Four strategies for interest group Iowa legislative endorsements

Many candidates for the Iowa House and Senate tout endorsements by outside groups in their campaign communications. Some of those groups pay for direct mail, phone calls, or even advertising supporting their endorsed candidates.

Iowa’s influential political action committees and advocacy groups have very different ways of getting involved in the state legislative campaign. Follow me after the jump for examples of four distinct strategies.

Bipartisan, focused on protecting incumbents

For many corporate or industry-aligned PACs, giving money to elected officials in both parties is an insurance policy. We see the same phenomenon in Iowa as some organizations endorse numerous state representatives and senators from both parties for re-election. Two good examples come to mind: the Iowa Corn Growers Association PAC and the Iowa Credit Unions League.

The Corn Growers PAC endorsed 67 incumbents for re-election but no challengers or candidates in open House and Senate districts.

For Iowa Senate (13):

Merlin Bartz (R), Jerry Behn (R), Thomas Courtney (D), Jeff Danielson (D), Dick Dearden (D), Joni Ernst (R), Randy Feenstra (R), Mike Gronstal (D), Shawn Hamerlinck (R), Tim Kapucian (R), Brian Schoenjahn (D), Steve Sodders (D), and Mary Jo Wilhelm (D).

For Iowa House of Representatives (54):

Dwayne Alons (R), Chip Baltimore (R), Clel Baudler (R), Josh Byrnes (R), Dennis Cohoon (D), Peter Cownie (R), Dave Deyoe (R), Cecil Dolecheck (R), Jack Drake (R), Greg Forristall (R), Joel Fry (R), Julian Garrett (R), Pat Grassley (R), Bob Hager (R), Chris Hall (D), Curt Hanson (D), Mary Ann Hanusa (R), David Heaton (R), Bill Heckroth (D), Lisa Heddens (D), Lee Hein (R), Dan Huseman (R), Ron Jorgensen (R), Anesa Kajtazovic (D), Jerry Kearns (D), Dan Kelley (D), Jarad Klein (R), Kevin Koester (R), Bob Kressig (D), Jim Lykam (D), Mary Mascher (D), Kevin McCarthy (D), Helen Miller (D), Brian Moore (R), Dan Muhlbauer (D), Patrick Murphy (D), Steve Olson (R), Kraig Paulsen (R), Ross Paustian (R), Brian Quirk (D), Henry Rayhons (R), Walt Rogers (R), Kirsten Running-Marquardt (D), Thomas Sands (R), Renee Schulte (R), Jason Schultz (R), Jeff Smith (R), Mark Smith (D), Chuck Soderberg (R), Roger Thomas (D), Linda Upmeyer (R), Matt Windschitl (R), John Wittneben (D) and Gary Worthan (R).

Some of those incumbents are unopposed, while others are fighting for their political lives. Many have been members of agriculture and/or appropriations committees in the Iowa House or Senate during the past two years.

The Iowa Credit Union League endorsed 58 Iowa House candidates, including many from each party. Most are incumbents or candidates in open-seat races. The only challenger on the list is Tom Schueller, and he’s a former incumbent who lost his Iowa House seat in 2010.

The credit unions group is also backing 25 senators or Senate candidates. A few will not be up for re-election until 2014. The others are a mixture of incumbents and candidates in open-seat races.

Support is not determined by party affiliation or on political ideology, but rather on where candidates stand on the import issues facing credit unions and their members. In the case of incumbents, it’s based on their voting record on important credit union issues as well as responses to our candidate questionnaire. In the case of challengers and open seat candidates, it’s based on the questionnaire and, many times, in-person conversations with credit union and ICUL staff. The analysis is thorough and substantive.

As a result of this non-political analysis, credit unions are supporting Republicans and Democrats at almost equal levels in 2012. The amount of CUPAC contributions that have been provided to state legislative candidates is very close to 50/50. In short, support is based on policy, not politics.

The Iowa Credit Union PAC has sent direct mail on behalf of three incumbent senators in tough races: Democrat Jeff Danielson (Senate district 30) and Republicans Merlin Bartz (Senate district 26) and Shawn Hamerlinck (Senate district 46). The eye-catching mail pieces advocating for Bartz, Hamerlinck, and Danielson have a similar look and feel. No matter which party gains control of the Iowa Senate, someone in the majority caucus will be particularly grateful to the credit unions.

Bipartisan, but willing to take on unfriendly incumbents

Some interest groups are willing to support any incumbent who supports their agenda, regardless of party. At the same time, they don’t hesitate to endorse challengers to lawmakers who vote against their agenda. The National Rifle Association is a good example. You can view their 2012 endorsements for Iowa here, along with grades for all of the sitting legislators up for re-election. Although the NRA backs a lot more Republicans than Democrats, two Democratic senators (Tom Courtney and Dick Dearden) did receive the group’s seal of approval. Dearden championed the return of dove-hunting to Iowa and has led the charge against restricting dove hunters’ use of lead ammunition.

The NRA isn’t supporting any Iowa House Democrats this year, because the whole House Democratic caucus opposed “stand your ground” legislation during the 2012 session. Many Republican challengers have the NRA’s backing.  

