Latest IA-Sen news: taxes, spending, and problem solving

Time for another discussion thread on the race for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat. Recent news on the campaign is after the jump.

So far two Republicans have confirmed plans to seek the Senate seat. Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker’s campaign website is up and running. He plans a formal announcement on June 3.

Earlier this month, Ames attorney Paul Lunde said he plans to run as well. Best known as the Republican challenger to Representative Neal Smith in 1992, Lunde is unlikely to become a factor in the GOP primary.

I haven’t heard any news lately about Senator Chuck Grassley’s staffer David Young, who has been talking with Iowa Republicans about the race.

Secretary of State Matt Schultz traveled to Washington last week to talk about a possible Senate bid.  State Senator Joni Ernst and former State Representative Rod Roberts told the Omaha World-Herald’s Andrew Nelson that “they would also likely travel to Washington as they decide whether to enter the race.”

Ernst, who served as the Montgomery County auditor for six years before winning a special election to the Iowa Senate in January 2011, said she planned to decide soon but didn’t know when and needed to consult with a wide range of people before she does.

“I look at the federal government and where we are in the United States today, and I see out-of-control spending and a huge deficit,” Ernst said. “I would really like to focus my efforts in that area.”

Memo to Ernst: in reality, the federal deficit is falling much faster than the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office previously estimated. The important task for Congress now is to “not blow it and keep the recovery on track”–that is, not to starve the economy with too much austerity.

One sign that Ernst is leaning toward running: she changed her mind about raising Iowa’s gasoline tax. Mike Wiser reported on May 15,

State Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, said her potential bid to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin in the Senate weighed on her mind when she decided to pull her support from the controversial tax increase.

“I think so, when we look at Iowa as a whole,” Ernst said. “I tend to focus on my district, but we do have to look at the big picture.”

She said the fuel tax may have benefited her rural southern Iowa district, especially if the formula was figured differently, “but we get such a small percentage of any increase that (a fuel tax hike is) not worth it unless we see reductions in other areas.” […]

Ernst said she agreed to support the fuel tax increase if there was movement on property tax reform, but that’s been holed up in conference committee. She said the state already is spending more money than it did last year and still not offering substantial tax relief.

“Right now, we’re looking at an increase of over 3 percent from general fund dollars, but when you look at one-time money being spent, you’re looking at over a 6 percent increase in spending, and I can’t do that in good conscience,” she said. “I think fuel tax is off the table right now.”

Republicans could do a lot worse than Ernst as a nominee, and I’m not the only Democrat who thinks so. On Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called attention to her past support for a gas tax hike.

“Joni Ernst had no problem raising taxes on all Iowans before she was considering running for Senate, and Iowans deserve better than someone whose personal political ambition is the most important aspect of her decision-making process,” committee spokesman Justin Barasky said. “The truth is, Joni Ernst has been championing a tax increase on Iowa’s middle-class families and probably saw polling showing that’s a really bad idea. What else will Joni Ernst suddenly have a change of heart on now that she has national aspirations?”

For years, lawmakers have debated raising the state’s fuel tax, which has not increased since 1989 and is set at 22 cents. A commission appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad recommended last year an increase of 8 to 10 cents, plus boosts in certain fees to pay for a backlog of road repairs. […]

On Monday, Ernst said she changed her mind on the tax because the state is doing much better financially than it once was.

“After years of mismanagement by Democratic governors, we now have a healthy surplus in the state,” she said. “I think there are other ways to pay for road repairs than raising taxes.”

She’s wrong about “mismanagement”; Iowa finished the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years in surplus, based on budgets passed by a Democratic legislature and signed by Governor Chet Culver. But Iowa Republicans will continue to push their false narrative through the next election cycle.

It’s no surprise that Ernst supported the gas tax increase; quite a few Republicans representing rural districts saw that policy as a way to improve crumbling farm to market roads. But the major interest groups that have lobbied for the policy, such as road builders and the Iowa Farm Bureau, have less influence in a statewide race than they do at the Iowa capitol.

Representative Bruce Braley still appears likely to be unchallenged for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Last week his campaign launched the “Iowa Problem Solver” website to showcase how “Bruce Braley fights for common sense solutions and gets things done for Iowa” as a member of Congress since 2007. So far, featured posts have highlighted how Braley:

worked to keep Iowa air traffic control towers open;

wrote legislation that “gave employers a payroll tax cut if they hired someone who was unemployed for more than 60 days”;

helped pass language providing tax credits “to businesses that hire previously unemployed veterans and veterans returning from service abroad”;

fought to keep student loan interest rates low;

created a “worker training program for renewable energy jobs”;

secured federal funds to rebuild two railroad bridges destroyed by the 2008 floods;

helped make the adoption tax credit permanent;

fought to pass the “bipartisan farm bill” last year;

helped changed Medicare reimbursement rates for Iowa health care providers (as part of the 2010 health care reform law);

pushed for federal funds to help “enforce traffic laws that punish reckless drivers for illegally passing stopped school buses;

worked to change regulations that would have hurt a Marshalltown manufacturer;

fought to keep rural post offices open;

and “worked to give farmers a voice at the EPA.” (Bleeding Heartland took a less favorable view of that “problem solving.”)

Final note: For whatever reason, Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson and Kate Nocera ranked Braley number 13 on their list of “biggest Bros” of Congress.

Any comments about the Senate race are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: With the Boy Scouts about to vote on whether to allow LGBT scouts and leaders to participate, Braley continues to urge supporters to sign his campaign’s petition to lift the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay youth and parents. These progressive issue-based petitions are a good list-building tactic for the Braley campaign in the absence of primary competition or a Republican candidate to define yet.

At least one Bleeding Heartland reader was polled this week by Quinnipac, asking about Ernst, Whitaker and Republican Party of Iowa chair A.J. Spiker as potential Senate candidates. Anyone else receive the same polling phone call?

  • Ernst

    I wonder about her ability to raise money, and since she is from southwest Iowa, she isn’t very well known statewide. Also, not that it matters one whit to Iowa voters, she is a climate change denier. At least she drives a hybrid. At this point, I’m still betting Matt W. is the ultimate nominee. Anything new on Latham reconsidering?  I don’t see Whitaker or Ernst beating Braley at this point, but obviously a long, long way to go.

    • other people will raise money for her

      if she becomes the establishment favorite. She will need money to introduce herself to voters statewide.

      I haven’t heard anything new about Latham. I think he would only reconsider if the polling of their primary candidates looks dire next winter.

  • Blah

    Do Ernst and the DSCC have another funding mechanism?  I know that the Tea Party and Progressives kind of unite in their confusion as to why some people either 1. live in rural America 2. genuinely care about economic development there.

    President Obama put together a commission on the highway trust fund for example and they had some interesting proposals.  I’ll have to do some digging and see what I can find.  

    I’m not necessarily for the increase if other options can be found, but it is is irresponsible to take the option off the table.  

  • Young

    TIR is reporting Young is in and had assembled a team of consultants. I doubt an inside the beltway guy has much of a shot. Shooting fish in a barrel for any opponent.

    • I think so too

      I don’t understand where he thinks his path lies. But if he can raise money with Grassley’s help, I’m sure plenty of consultants will be happy to help him spend the money in a hopeless cause.

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