Some Iowa House Democrats will get primary challengers

The Democratic-controlled legislature failed to pass some important bills during the 2009 legislative session, including a tax reform package and all major agenda items for organized labor.

Since the fiasco that doomed the “prevailing wage” bill in February, I’ve thought that electing better Democrats to the state legislature is at least as important as electing more Democrats. With a 56-44 majority in the Iowa House, it’s ridiculous not to be able to find 51 votes for some of these bills.

According to a letter I received last weekend, Ed and Lynn Fallon of I’M for Iowa are already meeting with potential progressive challengers in some House districts. I’ve posted the full text of the letter after the jump. I share their disappointment with what the Democratic “trifecta” has accomplished since the 2006 elections.

The Fallons do not specify where they are recruiting candidates. The obvious targets are the six House Democrats who refused to support “prevailing wage.” Known in Iowa political circles as the “six-pack,” these incumbents also stood in the way of other labor bills. Of those six, Geri Huser and Dolores Mertz seem particularly likely targets, because they supported House Republican efforts to ban same-sex marriage in April. Marriage equality is one of I’M for Iowa’s priority issues.

Good opportunities for primary challengers include districts that are relatively safe for Democrats in the general election. That points to “six-pack” members Huser (House district 42), Brian Quirk (district 15) and Doris Kelley (district 20).

Challenging the rest of the group is somewhat more risky. McKinley Bailey (district 9), Larry Marek (district 89) and Dolores Mertz (district 8) represent marginal districts. In fact, first-termer Marek will probably be the most endangered Democratic House incumbent next year. Bailey beat back a strong challenge from Republicans to win a second term by a fairly healthy margin in 2008, but according to this report by Iowa Independent’s Jason Hancock, some House Democrats have been “quietly concerned” that he might consider switching parties.

Mertz is a longtime incumbent in a very conservative district. In the unlikely event that a progressive challenger defeated her, Republicans would almost certainly pick up the seat. On the other hand, a smaller Democratic House caucus without Mertz would be an improvement over a larger caucus with Mertz, in my opinion. As chair of the House Agriculture Committee, she blocks any decent bill in sight, and she will be the Republicans’ biggest Democratic ally in the fight to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v Brien.

Two big questions come to mind. First, will organized labor put money and/or foot soldiers into serious Democratic primary races? Earlier this year, Ken Sagar of the Iowa AFL-CIO didn’t rule out supporting competitors to Democrats who are unfriendly to labor.

Second, will the Iowa House Democratic leadership spend money or political capital to defend targeted incumbents? In 2008 the Iowa Democratic Party blocked Huser’s primary challenger from access to the voter database. I heard from multiple sources at the time that the House Democrats made that call. Huser returned her colleagues’ favor by not being a team player during the general election campaign, then refusing to support the labor bills mentioned above.

I look forward to reading your comments on whether it’s worth taking on any House Democratic incumbents next year, and if so, which ones. The Fallons’ letter laying out the case for primary challenges is after the jump.

Note: this letter contains a small error about the 1965 legislative session (as does this Iowa Public Television program about that historic session). Judicial elections were abolished in Iowa when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1962. The judicial reform passed during the 1965 session reduced the mandatory retirement age for judges.

June 1, 2009

Dear Friends,

Through I’M for Iowa, we have fought hard for a broad range of progressive policy reforms since 2006. We haven’t asked a lot from most of our supporters. But as we “take off the gloves” and embark on a year-long campaign attacking the heart of the problem in state government, we need to ask for your help in a big way.

Three years ago, Iowa Democrats took control of the House, Senate and Governor’s office for the first time in forty-two years. Iowans had great expectations about what this “trifecta,” as Governor Culver called it, would accomplish.

And great expectations were in order. In 1965, Democrats also controlled the Statehouse. That year, a slew of landmark legislation was enacted:

*The community college system was created.

*The Iowa Civil Rights Act was passed.

*The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

*Committee meetings were opened to the general public.

*Judges went from being elected to appointed.

But this year at the Statehouse, despite democratic control, proposed progressive reforms were shot down right and left:

*We saw no action on reforming campaign finance law.

*Long-needed changes regulating hog confinements were ignored.

*The House failed to pass any of four reforms proposed by organized labor.

*There was no real progress on climate change, the environment, health care, criminal justice or education.

No doubt, leading legislative Democrats will point to small accomplishments, and some of these are certainly welcome. But face it: most of the big priorities so desperately needed are going nowhere at the Iowa Statehouse.


First of all, Governor Culver’s leadership has been weak, and he has failed to work cooperatively or effectively with many of those who helped him get elected.

