Adventures in wishful thinking

Longtime Republican Polk County Supervisor Robert Brownell apologized this week for calling Democratic State Senator Tony Bisignano names in an e-mail to seven Iowa House Republicans.

Such classless behavior is unbecoming an elected official, but Brownell’s faulty political analysis is perhaps more shocking. In the controversial e-mail, Brownell speculated that Republicans could retake the Iowa Senate majority in 2016 if State Senator Matt McCoy decides to run for Congress.

Sorry, no.  

Timothy Meinch posted the full text of Brownell’s e-mail in this piece for the Des Moines Register. The newsworthy angle was Brownell calling Bisignano “odious” and “Senator Boozehound” in the message to seven Republicans representing parts of Polk County. But for this political junkie, another passage was more eye-catching. Referring to a dispute over a bill on compensating local officials, Brownell wrote,

The other beautiful part of this is the acrimony being generated between the Polk County Democrats and the Senate Democratic caucus. It’s a wonderful thing to watch. I am confident in speculating, based on what I see and hear, if Senator [Matt] McCoy runs for Congress, the Polk Democrats will throw ZERO financial or practical support behind the Democrat senate candidate in SW DSM [Des Moines] and WDM [West Des Moines]. All we have to do is put forth a credible candidate and we can rid ourselves of a Democrat majority in the Iowa Senate.

How many ways can a political veteran be wrong in one short paragraph?

McCoy was just re-elected to another four-year term in 2014. Consequently, Iowa Senate district 21 will not be on the ballot in 2016, even if McCoy runs for Congress in Iowa’s third district. Only the 25 even-numbered Iowa Senate districts will be on the ballot next November.

If McCoy wins the Democratic nomination in IA-03 and defeats Representative David Young, a special election will be held in early 2017 to represent Senate district 21, covering parts of Des Moines and West Des Moines. To put it mildly, that seat isn’t promising territory for Republicans. The latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office indicate that McCoy’s district contains nearly 4,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. The most Democratic-leaning district currently held by a Republican is Senate district 41. The voter registration edge there is less than 3,000, which should have been enough, had Democrats not nominated a flawed challenger in a GOP wave year.

If McCoy wins his Congressional race and a special election is held in Senate district 21 afterward, the Democratic nominee will not depend on Polk County Supervisor John Mauro or other local officials to win the race. Senate Majority Mike Gronstal calls the shots on allocating resources in any potentially competitive Senate election. He would never take his eye off the ball in an open-seat race because of some bad blood between Bisignano and Mauro.

Brownell goes on to speculate that Bisignano “will have helped us pave the way for a majority in the Iowa Senate by alienating Polk County Democrats.” Bisignano isn’t a strong fundraiser, Brownell notes, and Polk County’s elected Democrats wouldn’t be able to use their “large war-chests” to defend McCoy’s former Senate seat.

Apparently Brownell doesn’t realize that legislative leaders raise the lion’s share of the money spent in competitive statehouse elections. Gronstal won’t have trouble collecting enough cash to defend any seat in play, because the Iowa Senate is the firewall against a Republican trifecta. Lots of Democrats will happily give to keep Iowa from ending up like Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, or Pennsylvania. Gronstal raised more than $685,000 during the 2014 calendar year alone, and Senate President Pam Jochum raised more than $140,000.

Brownell’s message to the Iowa House Republicans suggests an exaggerated view of fellow Supervisor Mauro’s influence. Sure, he’s a south-side fixture, but he’s hardly a kingmaker in state legislative races. During last year’s Democratic primary to represent Iowa Senate district 17, Mauro’s preferred candidate Ned Chiodo finished third out of three contenders.

Finally, it’s ludicrous to imply that Senate Democrats would turn their backs on a nominee to replace McCoy because of Brownell’s imagined “acrimony” over obscure legislation. Few people inside or outside the Capitol care whether Bisignano’s bill lives or dies.

The final sentence of Brownell’s e-mail refers to good Republican prospects for taking the Iowa Senate in 2016. Whether that happens will depend on many factors, such as retirements and candidate recruitment in eight or ten key districts and each party’s strength at the top of the ticket.

To paraphrase Brownell, “I am confident in speculating” that neither McCoy’s decision on a Congressional bid nor the Bisignano/Mauro grudge match will help determine which party controls the Iowa legislature’s upper chamber in 2017.

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