Four comments and a question about the IA-01 Democratic primary results

Past time for a post-mortem on the five-way Democratic primary in the open first Congressional district. Here are the unofficial results from June 3:

IA-01 Democratic primary results photo Screenshot2014-06-10at95141AM_zps4ce44fc8.png

A few thoughts struck me as I reflected on this campaign and looked more closely at the results.  

1. Pat Murphy won thanks to Monica Vernon and Swati Dandekar splitting three key constituencies in the primary: voters who wanted to send a woman to Congress, Linn County residents, and moderates.

When Bruce Braley announced plans to run for U.S. Senate, many Democrats including me were excited about the opportunity to elect a woman to Congress from Iowa for the first time. But Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum soon ruled out the race, and so did State Senator Liz Mathis. Mathis could have won the primary easily, given her high profile from years as a news broadcaster in Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon, former State Senator Swati Dandekar, and State Representative Anesa Kajtazovic each attracted support among Democrats who were highly motivated to elect a woman.

Nearly a third of the registered Democrats in IA-01 live in Linn County. Both Vernon and Dandekar had won elective office there multiple times. Dandekar was a school board member in Linn-Mar before she was elected to an Iowa House and later an Iowa Senate seat in the Cedar Rapids suburbs. (Dave O’Brien has also lived and practiced law in Linn County for many years.)

Vernon had been a Republican until about five years ago. Dandekar was among the more conservative Democrats in the Iowa legislature, and many people were upset that she jeopardized the 26 to 24 Iowa Senate majority when she resigned to accept a job offer from Governor Terry Branstad in 2011. I would bet that Vernon was the second choice of most Dandekar voters, and that Dandekar was the second choice of many moderates who favored Vernon.

Murphy won the primary with roughly 10,171 votes (unofficial results may change slightly in the final canvass). Vernon and Dandekar won more than 11,600 votes combined. Take Dandekar out of the race, and I think Vernon wins.

2. If you take out everyone’s home county, the finishing order would be the same, but Murphy would have won by a larger margin.

You can find results from all 20 counties in IA-01 here.

Murphy led in eighteen counties, all but Linn and Black Hawk. He won the most raw votes (4,117) and the highest percentage (74 percent) in Dubuque County. With the most name recognition and the longest career in politics, he managed to win nearly 6,000 votes outside his home county.

Vernon carried Linn County with 37.4 percent and finished second in most of the other counties. Unofficial results show that 3,893 of her 6,543 total votes came from her home county. Both Mathis and State Senator Rob Hogg, who also represents a Linn County district, endorsed Vernon before the primary.

Dandekar finished a close second in Linn with 32.1 percent and 3,341 votes. District-wide, she drew 5,070 votes in the primary.

Kajtazovic, who has represented a Waterloo-based Iowa House district for the past four years, crushed it in Black Hawk County with 2,546 votes (58.7 percent). That’s more than 60 percent of the 4,062 votes she pulled district-wide. I was surprised that Vernon and Dandekar drew more support outside their home counties than Kajtazovic did.

O’Brien finished fifth in the primary with 1,844 votes, 835 of them coming from Linn County.

3. Although Kajtazovic and O’Brien ran on progressive platforms, there wasn’t room to win this primary by running to Murphy’s left.

The former Iowa House speaker didn’t have a perfect record for progressives by any means, but he won the majority of the labor union endorsements and somehow got several national groups to back him too (Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Blue America PAC, Human Rights Campaign).

Murphy’s two television commercials before the primary hit on progressive themes: raising the minimum wage, expanding health care for children, and supporting equal pay for women.

Murphy’s second tv ad was almost entirely focused on “paycheck fairness,” which he said is not merely a “women’s issue.”

4. Signs point to Murphy winning the nomination even if it had gone to convention.

If Murphy had finished below the 35 percent threshold, a special district convention would have picked the nominee. I’ve long thought Murphy would have the advantage in a convention scenario, since he has the most longstanding relationships with Democratic activists around northeast Iowa. He probably would have led among district convention delegates from the eighteen counties he carried on June 3. Organized labor support would also have been helpful at a convention. Murphy only won 17.6 percent of the votes in Linn County, but I suspect he would have done better than Dandekar among district convention delegates from Linn.

Now for the big question: since Murphy was the front-runner throughout the primary campaign, why did none of the other candidates present a case against him?

All of the Democratic candidates in IA-01 raised enough money to conduct internal polling and fund direct mail and paid advertising before the primary. Everyone knew all along that Murphy had a lead, that three candidates were splitting the Linn County vote, and three candidates were splitting the votes of Democrats who preferred a woman. The few polls released this spring indicated that Murphy had a shot at winning the primary outright with more than 35 percent.

Erin Murphy focused on the remarkably “civil” campaign in IA-01 in a May 26 feature for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald:

The campaigns for Dave O’Brien, Monica Vernon and Swati Dandekar last week told TH Media they will continue to focus on their message and not resort to attacking other candidates, in particular Pat Murphy, who a recent Loras College Poll showed with a 23-point lead over the others.

