Attack ads overshadowing issues in Iowa Senate district 36

When tea party favorite Jane Jech defeated former State Senator Larry McKibben in the Republican primary to represent Iowa Senate district 36, I expected smooth sailing for Democratic incumbent Steve Sodders. Now this race looks like a tossup. Neither candidate’s advertising is educating voters about meaningful differences on real issues.

Iowa Republicans have long planned to target first-term Senator Sodders, who won an open-seat race in 2008. The 2011 redistricting plan put Sodders in a swing district covering Marshall and Tama counties, plus a small rural area in Black Hawk County.

As of October 2012, Senate district 36 contained 12,513 registered Democrats, 12,845 Republicans, and 16,340 no-party voters according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office (pdf). Sodders’ old district had a stronger Republican lean.

Click here to view a district map and background on both candidates. Jech’s campaign website is here; Sodders’s campaign is on Facebook here.

Sodders has chaired the Senate Economic Growth Committee for the past two years and was one of only two Democratic senators to get the 2012 endorsement of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry’s PAC. That endorsement indicates two things: first, Sodders is among the more moderate Senate Democrats. Second, the business establishment viewed him as a likely winner. In recent years, the ABI’s Iowa Industry PAC has endorsed many Republican legislators and challengers, plus a few token Democrats expected to cruise to re-election. The only other sitting Senate Democrat backed by the Iowa Industry PAC this year is Liz Mathis, who faces a little-known Republican challenger in Senate district 34. The two CORRECTION: Several of the Iowa House Democrats endorsed by this PAC in 2012 don’t even have Republican opponents. Sodders’ financial disclosure shows campaign contributions from a variety of corporate PACs as well as from labor PACs.

Jech has the backing of many Republican-aligned interest groups, such as Iowans for Tax Relief, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business. Bob Vander Plaats’ FAMiLY Leader organization endorsed Jech before the primary and has spent about $12,000 on direct mail to aid her campaign this fall.

The latest reports filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board show Jech raised $62,158.00 since July, plus more than $32,000 in in-kind support from the Republican Party of Iowa. She reported $20,303.77 cash on hand going into the final weeks of the campaign.

Sodders has the money advantage, adding $92,145.00 in cash contributions and $134,831.10 in in-kind contributions to the $68,734.76 cash on hand he reported in July. The Des Moines Register’s William Petroski listed Sodders among several Senate Democrats who have received contributions from out-of-state supporters of equality for gays and lesbians. He didn’t mention that Sodders’ latest disclosure shows well over 100 donations from Iowans, far exceeding the number of donors from other states.

A couple of months ago, conservative blogger Justin Arnold named Senate district 36 as one of five tossup districts that will decide control of the upper chamber. At the time, I considered this a lean-D seat. Jech struck me as a weak candidate due to her failure to win the Iowa House race in Marshalltown in 2010, combined with her poor fundraising during 2011. When endorsing McKibben before the GOP primary, Governor Terry Branstad made clear that he considered McKibben the candidate who could beat Sodders.

While I have not seen any polling of this race, the Republican political action committee GOPAC-Iowa claims that “recent polls show both candidates in a dead heat.” Incidentally, former Iowa GOP Chair Matt Strawn is now chairing GOPAC-Iowa; he stepped down as state party leader soon after the Iowa caucuses.

The negative advertising and direct mail targeting Jech suggests to me that Democrats are deeply concerned about this district. Incumbents favored to win re-election, such as Majority Leader Mike Gronstal in Senate district 8 and Senator Brian Schoenjahn in Senate district 32, have stuck to mostly positive campaign messages. In contrast, Sodders is running negative radio and television commercials and has authorized a mixture of positive and negative direct mail.

Sodders’ criticism of Jech has focused on her tenure as a trustee at Iowa Valley Community College from 1999 to 2008. Although Jech is campaigning as a tea party candidate opposed to tax increases, Sodders’ campaign pored over minutes of trustee meetings and identified 126 examples of Jech voting for a total of $71 million in bonding to benefit the community college–bonding that would increase local property taxes.

Speaking to me by telephone today, Jech told me that she didn’t support $71 million in debt, and she didn’t know how the Sodders campaign arrived at that number. She twice supported a $35 million bond to benefit the community college. The first time the bond issue went to the voters, it didn’t receive the required super-majority vote, which is why the college trustees proposed the $35 million bond again. It received more than 60 percent support from local voters the second time it was on the ballot.

Other spending approved by Jech as community college trustee is the focus of a television commercial running on Des Moines stations. The commercial is in the style of a children’s book, featuring animated scenes of Jech running toward the state capitol and whimsical background music. My transcript:

Female voice-over: See Jane Jech. [animated figure resembling Jech, words on screen See Jane Jech.]

