Iowa Senate Republicans elect Jerry Behn leader

Continuity ruled the day as the 24 Iowa Senate Republicans elected Jerry Behn minority leader during yesterday’s caucus in Des Moines. Choosing a member of the old guard to replace Paul McKinley, the senators also taught Bill Dix a lesson about timing and manners.

Behn is among the most experienced Iowa Senate Republicans. A longtime corn and soybeans farmer, he was first elected to the legislature in 1996 after serving part of one term as Boone County supervisor. IowaPolitics.com posted audio links to interviews with Behn yesterday. Here’s an excerpt from a statement he released after the caucus meeting:

“I look forward to serving the state in the role of Senate Republican Leader and know that our job is just beginning,” said Behn. “We have a tough row to hoe and we need to work expeditiously to unify our caucus and enact meaningful legislation that will grow jobs and the economy.”

Senator Behn has been serving in the Iowa Senate since 1996 and recently served on the Senate Ethics, State Government, Natural Resources Committees and as Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce [Committee].

“Senate Republicans want to reign [sic] in government, help Iowans keep more of their hard-earned dollars and put more Iowans back to work. As simple as it sounds, I know we can accomplish this during the 2012 Legislative Session,” said Behn. “With these simple ingredients, I know we can take back the majority in 2012.”

Behn’s first order of business should be to hire a better writer. The reign/rein mistake isn’t the only problem. “As simple as it sounds” doesn’t make sense in this context; he probably meant to say something like, “as daunting as that sounds.” Then Behn awkwardly repeats “simple” in the next sentence, where “ingredients” is another poorly-chosen word (try “common-sense goals”). Anyway, why is Behn confident Republicans can enact their fiscal and tax policy agenda during the 2012 session? The 24 GOP senators weren’t able to split the 26-member Democratic majority on any significant issue this year.

But I digress.

Most of the Senate Republican leadership team will remain intact under Behn. Brad Zaun moves up from assistant minority leader to Republican whip. The other four assistant Senate minority leaders who served under McKinley in 2011 (Tim Kapucian, Merlin Bartz, Pat Ward and David Johnson) will retain those positions, to be joined by first-termer Roby Smith.

During the 2011 legislative session, Steve Kettering served as minority whip. I don’t know whether he chose to step down. Kettering is up for re-election in 2012 but hasn’t announced whether he will seek another term in the Iowa Senate. UPDATE: According to Craig Robinson, Kettering “stepped down and is also not seeking re-election in 2012.”

Governor Terry Branstad spoke during yesterday’s Senate GOP caucus and welcomed Behn’s selection afterwards:

“He’s my neighbor and friend from Boone County. I think he’ll do a great job,” Branstad said. “Jerry’s a good guy. He’s very personable, he works well with people and I think he’ll make a good leader. I’m really excited. I think they’ve got a good team and I’m looking forward to working with them. I’m very encouraged.”

Well before this year’s legislative session ended, many Iowa politics-watchers believed McKinley’s days as Senate minority leader were numbered. I don’t recall hearing any rumors about Behn as a possible replacement, although his brief gubernatorial campaign in 2009 hinted at higher ambitions. Behn launched his leadership campaign only a week ago, after McKinley said he would step aside.

Bill Dix appeared to be the likely successor to McKinley due to his fundraising skills and close ties to Iowans for Tax Relief, an important ally for statehouse Republicans. By some accounts Dix had at least 13 votes lined up to elect him leader months ago.

Instead of calling for a leadership election immediately after the 2011 legislative session, or shortly before lawmakers reconvened for 2012, Dix pulled the trigger in late September. One could argue that the Iowa Senate district 18 special election created an urgent need for new leadership, but Dix tried to schedule a caucus while McKinley was vacationing overseas. Going after a guy when he can’t defend himself isn’t “Iowa nice.”

Dix delayed his formal leadership challenge when he realized he didn’t have 13 votes locked down. Even though he didn’t win over the caucus yesterday, he clearly had some strong support in the room:

State Sen. Rick Bertrand (R-Davenport) said after the meeting “You know what changed today? Nothing,” before quickly leaving the chamber. And State Sen. Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) – the other nominee to lead the Senate Republicans – didn’t stick around to talk to media after the event. […]

Iowa Senate Assistant Leader David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan) said “it’s a free country” and “they can say whatever the want” when asked about the disappointment some members seemed to have with the vote.

“I think we’re on our way but our work is really cut out for us, no question about that,” Johnson said, later declining to reveal the results of the leadership vote.

Bertrand publicly called for new Senate Republican leadership a few weeks ago. He is one of several first-term senators who received large contributions indirectly from Dix’s campaign fund in 2010.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal released a statement congratulating Behn on his new position, adding:

“I make the same offer to Senator Behn that I have made to the four other Minority Leaders I have worked with over the past seven sessions: To work cooperatively on the issues that Republicans and Democrats can agree upon, to find common ground whenever possible, and to make sure our differences on some issues do not prevent us from taking action where we agree.

“I also want to thank Senator Paul McKinley for his strong commitment to public service.  Paul always put the best interests of Iowans ahead of partisan politics.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Behn is up for re-election next year in the new Senate district 24. It’s fairly evenly divided in terms of voter registration, but Behn’s long incumbency will give him an advantage. To my knowledge, no Democrat has announced plans to challenge Behn.

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