“I’m a Democrat first. End of story. So that’s just not going to happen,” O’Brien said. At a recent forum in Bellevue, Iowa, O’Brien said he would not be responsible for providing debate fodder to the Democratic nominee’s Republican opponent during this fall’s general election. […]

Dandekar said she does not plan to attack another candidate.

“I’ll be focusing on rallying my supporters throughout the 1st District,” the former state legislator said. “I have earned the 1st District’s support in six elections through tireless hard work and honest values both in public and in private — and it’s how I’m going to win this election.” […]

A spokeswoman for Vernon’s campaign made a similar point of focusing on Vernon’s background while also drawing a contrast with Murphy, a longtime state legislator.

“We are hearing from voters across the 1st District that Monica’s story of raising three daughters, while starting a small business is resonating,” Brenda Kole said. “We know voters are looking for a fresh approach — not a career politician.”

“Career politician” tends to be a pejorative phrase, but legislative experience is hardly a compelling reason not to support the front-runner in a Congressional primary.

Tactically, going negative would have been an easier call in a two-person race. In a field of five candidates, a hit on A by B may drive votes to some other option. That may be why no one went after Murphy.

Still, messages could have been deployed to reduce Murphy’s support without any low blows that might have prompted a backlash. To my knowledge, no one bothered to tell voters that as Iowa House speaker, Murphy failed to pass key legislative priorities for organized labor, such as prevailing wage and choice of doctor, let alone the impossible dream of “fair share,” even in scaled-back form. The Democratic majority did pass one collective bargaining bill, which Governor Chet Culver vetoed in 2008. For reasons I never understood, Murphy was unable to get a similar bill through the Iowa House the following year, even though the Democratic majority had increased from 53-47 to 56-44 after the 2008 election.

No one pointed out the failure to fully fund REAP or pass stronger environmental protections while Democrats had the Iowa House majority.

No one criticized Murphy for recruiting and spending money to elect two Democratic candidates who later switched to the Republican caucus (Doug Struyk and Dawn Pettengill). We’re still stuck with Pettengill and probably would be stuck with Struyk if he hadn’t retired in 2010.

No one highlighted the failure to hold the Democratic legislative majority in 2010. Obviously you can’t pin the whole national atmosphere that fueled the GOP landslide on Murphy, but Iowa House leaders had recruiting and targeting failures during that campaign. Those facts could have been used to raise questions about Murphy’s electability in a midterm election year. Although IA-01 leans Democratic, Republicans have won districts with a similar political profile.

Given Murphy’s final vote share of 36.7 percent, even a modest effort to build a case against him could have held him below 35 percent on June 3.

Please share any relevant comments in this thread.

Final note: I kept putting off my Democratic primary news roundup until I’d seen more of the candidates’ messaging, including final television commercials. Then, with all the news from the IA-Sen race and the Republican campaign in IA-03, I ran out of time to finish writing the IA-01 post before June 3. Lesson learned for the next election year.  

  • what works?

    While ads that take away the luster from a candidate are effective, you have to have facts that will effectively move voters. Those facts are tested in polls and the ones that are the most effective are used. The facts you’ve listed above, while true, may not have been compelling to the likely participants in the district. While it’s not common, it is possible that none of Murphy’s negatives resonated with the Democratic primary voters.

    • that may be true

      and a lot of what I mentioned was inside baseball anyway, probably wouldn’t resonate with most voters. But it seems strange that the other candidates raised all this money, could see what was coming 100 miles away, and just watched it happen instead of trying to do something about it.  

  • Dandekar

    You are right about Dandekar and Vernon taking votes from each other.  I think with a Tyler Olson running for Governor, it would have increased turnout…How much?  We’ll never know.  I think if the turnout had been higher and if more money from IA-2 had flown into Anesa’s coffers she could very well have won.  

    I still contend that if Dandekar really thought Dems would lose her Senate seat that she wouldn’t have taken the Utilities Board appointment.   Moot point I guess because people don’t like the 6 pack although national progressives probably wouldn’t count that many members of the Iowa legislature in the progressive hero ranks because of our ties to agriculture and use of traditional transportation.  

    • a competitive gubernatorial primary

      would have increased turnout for sure. More Democrats cast ballots in the 2006 IA-01 Democratic primary, even though at that time the district covered one-fifth of the state’s population, rather than one-fourth as now. In 2006 there was the hard-fought Culver, Blouin, Fallon primary.

      Looking at the results, I don’t see how Anesa could have won this primary, even with higher turnout. She had high-profile endorsers but that did not convert to many votes outside her home county.

      It may well be that Dandekar felt confident Democrats would hold her seat. I believe Mathis held it more easily than Dandekar would have in 2012 anyway.

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