Jane is running for the Senate. Run Jane, run! [Figure runs toward the right, words on screen Jane is running for the Senate. Run Jane, run!]

Jane loves to travel on the taxpayer’s dime. [Jech figure holds up large magnet, sucking money out of the pockets of some people standing nearby. Words on screen Jane loves to travel…and we PAY]

12,000 of our tax collars for trips to places like Florida. Fun Jane, fun! [Figure approaches palm tree, welcome to Florida sign, picks up martini from tray held by waiter; words on screen Thousands on trips to Florida. Fun Jane, fun! In tiny print near bottom, source given is IVCC travel records, 1999-2008]

And Jane voted to spend 48,000 taxpayer dollars on an office remodeling project, while we get stuck with the bill. Why Jane, why? [Jech figure runs through office supply store, picks up items to place in an office labeled Jane Jech, words on screen $48,000 on remodeling project. We pay more. Why Jane, why? In tiny print near bottom, source given is IVCC board minutes, 11.5.99]

Jane Jech for state Senate? No Jane, No. [Figure runs toward state capitol, which turns out to be just painted-on scenery that crashes to the ground. Words on screen Jane Jech? No Jane, No. Paid for by the Iowa Democratic Party, authorized by Sodders for Senate]

Seeing that commercial for the first time, I felt validated in my decision to donate only to certain Democratic candidates this year, rather than to the state party or to the Senate Majority Fund. The animation and child-like script come across as belittling Jech, and the allegations come across as petty, small-potatoes stuff. Iowans “can’t afford” Jane Jech because she spent a few thousand bucks on conference travel, or on some remodeling at the community college?

I figured that the travel expenses were related to conferences for community college trustees. Jech confirmed today that the Iowa Valley Community College reimbursed $12,419 in travel and registration expenses for her to attend state and national conferences between 1999 and 2008. That doesn’t sound like an excessive amount of money. The commercial creates the misleading impression that Jech spent lavishly on redecorating her own office, but she never had a personal office at the college. She told me she didn’t know exactly what the $48,000 number referred to but confirmed that she supported various renovations to college facilities. Again, that kind of expenditure doesn’t sound excessive.

A radio commercial targeting Jech covers much of the same ground. My transcript:

Female voice-over: Politician Jane Jech is at it again. She’s lying about Steve Sodders’ record on spending. But, let’s take a closer look at Jane Jech’s record.

Jech used taxpayer money for trips to places like Florida. Then, she voted to spend $48,000 on an office remodeling project, and we picked up the tab.

While she falsely accuses her opponent of running up debt, it was Jech who voted 126 times to increase the debt of Iowa Valley Community College. 126 votes. 71 million dollars in total debt. Who pays for all of that? You guessed it: we do.

Jane Jech is lying about her opponent to cover up her irresponsible ways. But, we know the truth. When it comes to Jane Jech, Iowa families just can’t afford to pick up the check.

Male voice: Paid for by the Iowa Democratic Party and authorized by Sodders for Senate.

We’ll get to Jech’s lying in a moment.

As I mentioned above, Jech says the $71 million figure relates to two separate attempts to pass a $35 million bond. It may be hypocritical for an anti-tax tea party conservative to support local tax hikes for a community college, but Sodders isn’t making that case here. Instead, his ad implies that Jech is unfit for office because she backed a bond issue to pay for community college improvements–bonding many voters in Senate district 36 supported.

Bashing Jech for attending some conferences and supporting renovations is a cheap shot and an insult to the voters’ intelligence. Really, Iowa Democratic Party? We “can’t afford” Jane Jech in the Senate because she might spend $48,000 on remodeling?

Huge issues are at stake in the Iowa Senate races. A Republican majority including Jech would be terrible for education in Iowa, likely ending the voluntary preschool program and setting allowable growth for K-12 districts at very low levels. The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate fought for higher state funding for the Regents universities and community colleges during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions. Putting Republicans in control of the upper chamber would surely lead to less state support for higher education. Moreover, the tax policy agenda supported by Jech would produce tax cuts skewed to wealthy individuals and large corporations, as well as spending cuts affecting government programs that serve thousands of Senate district 36 residents.

Television viewers and radio listeners aren’t hearing about any of this, or for that matter anything positive about Sodders’ record on the economy or education. This campaign strategy doesn’t make any sense to me.