Second, corporate lobbyists and their money still command far too much power at the State Capitol, and Democratic leaders have grown quite cozy with this power.

Finally, a handful of House Democrats consistently torpedo the good legislation our Democratic friends offer.

Of these three factors, the latter is the key pressure point. The current Democratic majority in the House simply is not a functional majority. Because of I’M for Iowa’s deep statewide network, we are in a unique position to help change that – but to do so, we need your support.

Our goal is to help recruit candidates to run in next year’s primary election against House Democrats who consistently stand in the way of progress. We’re excited to tell you that, already, we have met with some very promising prospective candidates.

Recruiting good candidates is no small task. Yet it will take only a handful of new progressive leaders in state government to tip the balance and give us the opportunity to enact the reforms Iowans are hungry for.

We need you to partner with us in this work. Help us recruit the candidates who will become tomorrow’s progressive leaders. Please contribute $100, or more if you are able, but know that we will be grateful for whatever support you can offer in these challenging times. Thank you.


Ed Fallon

Lynn Fallon

About the Author(s)


  • Brian Quirk

    Represents near me.  He is pretty liberal so I’m not sure what Mr. Fallon does not like about him.

    • you discredit yourself

      by describing Quirk as “pretty liberal.”

      I don’t speak for Ed Fallon, but obviously, Quirk opposed all the labor bills this session.

      Quirk, Mertz, Huser and Kelley also opposed the tax reform bill that would have made Iowa’s tax system less regressive.

      Probably others could add more to this list.

    • I should emphasize

      that the letter from I’M for Iowa did not name Quirk or any other member of the Iowa House. I expect them to target at least some members of the “six-pack,” which includes Quirk, but that is my speculation.

      • It willbefun to see who they throw at Marek!

        Marek won because he was a blue dog democrat.  If they run a progressive canidate, Marek will beat him in a primary.  If Marek were to lose, he will get beat this time.  Not sure any of this will happen. I’m not convinced Marek will run again.

        He did show up for one of two parades last weekend.

        How about Whitaker?  Who is your choice to fill this slot?  Why is it taking so long to get this going?

        • I don't know enough about the local scene

          to have a choice for Whitaker’s slot. I’m sure the local Dems can field a strong candidate or two.

          I don’t know whether I’M for Iowa is recruiting a challenger in Marek’s district. As I have written previously, that wouldn’t be my top priority for primaries.

          I would put money on Marek running again. If he weren’t planning to run for re-election, there would be no reason for him to buck the party leadership on labor issues.

        • Marek

          At this point, I’m not sure Marek is even “blue” enough to be considered a blue dog. He came into office riding a presidential election wave, he tried to please everyone and thus pleased no one and without a Democrat wave to carry him in 2010 he’ll get kicked in the keister.  

          • he would have been better off

            going with the leadership on one or two controversial bills, then proudly showed his “moderate” stripes on the rest.

            As things stand, Marek hasn’t given the Democratic Party or its activists any reason to lift a finger for him next year. Whether he wins or loses will not affect our ability to accomplish anything.

            • Marek couldn't

              You had to be at his public forums to understand the pressure from his voters.  He was pushed into a corner and had no way out.  He would be toast if he flip floped on these issues that he said he was against in the election.

              If he losses the republicans are one vote closer to having control.  He did vote for your speaker and leadership.  The Whitaker seat is up for grabs so there is 2 pickups.  This seat is important.  They all are.

  • Mertz

    Thank you for this post!   I’ll speak to the Mertz race in particular. There is a serious growing trend that either Rep. Mertz will retire or be nudged out by a serious Democratic contender.  Either way many do NOT think Mertz will be the democratic nomination for Iowa House 8 in 2010. Many high level democrats, though located in what you described as a “very conservative” district, are very displeased with her performance. Expect a serious primary challenge here against Mertz!  Long time party activists very well expect one and they are preparing for such an event. A real Democrat can win in District 8 via a number of ways with the right tools and support. The consensus is, from locals, that it will be best if Democrats go down fighting in November rather than let Mertz limp into another poor reelection campaign against a formable GOP opponent. I assure you, It would not be a long shot by any means! This is especially true if the Republicans nominate an ultra-conservative or have an ultra-conservative Independent candidate split their vote totals. At least one Independent has already emerged and is Extreme-Right Wing.  If Democratic leadership and activists unite in energy behind a primary challenger to Mertz, come November, the Republican nominee may be in for a long & bitter fall campaign.

    • thanks for that report

      I’m glad to hear people are mobilized. Any real Democrat willing to take on this challenge will have my full support next spring (and fall, if all goes well in the primary). Mertz only barely won in 2008, so it’s not as if she’s such a strong incumbent anyway.  

