The five biggest Iowa politics surprises of 2015

No matter how closely you follow current events, some days the news will shock you. I enclose below the biggest Iowa political stories I never saw coming last year.

Please share your own thoughts on this subject in the comments.

Number 5: Kraig Paulsen stepping down as Iowa House speaker.

Who expected Paulsen to announce in early August that he would resign as speaker before the next legislative session and not seek re-election in 2016? No one I know. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. Several other Republicans who were deeply involved in last year’s negotiations over the state budget also walked away from their jobs at the statehouse in July or August: Governor Terry Branstad’s chief of staff Matt Hinch, Branstad’s legislative liaison Jake Ketzner, and Iowa House Appropriations Committee Chair Chuck Soderberg. I can’t blame them for not wanting to hang around for this year’s session. Good will and mutual trust are at low points, thanks to Branstad vetoing the key concessions to Democrats in the budget deal struck near the end of the legislature’s work in 2015.

They say when one door closes, another opens. In Paulsen’s case, friends in high places worked hard to set up his next career opportunity. As Vanessa Miller reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa State University Provost Jonathan Wickert and others made sure Paulsen could walk straight from the speaker’s chair to a well-paid job at ISU, for which no one else was considered.

Number 4: The uproar over the Board of Regents hiring Bruce Harreld as University of Iowa president.

It’s no surprise that the Board of Regents, currently dominated by Bruce Rastetter, would go for a “non-traditional” candidate from the business world to replace Sally Mason. But I would have expected the job to go to someone with a little background in academic administration as well as the private sector, perhaps a business school dean.

Instead, the Regents chose a candidate with little relevant management experience and almost no legitimacy among campus stakeholders, who would have been happy with any of the other three finalists. That sparked protests, votes of no-confidence, and even a motion to censure the new president over inaccuracies on his resume and failure to adhere to academic standards for crediting co-authors. The fallout continued for months as more details about the sham search became public knowledge. The Regents don’t appear to be bothered by the discontent in Iowa City. In December, they rushed to rename the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital after a major donor who was among the key figures fixing the presidency for Harreld.

Number 3: No Medicaid contract for the company that hired Jeff Boeyink’s firm to lobby for it.

Insurance companies seeking to manage Medicaid for some 560,000 Iowans under Branstad’s “modernization” initiative stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years. The governor’s 2010 campaign manager and former chief of staff Jeff Boeyink is now senior vice president for government affairs at the LS2 lobbying group, which had staff working for the Centene Corporation. That company manages Medicaid in several other states and established the subsidiary Iowa Total Care to do the same here. Centene gave money to Branstad’s campaign and to other influential Iowa politicians during the 2014 election cycle and had its representatives meet with Iowa Department of Human Services consultant Renee Schulte well before the administration revealed its plans for privatizing Medicaid. I would have bet on Iowa Total Care being one of the “two to four” companies the DHS picked.

However, the selection committee’s scoring put Iowa Total Care in fifth place. The company later challenged the contract awards, but overturning the decision will be an extreme long-shot.

When Iowa Department of Administrative Services Director Janet Phipps decided last month to terminate WellCare’s contract to manage Medicaid, I was sure Boeyink would pull strings to get DHS officials to award the fourth contract to Iowa Total Care. But when I inquired about that scenario, DHS spokesperson Amy McCoy replied via e-mail, “The implementation is moving forward with three health plans.”

On a related note, many people I spoke with in August were surprised that the DHS did not award a Medicaid contract to Magellan, which had managed mental health and substance abuse care for Iowans on Medicaid for twenty years.

Number 2: Sanders-mentum.

When Senator Bernie Sanders launched his presidential bid, I figured his message would resonate with the most liberal Democrats and those who had been involved in the effort to draft Senator Elizabeth Warren. I never expected such enormous crowds to turn out for him. In many Iowa cities and towns, audiences for Sanders have been larger than what Senator Barack Obama drew during his first Iowa caucus campaign in 2007. At least 2,000 came for his appearance on the Des Moines Register’s “soap box” during the Iowa State Fair.Multiple polls have shown Sanders either above 40 percent support among likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers or within single digits of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Predicting who will show up for a caucus is notoriously hard, but the grassroots enthusiasm for Sanders is undeniable. On multiple occasions, he has delivered his stump speech to bigger crowds than Clinton drew for her largest single-candidate event of the year.

Number 1: Iowa Republican caucus-goer preferences.

Almost everything about last year’s Iowa Republican caucus campaign defied my expectations: notably, Donald Trump being able to overcome “upside down” favorability numbers to lead nearly every Iowa poll for nearly six months, the failure of Rick Perry to get anything going here or even raise enough money to stay in the race, Scott Walker’s epic flame-out, the collective decision by most of this state’s social conservatives not to give Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum their serious consideration, and the collapse of Rand Paul, who went into this election cycle with a strong network built by Iowans who had supported his father.

Iowa has a reputation for rewarding good retail politics, but at this writing, the presidential candidates who have spent the most days in Iowa since 2013 are either out of the race (Bobby Jindal) or languishing in the low single digits (Santorum, Huckabee, Carly Fiorina). Ted Cruz, considered by most the favorite to win the caucuses now, had spent 41 days in Iowa between 2013 and the end of last year. Perry hit the same mark last summer before ending his presidential bid–and by all accounts, he excelled in personal interactions with Iowans.

One of the few Republican caucus developments that didn’t surprise me was Ben Carson proving after a brief moment in the sun that he was not ready for prime time as a candidate.

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