Some of Sodders’ direct mail addresses substantive issues. For instance, one mailing noted that Jech would reduce access to contraceptive care and cancer screenings in Iowa. That charge inspired the following radio ad, which Jech is running on some Des Moines area stations. I heard it for the first time on October 29. I taped the commercial so that I could provide an exact transcript:

Jech’s voice: If you’ve ever lost a family member or friend to cancer, then you know how heart-wrenching and emotionally draining it can be on everyone.

This is Jane Jech. My mother’s near the end of her three-year battle with cancer. Mom has endured many experimental treatments to help find a cure for others. But in the absence of cures, cancer screenings and drug therapies are our best hope.

That’s why I was surprised when I saw a political mailer saying that I opposed access to cancer screenings.

Now, I know I’m involved in a political campaign, but Senator Sodders, you’ve really crossed the line.

To the extent the state Senate has influence over these issues, I’ll actively support access to cancer screenings. But I want Steve Sodders to know that misleading voters will not be rewarded at the ballot box.

In state government, I’ll be a penny-pincher with your tax dollars, but our schools, health care, and public safety will be in my priorities.

I’m Jane Jech asking for your support for the Iowa Senate. Paid for by Jane Jech for Iowa Senate.

Note the skillful use of a tried-and-true political strategy: don’t respond to the attack, respond to a caricature of the attack. Jech says indignantly that she’s not against cancer screenings, avoiding the question of whether she would reduce access to cancer screening by ending state funds for Planned Parenthood. Similarly, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is running commercials stating that he is not against contraception, evading the fact that he has promised to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood’s family planning programs.

This radio ad sounds very effective to me. Not knowing the background related to Planned Parenthood funding, I think the average listener will find Jech persuasive. It was smart for her to deliver the rebuttal herself, instead of hiding behind a professional voice-over.

Speaking to me by telephone today, Jech confirmed that she opposes state money for Planned Parenthood “because it funds abortions” and said she wished Sodders had said that explicitly in his mail piece. When I asked her about the pap smears many low-income and uninsured women receive from Planned Parenthood as part of well-woman care, Jech said other health care providers offer all the same services. (Not all those providers accept patients on Medicaid, or those lacking health insurance coverage.) Jech emphasized that Planned Parenthood does not provide mammograms–which is true, though Planned Parenthood refers some women for mammograms when a physical breast exam shows a sign for concern.

Jech has sent voters quite a bit of negative information about Sodders, some of it false or misleading. One piece accused Sodders of raising state taxes by $571 million between 2006 and 2010, even though Sodders was sworn in for the first time in 2009, so he couldn’t have voted on any tax or budget bills in 2007 and 2008.

A separate direct-mail piece accused Sodders of failing to vote against letting people on food stamps abuse the system. The same misleading “water bottle” charge is being used against all of the Democratic Senate incumbents; Bleeding Heartland provided the background and context here.

Jech is also running a television commercial about I-JOBS on Des Moines stations. It is dishonest from beginning to end. My transcript:

Male voice-over: When state legislators voted for the I-JOBS debt bond plan, they put Iowa families in debt for 25 years to the tune of one billion dollars.

That’s right: Steve Sodders voted to borrow one billion dollars on behalf of Iowa taxpayers. Now every Iowa family is on the hook to pay back one thousand dollars through their taxes.

Steve Sodders paid state bills with debt, rather than making the tough decisions to balance the budget.

Bottom line: Steve Sodders means more debt for us and less money in our pocket.

Four falsehoods in 30 seconds:

1. “Now every Iowa family is on the hook to pay back one thousand dollars through their taxes.” No, gambling revenues are repaying the I-JOBS debt. I asked Jech about this today; she insisted that taking on debt for Iowa indebts all Iowa families and said gambling revenues that could have paid for other things are now being used to pay the I-JOBS debt. That’s a very different point from her ad’s false claim that “every Iowa family is on the hook” to pay back I-JOBS bonds through taxes.

2. “Steve Sodders paid state bills with debt” No, I-JOBS funded capital projects, not ongoing state expenses.

3. “rather than making the tough decisions to balance the budget.” No, Iowa’s budget has been balanced every year. When I asked Jech why she made this charge, given that Iowa’s budget has always been balanced, she cited mid-year spending cuts Governor Chet Culver imposed in 2009 as proof that the budget had not been balanced. But state legislators did pass a balanced budget for fiscal year 2010, matching spending with projected revenues. The mid-year cuts happened because revenues fell way below projections in 2009 as the economy collapsed. That doesn’t mean Senate Democrats passed a budget with a deficit. During our conversation, I got the impression that Jech did not understand that distinction.

4. “Steve Sodders means more debt for us and less money in our pocket.” No, I-JOBS didn’t take any money out of any Iowan’s pocket, nor did it impose any personal debt on any citizen. Jech insists that I-JOBS did force debt on all Iowans.