      • Iowa House 8 Update:

        As per the Pocahontas Record Democrat (local newspaper), Tom Shaw (Independent – Laurnes in Pocahontas County) has announced his candidacy for House District 8 against Rep. Mertz. He will rely on his service in the United States Navy & his tenure as Chief of Police.  His website is a must see:  

        He is quoted as saying,

        “I see that the Republican Party wishes to abandon their conservative social positions in order to expand the party and based on the last legislative session, the Democrat Party is determined to be influenced by liberal out-of-state organizations rather than represent the values that rural Iowans hold dear – Tom Shaw (Independent -Laurnes),”

        The Record Democrat reported this quote in this weeks newspaper… YIKES. After discussing with some contacts in the area, the Republican county leadership may support a Independent candidate if the Republican field is too moderate for their liking. In Pocahontas county, party registration is near even (Republicans lead by a small margin) and the county is made up of mostly Non-Party folks but there is a smattering of extremes on both sides. Clearly the far right will be represented come next fall.

        Is anyone hearing any chatter about other possible candidates? What is your take on this? Will the GOP take him up? Will he be a serious threat?

        • thanks for that update as well

          What planet is this guy living on if he thinks the Iowa GOP isn’t conservative enough?

          I find it hard to believe that county GOP leaders would support an independent candidate, but who knows? The more logical course would be to recruit this guy to run in the GOP primary, but I don’t look to Republican activists for logic.

  • Give me a break

    Primary McKinley Bailey? Is Ed Fallon Nuts? The seat hasn’t been held by a Democrat since 1992, he voted to raise the minimum wage, expand collective bargaining for state employees, voted for civil rights for gays and lesbians, voted to raise teacher pay to the national average, decriminalize embryonic stem cell research and opposed efforts to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage,and we are going to primary him? Ed Fallon is out of his mind. We haven’t had a Dem represent us in more than a decade because it takes a moderate to win here, I will take a moderate that I don’t always agree with over Stew Iverson, our former State Rep and Senator any day of the week. Ed Fallon needs to work on a few campaigns up here for hard core liberals that lose year after year before he tries to run somebody out of office that votes party line 85% of the time.

    • I still like Bailey too

      I think Bailey’s vote was mostly due to his amendment exempting schools and community colleges getting shot down. A little bit of “Fine, I’m taking the ball and I’m going home!” behavior. His amendment seemed reasonable to me, but I’m no expert on labor policy.

      I think he’s still firmly on the team and I’m sure some more senior Democrats have privately taken him behind the woodshed for how he voted on this.  

      • it seemed like

        there was a breakdown in communication between him and the leadership during the prevailing wage debate. I think they thought a different amendment exempting community colleges would be acceptable to him. Anyway, that’s water under the bridge. Next session everyone needs to be more clear with each other.

    • I don't know

      whether the Fallons are recruiting a candidate in that district. The letter from I’M for Iowa doesn’t talk about where they are meeting with potential candidates. I speculated that likely targets include the “six-pack.”

      As I have written before, my priorities for primary challenges would be Huser, Quirk, Kelley and Mertz. I would leave Bailey and Marek alone.

  • Fallon's right on one thing...

    First of all, Governor Culver’s leadership has been weak, and he has failed to work cooperatively or effectively with many of those who helped him get elected.

  • I think there's a better way

    to spend our money than to challenge Democratic incumbents in a primary.  Is Fallon just trying to scare these representatives into toeing the line?  Instead of spending a million or more trying to unseat people on our own team, why don’t we target two or three seats held by Republicans, and put half that amount into a major effort to win those districts.  Then the recalcitrant Dems will find that their votes don’t really make a difference in the outcome, and their power is neutralized. Plus, I think it strenghens our party to have some variation in voting patterns. I agree with WCDem that we would be crazy to take out someone like Bailey, who votes with the party on most issues, and run the risk of getting a Stewart Iverson in his place.    

    I have a few seats in mind that we could win with such an effort.  The first is my own, Distict 74, which is now represented by Kent Sorenson, a certified nutjob who won because he pretended to an ordinary businessman, and was unknown enough to pull it off. Scott Ourth, who has announced he is running, would not only reliably vote for labor and social issues, but would bring others along with him.  What about asking Selden Spencer to run against Dave Deyoe in District 83?

    I think there is a time when primaring a Democratic incumbent is the right thing to do, but I would save it for those cases where the incumbent is a lackluster performer who is in danger of losing anyway, or a Joe Lieberman traitor, and not attack charismatic, effective (for the most part), legislators like Bailey and Huser, who will sail to reelection if not interfered with by us.