But during the 2010 campaign, the NRA endorsed lots of Democratic lawmakers as well as Governor Chet Culver. That year, a Democratic-controlled Iowa House and Senate passed legislation making it easier to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Partisan, but mostly leaving incumbents alone

The Iowa Industry PAC, affiliated with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, is a good example of an interest group with a mostly partisan approach to elections. The Iowa Industry PAC describes itself as “non-partisan,” supporting candidates from both parties. In reality, this group backs only a handful of token Democrats during each election cycle. In 2010, the PAC endorsed only three Democratic senators (two at no risk of losing) and a few House Democrats who had helped block pro-labor legislation.

This year, Brian Quirk and Dave Jacoby are the only Iowa House Democrats to receive the Iowa Industry PAC’s endorsement. Neither has a general election opponent on the ballot (pdf). CORRECTION: The Iowa Industry PAC endorsed seven Democratic Iowa House candidates. Three have no opponent on the ballot (Quirk, Jacoby, and Nancy Dunkel). Two are in districts Democrats should win easily (Helen Miller and Sally Stutsman). The other two are in heavily contested seats (Dan Muhlbauer and Joe Riding).

Meanwhile, only two sitting Senate Democrats received the Iowa Industry PAC’s 2012 endorsement, Liz Mathis and Steve Sodders. A few months ago, political insiders expected both to win re-election, although the Sodders race in Senate district 36 is up in the air.

Whereas the truly bipartisan Iowa Credit Union PAC endorsed many Democrats and Republicans running for open seats, the Iowa Industry PAC endorsed solely mostly Republicans in House and Senate districts lacking an incumbent. (Correction: Riding, Stutsman, and Dunkel are running in open seats.) Clearly this PAC wants Republicans to hold their Iowa House majority and take control of the Iowa Senate.

That said, the Iowa Industry PAC appears less willing to make waves than the NRA. Only two GOP challengers have the PAC’s official endorsement: Matt Reisetter (Danielson’s opponent in Senate district 30) and Allen Burt (running against Mark Smith in House district 71).

Majority-making ideological: partisan and actively opposing unfriendly incumbents

For some interest groups, one political party is clearly more in line with the legislative agenda. Those groups can only hope to exercise real influence when that party is in the majority. So, labor unions endorse many Democratic incumbents and some (but not all) challengers to sitting Republicans. That’s not to say a labor union wouldn’t endorse a pro-labor Republican if one existed, but Iowans aren’t likely to see that kind of candidate in my lifetime.

On the other side of the spectrum, social conservative groups like Iowa Right to Life and the FAMiLY Leader (formerly the Iowa Family Policy Center) endorse a wide range of Republican incumbents, challengers, and candidates for open seats. Bleeding Heartland covered the FAMiLY Leader’s spending in 2012 legislative races here.

There are no longer any pro-choice Republicans in the Iowa House or Senate. In the old days, a handful used to receive support from Planned Parenthood’s PAC. Now Planned Parenthood Voters of Iowa endorses only certain Democratic candidates.

The Iowans for Tax Relief PAC endorsed 13 state legislative candidates this year, all Republicans: incumbents Jerry Behn, Chip Baltimore, and Guy Vander Linden; challengers Matt Reisetter, Jim Kenyon, Jane Jech, Mark Nelson, and Mike Klimesh; and open-seat candidates John Landon, Dan Zumbach, Greg Heartsill, Andrew Naeve, and Amy Sinclair. Usually this group endorses more Republicans, but during the past year a bunch of GOP legislators and candidates have expressed support for raising the gasoline tax.

I would put the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s PAC in this category too, because they are heavily skewed toward the Republican side, despite endorsing a few token Democrats like the Iowa Industry PAC does. The Farm Bureau survey for legislative candidates includes a few questions that have little apparent relevance for farmers but come straight out of GOP talking points:

3. Do you believe that one-time money, such as the state’s ending fund balance, should be spent on one-time expenditures or on-going expenses? […]

11.  Do you support expanding the scope of negotiation under Iowa ‘s collective bargaining law? […]

14. Do you support voters registering and voting on the same day?

This year the Farm Bureau refused to release their full list of Iowa legislative endorsements, but Republican press releases posted here show that mostly GOP candidates got the “Friend of Agriculture” nod, including incumbents Jerry Behn and Pat Ward, challenger Jane Jech, and open-seat candidates Amy Sinclair, Andrew Naeve, Michael Breitbach, Larry Kruse, and Mark Segebart. I am not aware of any sitting Democrats endorsed as “Friends of Agriculture” other than Senator Brian Schoenjahn.

Notably, three Republicans were endorsed by both the Farm Bureau Federation and Iowans for Tax relief: Behn, Jech, and Naeve. All three of their races are important for the GOP’s quest for a Senate majority. Supporting the gas tax hike is a good thing from the Farm Bureau’s perspective but anathema to Iowans for Tax Relief, which explains some of the Republican names missing from each group’s endorsement list.  

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