If Republicans want to make the case against borrowing for infrastructure projects, I wish they would just do that honestly. Maybe Jech could explain where she would have found the money to renovate the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown without the I-JOBS bonding initiative.

I find it ironic that Jech supported bonding for improvements at Iowa Valley Community College but doesn’t understand the difference between I-JOBS borrowing for capital improvements and taking on debt to “pay state bills,” which Sodders never did.

Today I heard a new radio ad for Jech, which seeks to stir up resentment toward incumbent legislators:

Male voice-over: What if you could vote to keep giving yourself free health insurance, and make someone else pay for it? Well, that’s exactly what our state senators did. They voted for free health insurance at the expense of taxpayers. Even if they add their family, it’s still free.

Some state senators said legislators should pay 20 percent of their health insurance, just like average Iowa families do. But when that idea came up for a vote, well, you guessed it. The senators voted it down. Our own Steve Sodders was one of those who voted it down. He voted to keep his free health insurance. Maybe it’s time to switch to Jane Jech.

Jech’s voice: When you represent the people, you should never put yourself above them. Hi, I’m Jane Jech. Most of us have to pay a portion of our health insurance so our families are covered, but Iowa legislators have cut themselves a special deal so they don’t pay anything for their health insurance. It’s time to end the special deals. Send me to the state Senate, and I’ll vote to treat legislators like everyone else, and remind politicians how the rest of us live.

Male voice-over: Jane Jech for state Senate.

Female voice: Paid for by Jane Jech for Iowa Senate.

At least this ad deals with a real policy dispute between Democrats and Republicans, though I suspect Senate Democrats would support that reform if the GOP weren’t simultaneously trying to force thousands of public employees to pay more for their health insurance.

Both of the Iowa House districts contained in Senate district 36 are competitive. Des Moines area radio and television stations are carrying ads for both candidates in the new House district 71, Democratic State Representative Mark Smith and Republican challenger Allen Burt. A post reviewing the advertising in that race is in progress. House district 72 is an open-seat race between Democrat Nathan Wrage and Republican Dean Fisher to replace retiring GOP lawmaker Lance Horbach.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

NOVEMBER 6 UPDATE: If the Iowa Democratic Party had produced a positive ad for Sodders as good as the commercial running for Mike Gronstal in Council Bluffs, I’d feel a lot more confident about this race.

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  • Thoughts

    The same thing is happening here in SD 42.  Rich Taylor is attacking Larry Kruse for supporting budgets that most members of the Lee County Board of Supervisors supported.  Taylor is also attacking Kruse for supporting a gas tax increase while offering no specific plan of his own.

    Nathan Wrage’s personal story is compelling and it would be quite a tale if he were able to defeat Dean Fisher.  

    • ditto in House district 40

      where some Republicans on the Urbandale City Council are upset about the misleading attacks on Democratic candidate John Forbes, based on Urbandale city budgets.

      The gas tax is a legitimate issue to raise in a campaign, in my opinion, because the next legislature will consider it.

      • misleading?

        ….if anything, the concern very much understates the issue since John Forbes went on the council….

        From my 5 minute quick look at the Urbandale budgets online spending has gone up WAY more than even Brown is claiming, with a small increase in population during that period.

        Forbes may not be responsible for all of that out of control spending, as he is only one on that council, but the substantial rise in spending seems to parallel his term.  

        • come on, mirage

          Urbandale has good amenities and a low tax rate compared to other cities of the same size. This “out of control spending” is so overblown.

          • frankly, I do not know what other term to use...

            …when spending goes up well over 70% on your council term in just a few years with a background of the lowest inflation in decades and a 17% increase in population, what else can you call it?  Even a 50% or 60% increases would qualify as “out of control spending” in my book.  I am pretty sure many would agree.

            There is no entity in the world that can sustain those types of spending increases over time. None. While I agree with you that Urbandale has some nice amenities the conservative fiscal discipline demonstrated by the previous administrations earned the majority of that credit. For a long time Urbandale had the lowest tax rate in the area…that is no longer the case.

            Forbes has to be accountable for his record of budget busting spending increases.  I see nothing at all unfair or “misleading” about that.

      • Completely agree/

        Agreed.  The problem is that Taylor offers no specifics while Kruse has openly admitted the need to raise taxes in order to fund certain projects.  The vast difference in knowledge of the issues is quite stunning.  

        Taylor just says he’s not comfortable raising taxes on anyone, he’s running to the right on an issue when he knows its popular view and running to the left when he knows it works well.  Kruse is better in touch with governing realities IMO.