Clue to a mystery in Iowa House district 7?

Republicans made huge gains in the Iowa House on November 2, defeating 13 Democratic incumbents and winning four Democratic-held open seats. Republicans fell just short in several other House races, and one that puzzled me was in district 7, covering Emmet and Palo Alto Counties and part of Kossuth in north-central Iowa.

Democrat Marcella Frevert retired after representing the district for 14 years in the Iowa House. The district leans a bit Democratic in voter registration, but open seats tend to be harder for parties to hold than districts where they have established incumbents. Clearly district 7 was winnable for the GOP; the certified results put Democrat John Wittneben just 32 votes ahead of Republican Lannie Miller.

For some reason, the Iowa GOP and allied groups didn’t invest nearly as much in Miller’s campaign as in other House Republican candidates. But why?

Democrats recruited a good candidate in Wittneben, a city council member and past Chamber of Commerce president in Estherville, the largest town in district 7. Miller also had a good profile for a House candidate. He is a longtime member of the West Bend-Mallard School Board who served three terms as a Palo Alto County supervisor.

In the summer and fall, several Democratic sources mentioned to me independently that Republicans didn’t seem to be putting much money in the district 7 race. Campaign finance disclosure reports confirmed that impression. Miller’s October 19 filing showed no direct contributions or in-kind support from the state GOP. Most other Republicans running for competitive open House seats had already received substantial in-kind contributions to fund advertising and direct mail; see the reports filed by Jeremy Taylor (House district 1), Josh Byrnes (district 14), Glen Massie (district 74), Ross Paustian (district 84), and Mary Ann Hanusa (district 99).

Adding to the mystery, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry’s PAC endorsed nearly every Republican in an open-seat race, but not Miller. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation also left Miller behind while endorsing Republicans in most competitive House districts. Miller did receive some political action committee contributions, but they weren’t as large or numerous as those other House Republican hopefuls received. In nearby open district 14, Byrnes received money from far more GOP-allied PACs, including Iowans for Tax Relief’s PAC, Tom Latham’s For America’s Republican Majority PAC and Mitt Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC.

Disclosure reports filed the Friday preceding the general election showed that Miller finally received a little help from the state GOP. The Republican Party of Iowa and its Eisenhower Club made about $58,000 in in-kind contributions for direct mail and advertising expenses. However, that is far less than the state GOP was spending on many other House candidates whose reports can be downloaded here. Tom Shaw received more help than Miller despite the fact that House district 8 leans more strongly Republican, and the Democratic Party was spending virtually no money on candidate Susan Bangert in district 8. Miller needed the help more, because House Democrats invested a lot of resources in Wittneben’s campaign in district 7.

Several Democratic direct mail pieces for Wittneben blasted Miller for raising taxes and his own pay as a Palo Alto County supervisor. The rhetoric resembled successful Democratic messaging against Stephen Burgmeier in the 2009 special election campaign for House district 90. I thought perhaps the Republican establishment ignored Miller because he wasn’t hard-line enough on tax policy.

The Sunday Des Moines Register provided another clue on November 21, buried in a front-page article about a board’s failure to require disclosure of serious medical errors:

Declaring that special interests have taken over state government, one of Iowa’s top regulators is criticizing the Iowa Hospital Licensing Board for blocking public disclosure of hospital errors that threaten patient safety.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals has been trying for several months to persuade the Hospital Licensing Board to approve a measure requiring hospitals to make public so-called “never events” – medical errors that should never occur because they are preventable and threaten the health of patients.

Such events include injuries or deaths associated with the use of contaminated drugs, the discharge of newborn infants to the wrong patients, surgery on the wrong body part or the wrong patient and artificial insemination with the wrong sperm or donor egg.

The licensing board, which is composed of four members with ties to the industry and two lay people who represent the public, was scheduled to vote on the proposal last week. But one of the lay people didn’t attend the meeting on Tuesday because he believes the group is ineffective, and the other left early with no explanation. None of the remaining members was willing to make a motion for a vote on the matter, so the proposal died. […]

The head of the inspections department, Dean Lerner, was so incensed with the board’s action that he walked out before the meeting was concluded.

“Special interests have taken over government,” Lerner said. “Iowans should be shouting about this from their rooftops. They should be calling their state legislators and saying, ‘We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.’ “

It turns out that Lannie Miller was the lay member of this board who skipped the meeting (yes, it’s the same Lannie Miller). The Des Moines Register’s Clark Kauffman sought a comment:

Lannie Miller, who is one of the two lay people on the board, said he didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting because he was “disgusted” with the way the group has handled matters in the past. Although his term on the board doesn’t expire until June 2011, Miller said he has no intention of attending future meetings.

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said. “It’s made up of people involved in the hospitals. I’m fed up. The hell with it.”

That says a lot. If Miller has enough integrity to be disgusted by corporate capture of a government regulatory body, no wonder House Republicans and allied conservative groups didn’t embrace his candidacy. Incoming Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen has accused Lerner of being “a detriment to the state of Iowa” because Lerner takes the job of inspecting nursing homes seriously.

I wish Wittneben well in the Iowa House, and I’m glad district 7 remained in the Democratic column. At the same time, I feel sympathy for a decent guy like Miller who lost a close race after fellow Republicans left him hanging. Someone who supports reasonable government oversight of industry probably wouldn’t have been too comfortable in the House GOP caucus anyway.

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  • Dogma

    This certainly sounds like a case where an otherwise great candidate did not pass the purity test.  I went back through the Secretary of State’s unofficial results and they came extremely close in many races where I had heard no discussion of whatsoever.

    This is off topic in a way, but how old is Bill Heckroth?  I couldn’t find it on his website.  I am asking because I would like to see him run for something again.    I’ve heard rumors that the ads Bill Dix ran against him were so bad that he may consider litigation.  I hope this wouldn’t sour folks on him if he were to run for something again.  

    • Heckroth is great

      People I know who spent a lot of time up at the capitol all had high praise for him–good listener, willing to learn about the issues and see the big picture. I hope he will be involved in public service again, either as an elected official or as an appointee to some board. He had a very tough district to run in.

      Wikipedia says he was born in 1949. Did you know he was a first-team All Big Ten baseball player (pitcher) for the U of Iowa? He led the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten title his senior year.

      I saw only one of Bill Dix’s ads–it had a generic message, nothing specific to Bill Heckroth. I’m sure there were others, because Dix spent a ton of money.

      • Good info

        I’ll have to do some more investigation on the ads.  If Braley runs statewide, maybe Heckroth would run for that seat, but who knows?  

    • regarding purity tests

      I think some of the conservative grassroots are hung up on that stuff, but I get the sense that Paulsen is not that ideological. I think he’s just comfortable with people who do what they’re told and don’t think for themselves. Doesn’t sound like Miller fits.