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 yahoo.com). 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.