Republicans find candidate for Iowa House district 16

When the filing deadline for Iowa candidates passed in March, many Democrats were shocked that no Republican tried to qualify for the ballot in House district 16. The district in Iowa’s northeast corner covers all of Allamakee County and most of Winnishiek County, including Decorah, site of Luther College. Click here to download a district map (pdf file). Republican Chuck Gipp represented this district for 18 years before retiring in 2008. Although the area has been trending toward Democrats for some time, Republicans still have a slight voter registration advantage. As of the beginning of June 2010, there were 6127 registered Democrats in House district 16, 6819 Republicans and 7737 no-party voters.

This week, someone finally stepped up to challenge freshman State Representative John Beard. More details about that Republican and an early look at the House district 16 race are after the jump.

The Waukon Standard reported that Bob Hager has announced his candidacy and will be nominated by a special Republican convention:

Hager has lived in Allamakee County all 49 years of his life. He was born and raised in Waukon, married his wife, Kristi, in 1986, and raised three daughters. […]

Initially approached to run for State House in April of this year, Hager says after much conversation and prayer he believes now is the time to get involved. […]

Hager and his wife have owned and operated Upper Iowa Resort & Rental near Dorchester for the past 12 years. They also currently operate the Living Stone just west of Waukon, which is a non-profit re-entry home for people coming out of jail/prison, the homeless, or people who “need a hand up, not a hand out”, according to their mission.

Hager has driven semi for several local companies, and has been on the Allamakee Community School District Board of Education for the past six years. He is a member of St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Waukon and has been heavily involved with CEW (Christian Experience Weekend), jail and prison ministry, and various civic groups over the years that have included Waukon Jaycees, Pheasants Forever, 4-H leader, and summer softball coach.

Hager says his priorities in serving District 16 will be to promote, preserve and protect the strong work ethic and the Iowa values that this state has been built on for years, to keep government spending and government growth in check, to be an advocate for the working class citizens of District 16, and to encourage economic development and tourism.

I’m not surprised someone from the Republican Party recruited Hager. He’s a business owner with deep roots in the district, he serves on the school board, and he’s involved in community organizations. Many people with similar biographies have been elected to the Iowa legislature.

Hager has a few other things going for him. Incumbents are usually most vulnerable in their first attempt at re-election, and Democratic turnout may be lower in this off-year election than it was in 2008, when Beard defeated Randy Schissel by a comfortable margin of about 1,800 votes (56 percent to 44 percent).

Beard brings many strengths to this race, starting with his career and roots in the district. He has operated J.W. Beard Welding and Machine in Decorah for nearly three decades. He is a partner in his family’s beef operation on a century farm. In one of Iowa’s most beautiful counties, Beard served on the County Conservation Board and helped start local chapters of Pheasants Forever and Trout Unlimited. It can’t hurt that Beard’s wife is a teacher in Decorah schools, Beard’s brother runs an organic farm near Decorah, and his sister farms and works as a veterinarian in the area. All that adds up to a large number of voters in Winnishiek County who personally know Beard or someone in his immediate family.

In 2008, Beard’s opponent was a Decorah City Council member, who consequently also had a base and experience campaigning in Winnishiek County. Nevertheless, Beard racked up more than a 1500 vote margin in Winneshiek. His edge on Schissel in Allamakee was just under 300 votes.

Hager has always lived in Allamakee and works in that county’s largest town (Waukon). To beat Beard, he’s going to need to rack up a huge margin in Allamakee while minimizing Beard’s advantage in the Decorah area.

Speaking to the Waukon Standard about his priorities as a candidate, Hager named several Republican standbys (strong work ethic, Iowa values, limit spending and growth of government, boost economic development), but also promised “to be an advocate for the working class citizens of District 16.” You don’t often hear Republicans talk about representing the working class.

Allamakee County has one of the highest unemployment rates in Iowa, 9.9 percent as of April 2010, up from 9.2 percent a year earlier. That’s quite a bit above the statewide rate of 6.9 percent in April 2010. Winneshiek County’s unemployment rate in April 2010 was a shade below the state average but had also risen since the previous year.

The obvious tack for Hager is to ask district 16 voters if they and their neighbors are better off today than they were two years ago, when they sent Beard to the Iowa House. It’s not Beard’s fault that his first term coincided with the most severe nationwide recession in 60 years, but this year’s weak recovery and employment market could still be a problem for him and other Democrats. Although Beard can talk about the ways House Democrats helped small businesses and the middle class, as well as I-JOBS infrastructure projects in Allamakee and Winneshiek, he will want to keep this race from being a referendum on the overall economy. Beard needs voters to ask themselves if they really want to fire John (whom they know pretty well) in order to hire Bob, who is much less familiar. As in most competitive Iowa legislative races, face-to-face voter contacts will be critical.

Any thoughts about district 16 or Iowa House campaign strategy generally are welcome in this thread.

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