Democrats have failed to convey the importance of the Iowa Senate

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.

  • Very tough

    SD22 was not a winnable district for Dems. Desmund was a very fine candidate and worked his butt off, but the numbers and the circumstances in this particular race and this particular district were just stacked against him.  Plus, as you mentioned, the Senate was not hanging in the balance on the results of this race.

    More broadly, I think Dems do understand the importance of the Senate. They had a chance to take back the House in 2012, but chose to put their eggs in the Senate basket. Maybe if the pressure is off the Senate a bit in 2014, the Dems can make a better run at taking back the House.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the legislature is very important to the daily lives of Iowans. I sure would like to see a little more brain power at work there. It requires people to step up to the plate and realize WE are the govt and get involved.  Some are: locally, Susan Judkins is a smart lady - she doesn't need to serve in the legislature, but she put herself out there, and spent her own money to boot.  John Forbes, successful Urbandale pharmacist, went uphill in a GOP District and won. I don't know anything about the Quirk House District, but the attorney who is running there seems to have given it some thought and stepped up.  None of these three appear to be partisan hacks....good people, accomplished, successful....we need more.

    Idle Musing: I wonder if Merlin Bartz is prepping a cardboard cutout of Sen Ragan for campaign forums?

    • under normal circumstances

      not a winnable district. I do not agree that 5,400 votes was out of reach for Democrats in this special election, though. Republicans are fortunate to have squeaked by with such poor turnout on their side.

      Democratic Party leaders may understand why the Senate majority is important, but too many rank and file Democrats have not gotten this message, including people who are active enough to have attended Iowa caucuses.

    • I would love to see Bartz try that stunt with Sen. Ragan.

      Love to. She has a few more years of dealing with Bartz than Se. Wilhelm had, and she is one tough cookie. I don't think he'll be doing that, though.  It hurt him.

      • Ragan is very popular

        and tough, but Bartz's old Senate district 6 included all of Franklin County and most of Cerro Gordo (just not the Mason City area). Senate district 27 could be an epic battle between them.

      • It DID hurt him...

        all it took was for a few dozen women in the district to be offended by the cardboard cutout, and, voila, you've lost the election by a few votes, which is exactly what happened. Why risk alienating half the electorate with something that stupid? Lose it on the issues, for gosh sakes.  That is why I think he is just not too bright...many other reasons as well. Would love to see him and Amanda at a candidate forum.  Mincemeat.  

        • in more ways than one

          It hurt him with the people who knew about the cut-out but more importantly, he spent a ton of campaign money sending out a three page letter from his wife to offset the backlash. He ended up sending the letter from his wife to almost every female voter. Postage for that ain't cheap. That was a lot of money that could have been spent on radio.

          Ragan will have had three years to have been campaigning but right now in SD-27 Bartz has more name ID. Of course as he learned this past November, just because people know who he is doesn't mean that they like him.

        • senate 18/Bartz

          One other big difference between 18 and 22 is that 18 had grown tremendously since first being created.  18 was really like 1 3/4 districts, and that certainly helped the turnout.

          I hope that the Democrats study the differences between the two special elections.  Despite the registration numbers, this was a winnable race as a special election, and potentially a seat that a Democratic incumbent could hold.  This is a race (like the Council Bluffs House seats) that could have been flipped with better turnout

          I think Bartz is definitely looking at running in Mason City.  It's a better district and is in a non-presidential year, and frankly, he's going to get a lot of encouragement to run.  The Republicans have several tough seats to hold in 2014 (but better an incumbent in a tough seat than a challenger in a tough seat).  They lost any chance at taking the Senate in 2010 by recruiting terrible candidates in Ft. Dodge and Mason City (perhaps it was a case of terrible self-recruited candidates).  It's why the loss in 22 is so hard - I never expected Adams to win in the general, but the D's liked to talk him up.  That effort just seemed to disappear with the special election.

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