High-profile showdown coming in Senate district 37

Next year’s campaign in Iowa Senate district 37 will be closely watched statewide and may draw some national attention. Republican State Representative Kent Sorenson has decided to challenge first-term Senator Staci Appel instead of seeking re-election to Iowa House district 74. The socially conservative Sorenson made a splash this summer with his open letter imploring Senator Chuck Grassley to provide “principled and bold leadership” to advance the Republican Party platform. Appel is assistant Senate majority leader and chairs the State Government Committee. Her husband is one of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices who unanimously struck down our Defense of Marriage Act in April.

Republican blogger Craig Robinson is upbeat about Sorenson’s chances.

My opinion on this matchup hasn’t changed since Robinson first discussed the prospect in May: Bring it on.

Here’s Robinson’s case for Sorenson as a strong challenger:

In 2008, Sorenson defeated State Representative Mark Davitt by 163 votes. Sorenson’s victory surprised many Republican insiders that year. Since his campaign wasn’t on their radar as a potential pick-up, Sorenson was left to himself to orchestrate a winning campaign. With the help of a dedicated volunteer base, Sorenson pulled off the upset of the night when he sent Rep. Davitt home after serving three terms in the Iowa House.

Sorenson will not be flying under the radar in his race against Staci Appel. This time around, he finds himself as one of the top recruits for Senate Republicans. Making things more intriguing is that the Sorenson-Appel match-up will be ground-zero for the gay marriage debate in Iowa. Sorenson is an unabashed supporter of traditional marriage. Appel is one of the most liberal members of the Senate and is also married to one of the Iowa Supreme Court Justices who ran roughshod over Iowa’s marriage laws.

Despite raising huge amounts of money for her campaign in 2006, Appel only won her seat by 772 votes. Her opponent in 2006 was relatively unknown and underfunded. Sorenson brings a number of attributes to the race. First, Sorenson already represents half of the district. The part of the district that he already represents is the most difficult for a Republican candidate to win. Second, Sorenson has shown that he has the determination to do what’s necessary to win. While some candidates look for help from the day they are recruited, Sorenson and his crew of volunteers work tirelessly at the grassroots level.

Another factor to consider is that Sorenson and Steve Deace, the afternoon drive radio host on WHO Radio, are good friends and share a similar worldview. While many Republican candidates are hesitant to go on Deace in the Afternoon, Sorenson has embraced it. Deace will have to offer Sen. Appel air time as Election Day nears, but there is no chance she would walk into that studio and sit across the table from Deace. Sorenson’s access to WHO Radio’s listeners will help him counter the fundraising edge that many people expect Appel to have.

Appel faced a “relatively unknown and underfunded” opponent in 2006 because her strong fundraising and hard work on the ground scared Republican incumbent Doug Shull out of seeking re-election. She won by “only” 772 votes at a time when Iowa Democrats did not have the large voter registration advantage over Republicans that they now enjoy. Four years ago, Appel was a community volunteer seeking elective office for the first time. Now she chairs a Senate committee and has plenty of achievements under her belt.

I give credit to Sorenson for his narrow victory in House district 74 last November. It shocked and disappointed Iowa Democrats and prevented us from passing some important bills during this year’s legislative session. But as Robinson himself acknowledges, Sorenson is not going to be an under-the-radar challenger next year.

He now has a public record that he lacked as a first-time candidate in 2008. Sorenson was an early endorser of Bob Vander Plaats for governor. As the GOP primary unfolds, more and more Iowans will learn about Vander Plaats’ unworkable plan to halt gay marriage as well as his other wacky policy ideas. Sorenson appears to be ignorant about the separation of powers, as his clerk in the Iowa House erroneously told the Warren County recorder that she did not need to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.

This summer, Sorenson criticized Chuck Grassley for not being staunchly conservative enough and not flatly ruling out a compromise over health care reform. That will put him out of step with many moderates. Grassley’s approval rating has fallen this year, and the Des Moines Register’s recent statewide poll showed that “52 percent of Iowans would rather see Grassley compromise with Democrats than walk away from the [health care reform] negotiations. Thirty-nine percent would rather see him drop out of the talks than support proposals he disagrees with.”

Sorenson is willing to take his message to voters’ doorsteps, but Appel’s a hard worker with years of experience canvassing this district.

I’m not convinced that Sorenson will benefit much from WHO drive-time host Steve Deace’s assistance. Deace tends to go on the warpath against insufficiently right-wing Republicans (like John McCain), and next fall the GOP nominee for governor may be on his hit list. Deace has a big audience, but I think his blessing will only emphasize how far Sorenson is outside the Iowa mainstream.

