Throwback Thursday: Curt Hanson's crucial Iowa House special election victory

Today is State Representative Curt Hanson's birthday. Six years ago at this time, he was in the thick of the first state legislative campaign following the Iowa Supreme Court's Varnum v Brien ruling on marriage equality. Hanson's win in a highly competitive House district was probably the second most important special election in recent Iowa history (after Liz Mathis's victory in November 2011, which protected the Democratic Iowa Senate majority).

Kicking off an occasional "throwback Thursday" series, Bleeding Heartland takes a look at Hanson's first campaign for the Iowa House.

Iowa House district 90 opened up in July 2009, when U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tapped Democratic State Representative John Whitaker to serve as Iowa state executive director for the USDA's Farm Service Agency. Whitaker was in the middle of his fourth term in the Iowa House, and before that had been a Van Buren County supervisor for nine years. He was such an entrenched incumbent that Republicans did not even field a candidate against him in 2008.

As an open seat, House district 90 was by no means safe for Democrats. It covered all of Van Buren County (mostly rural), much of Jefferson County (including Fairfield), and part of Wapello County (but not heavily Democratic Ottumwa). At the time, Democrats slightly outnumbered Republicans in the district, but the plurality of registered voters aligned with neither party.

Hanson launched his campaign to represent House district 90 immediately after Whitaker announced his resignation from the legislature. Like a lot of state lawmakers, Hanson was a retired educator. Teaching driver's ed in the Fairfield area for decades had personally acquainted him with thousands of the district's voters--a potentially big asset, especially in a low-turnout special election.

Republicans landed a strong recruit in Stephen Burgmeier, a farmer who had been elected to three terms as Jefferson County supervisor. The advocacy group Iowans for Tax Relief quickly started "calling most of the shots" in Burgmeier's campaign. Iowans for Tax Relief provided key staff for Burgmeier, assisted by an employee of the Iowa Family Policy Center. Led by Chuck Hurley, the Iowa Family Policy Center was one of the state's most influential social conservative groups at the time. (Later, the center became a founding organization in Bob Vander Plaats' FAMiLY Leader.)

Hurley's outfit had helped organize rallies and other actions to protest the Iowa Supreme Court's April 2009 ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The Iowa Family Policy Center's petition drive to pressure county recorders didn't succeed in convincing any of them to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples but was probably an effective list-building technique.

Burgmeier's campaign downplayed social issues. In keeping with the Iowans for Tax Relief playbook, Burgmeier's television commercial focused on fiscal matters and the infrastructure bonding initiative statehouse Democrats had approved. The candidate avoided talking about same-sex marriage rights or abortion during the special election campaign.

But outside groups put marriage equality on the agenda for voters in House district 90. The National Organization for Marriage purchased about $86,000 in advertising to support Burgmeier. That's a large sum in a mostly-rural Iowa legislative district. Most of it went toward this television commercial:

My transcript:

Male voice-over: When judges improperly imposed same-sex marriage on Iowa, we needed Governor Culver and legislators to ensure the rights of voters were considered.

Voters in 30 other states have voted on gay marriage, yet Governor Culver said he was reluctant to give Iowans that same right.

A handful of judges redefine marriage, and our leaders are reluctant for voters to have a say?

It's time legislators stood up for voters. Stephen Burgmeier supports giving Iowans a say on the gay marriage issue.

Vote Stephen Burgmeier on September 1.

As for Hanson, he avoided talking about same-sex marriage or any social issues during the special election campaign, focusing on the typical Democratic playbook of education and economic policy. The Iowa Democratic Party funded a tv ad on Hanson's behalf, hitting Burgmeier for votes to raise his own pay and local taxes as a Jefferson County supervisor.

Democratic field organizers worked the early vote hard, knowing that absentee ballots had delivered winning margins in several Iowa House seats the previous year. A few days before the election, Democrats had a lead of at least 700 in returned early ballots. By election day, that early vote lead had grown to roughly 1,000, which allowed Hanson to squeak out a win by about 100 votes. Thanks to strong Democratic turnout in progressive Fairfield and Vedic City precincts (where many people are connected to the Maharishi University), Hanson was able to beat Burgmeier in Jefferson County by 600 votes.

Some conservatives and GOP officials tried to put a good spin on the special election results, but The Iowa Republican blogger Craig Robinson lamented the "bitter" loss.

While hundreds of volunteers flocked to the rural southeast Iowa district and organizational and financial help flowed in from a number of influential interest groups, Republicans came up short by 107 votes. What Republicans hoped would have been a momentum builder, now has many people wondering what Iowa Republicans need to do to win elections.

The loss is inexcusable. Never have Republicans had a better environment to run a campaign, and the Iowa Democratic Party has never been in more disarray. Iowa Democrats have an inexperienced chairman and executive director, an unpopular governor, and a candidate that didn't excite their base. Yet Democrats were able to overcome all of that because they have mastered the mechanics of early voting, and Republicans failed to make this election focus on the issues that rallied so much public support and outcry during the legislative session.

I believe Hanson's victory was critically important for Democratic morale going into the 2010 legislative session. Had he lost to Burgmeier, as a perceived rejection of marriage equality, Democratic lawmakers might have run for the hills, demanding a chance to vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Then Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal supported the Iowa Supreme Court ruling and were already committed to blocking any legislative attempt to undo it. But I suspect that seeing Hanson pull out a close race helped keep more conservative Democratic legislators in line. Only one Iowa House Democrat backed Republican efforts to get a floor vote for a marriage amendment during the 2010 legislative session.

Despite Hanson's win, the controversy over marriage rights greatly assisted Iowa Republicans in the 2010 legislative races. The well-funded campaign against retaining three Iowa Supreme Court justices helped generate large GOP turnout. Republicans secured the Iowa House majority with a net gain of sixteen seats and nearly erased the Democratic Iowa Senate majority by taking over six seats in the upper chamber.

But Hanson easily survived his rematch against Burgmeier, beating him by more than 1,000 votes in the 2010 general election, despite the wave that dragged down so many Iowa Democrats.

Two years later, Hanson won by a larger margin against a different GOP opponent in a redrawn district. He managed a 400-vote victory in 2014, another wave election for Republicans.

Hanson's seat is unlikely to be a top target for Republicans next year, but even if he draws a strong challenger, his race will never be as important for Iowa politics as it was in 2009.

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