On one level, yesterday's special election in Iowa Senate district 22 was no surprise. One would expect a Republican victory in a district with a large GOP voter registration advantage, where Republicans spent far more money and only the Republican candidate ran television commercials.
On the other hand, the special election loss is a big red flag that Iowa Democrats have failed to communicate how crucial it is to hold their narrow Senate majority.
The western suburbs of Des Moines are not promising territory for Democrats, but in Desmund Adams, Democrats had a hard-working candidate with a compelling personal story. Adams knocked on nearly 8,000 doors and appeared at countless public events around the district during the past two years. Anything can happen in a special election, and turnout was poor yesterday on both sides. Charles Schneider defeated Adams by 5,371 votes to 4,117.
That's barely 20 percent turnout in a district with 12,926 registered Democrats, 17,392 Republicans, and 15,996 no-party voters as of December 2012 (pdf).
More than 23,000 voters cast ballots in the 2011 special election to represent Iowa Senate district 18. The early vote alone in that election nearly matched total participation in yesterday's election.
The early vote in Senate district 22 was lower than I expected. As of December 11, 1,723 Democrats in Senate district 22 had returned ballots, compared to 2,236 Republicans, 455 no-party voters, and one voter with another party registration.
Iowa Senate Democrats did at least two district-wide mailings of absentee ballot requests to Democrats, but the return rate was extremely low. Volunteers including myself made follow-up phone calls and knocked on doors. Some labor unions also had people out on the doors, at least in Polk County precincts. It was hard to catch people at home during the holiday season, and hard to get people interested in a special election so soon after the marathon presidential race. "We're just so over the elections," one registered Democrat told me at the door.
Talking about this race with many friends and acquaintances, I realized that even highly engaged Democrats do not always know how much is riding on the narrow Iowa Senate majority. Name almost any government service that's important to Democrats (early childhood education, K-12 education, higher education, health care, transportation). Without the Senate majority, Iowa would be spending less on that priority. Name any right that's important to Democrats (pro-choice, marriage equality, collective bargaining). Those rights would have been eroded without the Senate majority.
Senate district 22 was always a long-shot but should have been achievable, especially since the Republican candidate only managed to garner 5,371 votes--nothing to brag about given the money they spent.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare this special election to Senate district 18, when control of the Senate was riding on the outcome. In this case, we already knew Democrats would retain a majority for the next two years. The question was whether that majority would grow from 26-24 to 27-23. Also, the Senate district 18 special didn't happen in the context of election fatigue and the holiday season.
Still, a top priority for whoever will lead the Iowa Democratic Party into the next election cycle must be educating Democrats about the state legislature's importance. In many ways, state lawmakers influence our daily lives more than whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican.
There will be no Obama for America machine working Iowa in 2014. Governor Terry Branstad is guaranteed to have more campaign funds than his Democratic opponent. The Iowa Democratic Party's "coordinated campaign" for GOTV may not be able to match Republican spending, even if Senator Tom Harkin seeks a sixth term and especially if he retires.
Prospects for holding the Iowa Senate majority appear strong, since Republicans have fewer targets than they had in 2012. Looking ahead to the 2014 elections, Democrats will hold fourteen of the 25 Iowa Senate districts on the ballot. But only a few of the Democratic-held seats look potentially competitive, especially if any of the following incumbents retire: Daryl Beall (Senate district 5), Dennis Black (district 15), Amanda Ragan (district 27), and Rita Hart (district 49). Just-defeated Republican Merlin Bartz may be setting himself up to run against Ragan.
Democrats should take nothing for granted looking to 2014. Another GOP landslide like 2010 (mediocre economy, "Obamacare" not perceived to be working, low turnout among Democratic-leaning groups) could easily claim the political lives of incumbent senators who appear "safe" now.
Democrats don't have many promising Iowa Senate targets in 2014. Of the eleven Republicans up for re-election, only two represent districts with a significant Democratic voter registration advantage: Rick Bertrand (Senate district 7, Sioux City) and Mark Chelgren (district 41, including Ottumwa and Fairfield). Sandy Greiner's district 39 is relatively balanced in terms of voter registration, but if she runs for re-election, this well-known incumbent will have a big advantage. Greiner can raise as much money as she needs, given her long previous incumbency and her involvement with the 501(c)4 group American Future Fund.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.