When Nate Boulton announced his Iowa Senate campaign in September, he subtly indicated he would be a different kind of legislator than State Senator Dick Dearden, the longtime Democratic incumbent who is retiring this year. Boulton promised to “be an active and engaged representative of district interests” and to “bring bold progressive ideas and a fresh, energetic style of leadership to the Iowa Senate.”
Just a few months into his primary race against Pam Dearden Conner, the retiring senator’s daughter, Boulton sent a strong signal that he will be a more “active and engaged” candidate as well. Campaign finance disclosure forms show that Boulton raised $75,383 during the last four months of the year, a phenomenal total for a non-incumbent, first-time state legislative candidate in Iowa. Not only did Boulton out-raise his primary rival, he raised more than Dearden (a 22-year incumbent) has brought in cumulatively since 2008.
Bleeding Heartland previewed the Senate district 16 primary here. Click through for background on Boulton and Conner and a map of the district covering most of the east side of Des Moines in Polk County.
Conner reported raising $21,605 during the first four months of her campaign, mostly in small contributions from individuals. That’s a solid amount for a first-time candidate. Her father’s political connections surely helped; donors included many who served in Governor Chet Culver’s administration, several sitting legislators and former Secretary of State Michael Mauro, for whom Conner worked. Other prominent Iowa Democrats who contributed to Conner’s campaign include former Senator Tom Harkin, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, Polk County Supervisor John Mauro, former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, former U.S. Representative Dave Nagle, former gubernatorial nominee Lowell Junkins, and Des Moines City Council member Linda Westergaard. Local Democratic activists will recognize many other onetime candidates, senior aides, and state officials on Conner’s donor list. One name that caught my eye was Lis Buck, whom Culver appointed director of Iowa Workforce Development. As Hillary Clinton’s precinct captain in Des Moines 43, Buck became an unwitting star of this amateur video from the February 1 caucus at Roosevelt High School.
Boulton’s early fundraising may have been unprecedented for a first-time Iowa legislative candidate. Having raised $75,383 during the last four months and spent $6,758.27, he had $68,624.73 cash on hand at the end of 2015. Most sitting Iowa Democratic lawmakers reported smaller war chests going into the election year.
In addition, nearly $60,000 of Boulton’s campaign contributions came from individuals. Political action committees supporting him: two $5,000 contributions from the Justice For All Political Action Committee, $2,000 from Police Officers for Good Government, $2,500 from Iowa State U.A.W. PAC, $1,000 from the Local #4 Fire PAC, and $750 from the Iowa Letter Carriers Committee on Political Education.
Quite a few Iowa attorneys donated to Boulton. I didn’t see any current lawmakers on his disclosure form, but former State Representatives Nate Willems and Ray Zirkelbach and former State Senator Al Sturgeon donated to his campaign. Another name that jumped out at me was Michael Streit, one of the three Iowa Supreme Court justices ousted in the 2010 retention elections. Des Moines School Board member Natasha Newcomb, recently elected from the east side ward, also gave to Boulton’s campaign. Local Democrats will recognize plenty of other names too, including former candidates and legislative or campaign staffers. Boulton’s donor list includes more Polk County activists in their 20s and 30s than does Conner’s.
I was so stunned by Boulton’s fundraising that I decided to compare it to the retiring senator’s. One strange feature of the Iowa legislature is how few entrenched incumbents play the role of “rainmakers” for their parties. Looking through reports on the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s website, a pattern emerges: many incumbents appear to put almost no effort into fundraising. The majority of their donations fall into their laps from PACs that give the same amount to almost every lawmaker in a party, or in some cases both parties.
Dearden’s latest financial report shows that during 2015, his campaign raised $3,550.00 and had ￼$13,203.29 cash on hand as of December 31. The whole year, Dearden received just five contributions: one from an individual and four from PACs that give to all or most Democratic state legislative incumbents.
