Scott County politics will post a comment or e-mail me (desmoinesdem AT Hartsuch’s opponent in 2006 was Phyllis Thede, who went on to defeat Republican incumbent Jamie Van Fossen in Iowa House district 81 in 2008. As much as I like Thede, I would prefer not to leave any of our Democratic-held House seats open next year. There must be another good Democrat who could beat Hartsuch.

I look forward to hearing Bleeding Heartland readers’ opinions about any of the above districts.

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  • 5.

    Keith Kreiman is a pretty good legislator, and quite popular. But don’t let the 2-1 margin in 2006 fool you: he ran against a lazy-campaigning goober in a strong Democrat year.

    If he were matched against Miller-Meeks (who beat Loebsack in every county in Kreiman’s senate district) I think he might lose. She’s a very convincing and hard-working campaigner, and very popular in the Ottumwa area. There are a lot of folks down south who are not happy at all about Varnum v. Brien. There’s also a pretty strong belief that Culver and the Dems are giving the rural and southern parts of the state the shaft in terms of money and attention.

    If Kreiman ran against Miller-Meeks, I’d put the odds of his winning at about 50/50. But I agree that she seems more interested in running against Loebsack again–though I can’t see how she thinks she’ll do any better this time around.  

    • Miller-Meeks may be popular

      and hard-working, but she still needs a case to make against Kreiman. How is she going to be able to deliver more for the rural and southern parts of Iowa than he is? Republicans are nowhere near a Senate majority.

      I think this discussion is irrelevant, because she won’t run for state Senate. But if she does she would be an underdog with much less than a 50/50 chance of winning.

      • The case against him...

        Would pretty much be “throw the bums out”. Kinda like what we did in 2006. She could also try to stoke some anti-gay marriage fervor too.  

        • I don't see MMM

          as an anti-gay-marriage crusader. I don’t know where she stands on the issue, she may be against gay marriage, but the loudest voices against gay marriage are the same Republicans who screwed her over in her race against Loebsack. I don’t see her playing that card in a big way.

          I doubt Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress will be as unpopular next year as Bush and the GOP Congress were in November 2006. I could be wrong, but that’s my feeling.

  • regarding Sandy Greiner

    IF Sandy runs she will bank well over 1500 votes from HD89 side of SD45.  Becky barley beat a lazy canidate in Miller.  Becky will lose by a land slide.  She does not seem to be for anything that the Washington County voters care about.  This is the easiest pickup in the state.  HD 89 will also go back to the R’s the next cylce.  If what I hear in the other half of SD45 is true, the D’s will be looking for a new person to fill that seat soon as well.

    • I recall your confidence

      regarding House district 89. We shall see. I don’t see where Marek’s given you a lot of ammunition, since he talks/votes like a Republican on the most contentious issues already.

      Remember that Democrats have gained a very large voter registration advantage in Iowa since 2006. I don’t think Schmitz would lose “by a land slide” to anyone.

      • Marek

        Marek hasn’t been Republican enough to please the Republicans and he sure hasn’t been Democrat enough to please the Democrats. Better to at least be one or the other…if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.  

        • I agree with you there

          Marek won’t have the support from labor and liberal activists who helped him last time. If he thinks catering to conservatives will win their gratitude, he is in for a rude awakening next year. I didn’t mean to imply Marek was safe by any means.

      • I was confident

        last fall.  I did not figure on 1000 more voters from Johnson county.  Larry has pissed off alot of voters in his home county.  He had a very rough session by anyones standards.  Rumours around here say he is not running again.  He will be 70 next year so why fight it.  He won’t get all the support from the party or the unions.  Much tougher running without the help and a record that is not that great.  He may have voted the right way most of the time, but he had to be watched and pushed to do the right thing all session.

        Becky is a terribly weak canidate, she won because Miller was lazy and did not show up to vote many times.  Becky had no record and ran in the middle.  She is now far to the left and has amassed quite a voting record.  Greiner wins by over 1000 votes.  

        • On that note...

          Do you think Klein will take another swing at it?

        • exactly

          You didn’t count on 1000 more voters from Johnson County.

          Races like this will come down to which side has better GOTV. Marek’s weakness is that the Democratic base no longer has any reason to work hard for him. They can focus on other districts, where the candidates would actually represent them.

          “Far to the left” is in the eye of the beholder. If you think Obama is a socialist despite his reliance on Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, you see Becky Schmitz as far to the left. I am not convinced that will fly as an effective campaign message for a generic Republican challenger.

          If Greiner is recruited for this race, we’ll have a battle on our hands, though.

          • Klein

            plans on running again for HD89.  This time the GOP’s GOTV will be much better.  Since they didn’t have one last time in this district.  Obama brought out the vote last time.  Who will do that for the dems next time.  Chet does not have to many people excited right now.  Politics is a lot different over here than in the Polk county area.  The democrats have to be very moderate to win.  Larry fitsthat bill very closely.  Becky does not even come close.

            Who is going to replace Rep. John Whitaker When he anounces he is taking a federal job?

  • 2010 Senate races

    I think any hard working democrat in the Indianola area can knock off Sorenson. It may take a lot of money/volunteers but it certainly can be done. The key here is getting Simpson College motivated. 10 to 20 students that are hard core dedicated will help get the job done!