Finally, I doubt Sorenson will get much traction against Appel on the same-sex marriage issue. The Varnum v Brien decision was unanimous; it’s not as if Justice Brent Appel cast the deciding vote on the Supreme Court. A barrage of television ads highlighting gay marriage didn’t win the day for the Republican candidate in the Iowa House district 90 special election. The Register’s recent statewide poll indicates that Iowans are not eager to vote for a constitutional amendment to overturn marriage equality. If public opinion trends in Vermont and Massachusetts are any guide, Iowans are likely to be more tolerant of same-sex marriage a year from now than they are today.

Appel will have to work hard against Sorenson, but I am confident that she will be able to bring this race home, with the help of a strong coordinated campaign by the Iowa Democratic Party.

Sorenson’s decision to run against Appel improves Democratic prospects in the Iowa House next year. Republicans have just about zero chance of taking back the majority in the Iowa Senate (where they hold only 18 of the 50 seats), but the GOP has more realistic pickup opportunities in the House (where they hold 44 seats out of 100). Sorenson has just given Democrats an excellent chance of winning back House district 74, which would make the hill steeper to climb for Republicans. Mark Davitt will decide this fall whether to run for his old House seat again. I would like to hear from Bleeding Heartland readers about other strong potential candidates. (UPDATE: According to Bleeding Heartland user MrScarletW, Scott Ourth is running in House district 74. Here’s a short bio on Ourth.)

Incidentally, State Representative Jodi Tymeson of House district 73 (the more Republican-leaning half of Senate district 37) has announced that she will not seek re-election next year either. That’s another open seat for the GOP to defend and another sign that Republicans are not confident about their chances to win back the Iowa House.

Final note for political trivia buffs: I’ll wager that Iowa Senate district 37 will be the country’s only state legislative race next year in which both major-party candidates have six children.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

  • Political Ground Zero in Iowa...

    The 2010 Ground Zero for the Iowa political debate in 2010 WILL Senate District 37. There could not be a greater more shocking difference in these two candidates. Conservative/TeaParty Sorenson vs. Liberal/EMILYs List Appel! Its going to be a hot one!

    Having spent time in that district I expect all out war on all fronts. Simpson College will be a hot bed of activity for both sides. If campus leans too far one way or the other it could swing the whole district. I’d also watch voter registration numbers at Simpson for the D’s v. R’s this might also add insight. The degree of activism is always iffy there but if Appel’s machine or Sorenson’s gets any traction there it will be a tremendous bump to one or both campaigns.

    Senate District Status: Lean Appel


    I know that Davitt (for HD73) is telling all of his long time buddies that he desperately “wants HIS seat back.” The nerve! You were LAZY. You lost. NEXT!  

    Scott Ourth (D) is already off and running and should mount a serious campaign. Expect his announcement event soon. I’ve met him and he recognizes the amount of work it will take to win this seat in this particular area. Lessons have been learned by Democrats in that district at Davitt’s expense. Expect Democrats both State and National candidates to flock to this area! (Don’t forget its proximity to DSM international airport.)  

    HD Status: Toss Up

    I’d also watch the local elections of 09 in this district as indicators of where the chips may fall for 2010.  Especially outside of Indianola area.

    Anyone wanna guess how much each candidate is going to spend on this race? $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$?

    • plenty of blame to go around

      The Iowa House leadership didn’t hire a campaign manager for Davitt’s race. That was a pretty strong signal that they didn’t think he had anything to worry about.

      I also feel that the Obama campaign did little for the down-ticket Democrats.

      Is Scott Ourth running in HD 73 or HD 74?

      I agree with you that organizing at Simpson will be important. Grinnell students helped carry the day for Eric Palmer in HD 75.

      How large is the student body at Simpson?

      • Fair enough...

        Scott Ourth = HD 74. oops.

        Initially I would agree with you on the Iowa House Leadership. However, it was clear by mid-summer a race was to be had.

        Per the Simpson College Web Site: “1485 full-time students and 550 part-time students.” Most of the Part-Timers are commuters or apart of the satellite locations around the DSM metro.

        Appel effectively engaged the Simpson machine. She used it to have workers focused on a very aggressive early fundraising effort. Later she used it for voter contacts and GOTV.

        Sorenson as far as I’m aware of was largely Simpson-less. Lets see if that changes.  

        • if Appel used this resource before

          I’m sure she’ll be tapping into it again. It sounds like there is a fairly strong College Democrats organization at Simpson. Do most of the full-time students live on campus?

  • House Race

    I think Ourth and Davitt would both be good candidates. Ourth is a great guy and very charismatic and experienced in Iowa Democratic Politics. Hopefully Davitt has learned his lesson from last time and will work his butt off and a primary would be a good test for him.  

    • Generally I'd agree...