Dearden’s report for 2014 shows that his campaign took in $6,800. During all of 2013, he raised $7,350. In both of those years, more than half the money came from PACs that give to all or most Democratic state lawmakers.
The last time Dearden was on the ballot, he stepped up his fundraising. He was in no real danger in his heavily Democratic district, and defeated his GOP challenger by nearly a two to one margin. Still, disclosure reports covering 2012 show much more activity: $450 ($250 from one PAC), $1,950 (all from PACs), $26,440 (more than $19,000 from PACs), and $5,930 (more than half from PACs).
During all of 2011, Dearden raised $7,225, of which more than half came from PACs. The previous year, his campaign took in $4,100, again mostly from PACs. The disclosure form covering 2009 and the first few days of 2010 shows $4,420 in contributions, mostly from PACs. The report covering the post-election period of 2008 and the first few days of 2009 shows $1,415 in contributions, mostly from PACs.
Seven years worth of campaign contributions from the beginning of 2009 through the end of 2015 total $69,630. The senator did not have to hustle for most of that money; it came from committees making the same donations every year. I’d have to go back much further in time to come up with roughly $60,000 in individual contributions to Dearden’s committee.
I started down this road, looking at reports for Dearden’s campaign committee in 2008, when he faced a different Republican he easily defeated. Those disclosure forms show contributions totaling $14,710, $1,300, and $2,850. In all cases, the bulk of the money came from PACs that donate the same amount to nearly all Democratic legislative incumbents.
During all of 2007, Dearden raised $6,320, mostly from PACs.
The report covering 2006 deviated from the pattern, but only because one $10,000 donation from Jim Cownie made up the bulk of the $12,725 Dearden’s committee raised during the year.
Moving further back in time, the disclosure form covering 2005 showed $2,625 in contributions, mostly from PACs. The several reports covering 2004, when Dearden was on the ballot, reveal contributions totaling $1,050 (all from PACs), $100 (from one PAC), $500 (all from PACs), and $12,375 (mostly PAC money).
The report for 2003 showed $3,075 in contributions, mostly from PACs. The several reports covering 2002 show Dearden’s committee raised $50 from an individual, $1,990 (of which $1,900 came from PACs), $7,550 (all from PACs), and $7,940 (a little more than half from PACs). One $2,000 donation from Jim Cownie made up the majority of money from individuals on that report.
I had to go all the way back to 2001 to find a year in which PACs provided less than 50 percent of Dearden’s fundraising haul. Most of the $9,595 in donations on that report were from individuals.
At that point, I threw in the towel. Fifteen years of Dearden’s disclosure forms had not revealed as much money raised from individuals as Boulton brought in during the first four months of his first legislative campaign.
Money doesn’t always decide elections. Plenty of Iowa Democrats have won primaries against better-funded opponents, most recently Pat Murphy in the 2014 five-way race for the nomination in Iowa’s first Congressional district. This June’s primary in Senate district 16 will likely go to the candidate with the better ground game, since turnout on the east side of Des Moines tends to be lower than in more affluent west-side neighborhoods. With more support so far from labor unions, Boulton seems well-positioned for strong GOTV.
In addition, fundraising should never be the sole or primary factor in choosing a candidate. I encourage Democrats in the district to give serious consideration to both Boulton and Conner, asking them about their legislative priorities. Given that this district contains twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, the winner of the June primary will almost certainly win in November and could serve in the Iowa Senate for a long time.
That said, fundraising is relevant to a lawmaker’s effectiveness. The Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate is the only thing keeping this state from being run like Wisconsin or Kansas. Iowa Republicans crowed in a press release last month that Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix raised more than twice as much during 2015 as Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal did. Dix ended the year with more cash on hand than Gronstal as well.
A senator in a safe seat who mostly sits back and lets PAC money come to him is less helpful than one who goes out and raises money that can be used to support Democratic candidates in marginal districts.
Any comments about the race in Senate district 16 are welcome in this thread.