    It was like watching a train wreck happen there in 2008. It was all Obama all the time. Democratic leaders knew Davitt was in trouble and did nothing.

    Mr. Sorenson can be knocked off but I’d like to see him knocked off in a house race rather than have Appel slug it out with him.

    Also, I’m interested to hear about the 2010 State Rep. races!

    waits in anticipation

    • Dem leaders knew Davitt was in trouble?

      That is news to me. Maybe they had tracking polls I didn’t hear about. Most people I talked to were shocked by the outcome in that race and had no idea Davitt was in trouble.

      I hope we can recruit a good candidate to run against Sorenson next year. Turning out the student vote in a non-presidential year might be a challenge for us.

      On the plus side, I expect the coordinated campaign to function better in 2010 than it did last year.

      I’ll follow up on the House races sometime in the next few weeks. I have a major backlog of unwritten posts to contend with!

      • Davitt troubles...

        Well they didn’t have tracking polls, however, even “democratic students” were on board with Sorenson. Why? Because it looked like he was going to win. He was everywhere, so it seemed. Davitt was mostly MIA until the last week of the campaign and was running around frantically asking for “additional” help. Working at the “campaign for change HQ,” Davitt had no one working for him – there was NO sense of urgency or threat until it was too late. Phone-banking and canvasing paled in comparison to that of Sorenson. Other than that it was the summer parades for Davitt’s supporters. Sure Davitt knocked a lot of doors by himself but he was clearly out worked &  overwhelmed and it showed. There was some fuss about party money not coming his way that explained his lazy start. Big wig democrats thought he was going to sail to victory until the last few weeks of the campaign. Democrats started to panic when they noticed Sorenson had an army of folks working for him, and their McCain stuff was secondary, and his support was nearly everywhere in Indianola. Campus was downplayed to avoid agitating liberal democratic students.

        Democratic student leaders scrambled (Last 2 weeks) to help, but by that point it was already too late. And we ALL new it. Davitt had ZERO input/plan with early voting (that was the big push on campus and most voted then). He lost it right there. Yes it was close, but it did not have to be that way. There is a complete disconnect between Big Wig leaders in Warren county and the college democrats and it needs to be overhauled ASAP. Appel’s campaign started early and often pressing students to activate in any way possible. It worked (I think the Emily’s List guy helped a ton in the early days to set the tone).

        Turing out the student vote shouldn’t be THAT hard, its just WHO you turn out that should matter at Simpson. Staci Appel’s win was in an “off” year and she had a large following at the College helping with everything, it was the most engaged/coordinated student project in years. Turing out the smart educated voter while other voters on campus stay home should could benefit a hardworking/financially stable democrat with a plan & wants to win. If a new and improved Davitt 2.0 shows up it could be a different story. The primary concern would be Culver’s unpopularity that should worry all down ballot democrats.

        Also, great to hear about the House Democrats post that is coming soon. I look forward to reading all your articles!

        • you should write a diary

          about this stuff–interesting perspective on how to engage Simpson students and the disconnect between Warren County Democratic leaders and college Democrats.

          I heard a lot of people complaining after the election that Davitt didn’t work hard enough. It’s a fair point, but if I were an incumbent and my leaders didn’t seem worried about my re-election (they didn’t hire a campaign manager for him), that would send me a pretty strong signal that I shouldn’t worry either.

          I’m confident that unlike Davitt, Appel is never going to be outworked. We need a House candidate willing to work as hard as Sorenson did.

          Even if Culver’s not too popular, another candidate could emerge who would energize the college Dems–maybe Francis Thicke for secretary of agriculture, for instance.  

          • In defense of Davitt

            there are always two sides, of course, and while the establishment wants to point the finger at Davitt for his loss – that he didn’t work hard enough – Mark and others in his inner circle that I have spoken with say that he repeatedly warned party leaders that the Republicans were getting traction and he still couldn’t get any support.  that the “coordinated” campaign was anything but with regard to his race.  obviously the party and Team Davitt have every self-interest in pointing at one another; my point is that the truth likely lies somewhere between.  i dont have any problem believing that the party dropped the ball to some extent on this one – for all of his upsides, Obama did tend to take a lot of oxygen out of the room.  and i have, unfortunately, been involved in a campaigns before where the right-wing did much of its organizing under the radar where party HQ really didn’t see it until it was way too late and the damage was done.  whether he was the best campaigner or not, Mark was a good guy and a sad loss in an otherwise great year. there has to be a better way of ensuring we dont lose incumbents like that because the individual campaign and the coordinated campaign are not in sync.  

            • I have no doubt that's true

              I was a big critic of the way the Obama campaign handled the GOTV last year, and that’s the main reason I’m not giving to the DNC now. I am not interested in funding a 50-state strategy to re-elect Obama that does little for the down-ticket candidates.

              I think the House Democratic leadership deserves part of the blame for not assigning a campaign manager to this race.

              As I’ve written before, last year’s flawed coordinated campaign cost us a lot during this year’s legislative session. If we had held on to Davitt’s seat, we would have been able to pass prevailing wage for sure and probably one or two other labor bills. We might have had the votes for the tax reform package too.