      Generally I’d agree tough Primary campaigns make for much better General election candidates. I mean, YES, Clinton make Obama a much better candidate during that primary. A tough Governor primary could help them get better. A tough senate primary will likely benefit both camps. However, I’d argue that this theory is only applicable in large state-wide races or federal elections but NOT for HD or SD races.

      For small races, a pricey primary will literally cost that nominee in the general election. It would put them further down and behind on fundraising (which is already down due to the economy). A nasty, costly primary in a small house race in Iowa (with limited people/exposure/resources) would not be good. All the while the other party builds an insurmountable war chest and solidifies a giant lead by Mid-July and its all over. That is not a situation I welcome.  

      • I don't agree

        not unless the primary candidates are campaigning against each other in a very nasty way. If Davitt wants to argue that he has the experience to do the job well, and Ourth wants to press his case by saying, “You had your chance,” that doesn’t strike me as the kind of primary that would hurt our chances in the general. If anything it would increase the name recognition of the eventual winner.

      • Rolla' in Indianola!

        I lean toward DMD here. Both these guys are pros, they know better than to beat each other to a pulp and blow their war chest early.

        However, MrScarlet, you’re right on that primaries can go nuclear like that and destroy an otherwise competitive race. We’ll just have to see how this one goes!

  • Has everyone forgotten

    that it was Davitt who was the main sponsor and proponent of the Iowa Film Tax Credit?  

    I like Mark Davitt personally, and I wish him the best, but lets be honest; he was not an effective legislator.  This seat was his fathers’, and that is probably why he was elected in the first place. However, it is not “his”, and Scott Ourth is ready to work as hard as it takes to win HD 74 back.  Right now this seat belongs to Kent Sorenson, and we have Davitt to thank for that.

    Staci Appel is remarkable for her hard work on behalf of her constituents and all Iowans.  I am thrilled that she represents me, and I am looking forward to helping her win re-election.  This race is going to bring every wing-nut out from under every rock, but hopefully the rest of us will also get involved and make sure they don’t win.    

    • I didn't forget that

      because I never knew it. Is that true? Seriously, I don’t think I ever heard that before.

      Appel is an effective legislator, and I like her chances here. But you are right, it will take a lot of hard work from many people.

  • Appel presents a real dilemma for democrats.......

    democrats will have to wrestle with this one….how much money do democrats put into this race with what many democrats concede is a weak holder of the office….?

    remember….Appel spent a large amount of money in her race to get this seat against a non-funded opponent, and still barely won.  Appel has done little to inspire confidence with many insiders during her term, and is quick to take credit for others work. Several insiders will tell you in private she simply does not belong in state office.

    Sorenson will be a strong and well funded contender, and Appel will be avoiding any one on one debates where she is unlikely to hold her own.  

    the question is, can the party afford to put a lot of resources in this campaign as opposed to other, stronger candidates statewide….my bet is that they will, and still this seat will be lost.

    • Democrats will put resources into this seat

      and I put better than 50/50 odds on Appel winning. Republicans are sounding overconfident about this race, just like they were in Iowa House district 90.

      Since you’re a Republican, I don’t doubt that “insiders” tell you Appel doesn’t belong in office. I am sure you’re not privy to Appel’s plans to debate or not debate.

  • Sorenson's rally bursting at the seams today.......

    I attended Sorenson’s rally with Ron Paul today at the southside Holiday Inn….(fyi, I am neither a Ron Paul supporter or in Sorenson’s district, just attended as an observer)…and was floored to see the turnout at this event…(i estimate 2-3 times more than expected)

    The large Holiday Inn hotel conference room was standing room only and bursting at the seams with Sorenson supporters, enthusiastic for change in this district.  Candidates such as Chris Rants showed up, and Steve Deace MC’ed the event.  A big surprise was Tom Latham on the program, as he is not in the district either, but obviously is looking 3 years down the road…

    Sorenson has his message down pat, and had the crowd on it’s feet several times….the many Appel real stories of incompetence were red meat to this crowd.

    Sorenson will be a tough, diciplined, well financed candidate, with a message that is passionate and frankly excites his supporters.

    As an outside, but interested observer of this race, it is clear even this early that Appel is already in real trouble.

    • I couldn't make it to Appel's announcement

      on Thursday, but I am sure she will be ready for whatever Kent Sorenson throws at her. Sounds like his message is that she’s a dumb broad.

      Warren County is in Latham’s district, by the way.

  • dumb broad?...i didn't hear that in the message at all......

    maybe i missed something, but i haven’t heard a personal attack at all on Appel.  All I have heard and seen from Sorenson is a forthright discussion on her performance in elected office, which obviously people are questioning as they would in any campaign.

    I do have two background questions for Appel…did she ever attempt to attend college?…and it appears she bounced from firm to firm in her “financial advisor” career..what were the terms of her leaving the firms and did she ever reach a level of sustainable production?

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