Iowa Senate district 32 preview: Brian Schoenjahn vs. Craig Johnson

To win control of the Iowa Senate, where Democrats have held a 26 to 24 majority for the last six years, Republicans will need to beat at least two Democratic incumbents. One of their top targets is Senator Brian Schoenjahn, who is seeking a fourth term in Senate district 32.

Follow me after the jump for a map and details on the political makeup of this northeast Iowa district, along with background on Schoenjahn and his challenger Craig Johnson, the key issues for each candidate, and a look at Johnson’s first television commercial.

Iowa Senate district 32 covers Bremer County and portions of Black Hawk, Buchanan, and Fayette counties:

Iowa Senate district 32 photo IowaSD32_zps7uunccwp.jpg

On paper, neither party has a clear advantage. No-party voters (16,933) outnumber either Democrats (10,409) or Republicans (11,331), according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

President Barack Obama outpolled Mitt Romney here by 53.66 percent to 45.20 percent. Schoenjahn won comfortably despite the usual drop-off from the top of the ticket, beating Elliot Henderson by 16,338 votes to 14,346. However, Senate district 32 wasn’t a top target for Republicans four years ago. By all accounts, the GOP is going after this seat now. So are outside groups on both sides, including some labor organizations for Democrats and the National Rifle Association’s Iowa affiliate for Republicans. Schoenjahn received the Iowa Farm Bureau’s endorsement in 2012. That group backs very few Democratic incumbents, almost never in targeted districts. I haven’t seen any announcement yet on whether Farm Bureau will endorse in this year’s race. UPDATE: Have confirmed that Farm Bureau did endorse Schoenjahn again this year.

Schoenjahn is fortunate to represent an even-numbered district, which is on the ballot in presidential years. Joni Ernst beat Bruce Braley in the 2014 U.S. Senate race by 52.31 percent to 43.69 percent among voters living in Senate district 32. Turnout for Iowa midterm elections is usually about a third lower than for a presidential election.

First elected in 2004, Schoenjahn also has the advantages of incumbency. Iowa legislators tend to get re-elected, barring unusual circumstances like a scandal, redistricting, or a national wave.

As a group, Iowa Senate Democrats have been fighting to increase funding for education at all levels from preschool to community college and state universities. Schoenjahn has been an active player in those battles as chair of the education subcommittee on Senate Appropriations and vice chair of the Education Committee. When Governor Terry Branstad and House Republicans tried to axe state funding for preschools in 2011, Schoenjahn was among the most vocal advocates for making preschool more widely available for 4-year-olds.

Schoenjahn spoke out earlier this year against Branstad’s “unilateral” decision to close a psychiatric unit for children at a state-run mental health facility in Independence (Buchanan County). Iowa is one of the worst states for access to in-patient mental health services.

The senator’s official bio mentions other community involvement:

Brian is a volunteer EMS with the Arlington Ambulance Service, is a licensed pilot and is an Iowa High School football official.

He was mayor of Arlington, Iowa, from 1977-2004 and taught in the Starmont Community Schools from 1972-2005. He has also served on the Oelwein Mercy Hospital Critical Access Care Advisory Board.

Brian holds a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Northern Iowa.

He and his wife, Barbara, have one daughter, Ashley. Barb teaches elementary physical education in the Starmont Community Schools. The family attends Sacred Heart Church in Oelwein.

A hard-working Iowa House or Senate incumbent can make personal contact with a large percentage of constituents over several years. Schoenjahn has a reputation for showing up everywhere in his district, where he is so well-liked some people in the statehouse jokingly refer to him as “St. John.” As Pat Rynard noted, Schoenjahn knocks a lot of doors, not just in election years. Many thousands of the 38,767 active registered voters in Senate district have probably met him, either at the doorstep or at a local event.

Rynard sees Senate district 32 as a toss-up and among three of the Iowa Senate races “certain” to be the closest. I see Schoenjahn as favored to win another term, though Republicans talk a good game about their chances here.

How the presidential election might affect this race is hard to guess. Factory closures in the area could make some people receptive to Donald Trump’s message, but Senate district 32 precincts were not strongholds for Trump in the Iowa caucuses. Ted Cruz fared better in most of them. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders was a clear winner in the district, which isn’t surprising, because this year’s Democratic caucuses were the closest in Iowa history.

Lots of Iowa legislative candidates have worked in farming, manufacturing, finance, or the insurance sector. Schoenjahn’s opponent Craig Johnson has experience in all of those areas. His campaign website JohnsonforIowa doesn’t function at this writing, but here’s the official bio from his Facebook page:

Craig was born and raised in Independence where he graduated from Independence Jefferson Senior High School before graduating from the University of Northern Iowa. Craig’s diversified experience includes: construction – 13 years, manufacturing – 16 years, financial securities and insurance – 7 years. Looking for a new challenge in 2010, he turned what was a volunteer position since 2003 into a personally rewarding career as Executive Director for Heartland Acres.

As Executive Director, Craig brings his previous experiences and passion for economic development together in managing a multi-million dollar campus with an annual budget.

Craig is a Lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association, the Independence Athletic Booster Club, and is a member of Vision Iowa Board. He’s also actively involved in a variety of other organizations and coaches his daughter’s soccer team. He, his wife, Susan and their daughter, Hannah attend Saint John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

A press release announcing Johnson’s candidacy last October identified him as “Independence Citizen of the Year and Heartland Acres Executive Director.” Johnson didn’t mention specific issues he plans to work on in the legislature but laid out a typical Republican philosophy of small government with few regulations on businesses:

“I am seeking election to serve the citizens of Iowa Senate District 32,” said Johnson, a Republican. “I am running because I believe we can do better in the management of government rather than government running us. Effective and efficient government allows for freedom of people to be the best they can be with as little government interference as possible.” […]

“Iowans deserve the best representation in government, and I am offering my extensive background as a means to serve in our Iowa Senate,” Johnson said.

“In the Iowa Senate, Craig will fight to preserve and promote our rural communities and main street businesses,” Governor Terry Branstad said. “Craig will use his experiences in manufacturing, construction and agriculture to ensure our students, and workforce, have the skills needed to compete in a global economy.”

Johnson said he will work to reduce burdens on small business to help them succeed, as well as grow career opportunities by investing in a skilled and competitive workforce.

“Our state is incredibly rich with opportunity and I will work hard for Iowans to give them every chance to succeed,” Johnson said. “We also must protect Iowa families and their budgets by ensuring fiscal responsibility and not spending more than the state takes in on an annual basis.”

Johnson and his wife Susan have one daughter. He currently sits on the Vision Iowa Board and is a member of the Iowa Soybean and Iowa Corn Growers Association.

Schoenjahn’s opponent benefits from a lucky coincidence: a different Craig Johnson used to report the weather for more than two decades on local tv station KWWL. Although anyone who has met Johnson during the campaign will realize he’s not the same person, less-informed voters may see his name on the ballot and go for “the name you know.”

Johnson fell a bit short in his first statehouse campaign two years ago. As the Republican nominee in Iowa House district 64, he lost to State Representative Bruce Bearinger by 240 votes despite a GOP wave. (Ernst outpolled Braley by 237 votes in the House district 64 precincts.) Bearinger was only a first-termer in that race. Schoenjahn is a more entrenched incumbent after twelve years in the Iowa Senate.

A few weeks ago, Johnson uploaded his first television commercial to his Facebook page. It’s not on the air yet, but will probably start running later this month or in early October. My transcript:

Craig Johnson speaking to the camera: My dad taught me the meaning of hard work. [white background, Johnson’s campaign logo is on screen]

Johnson’s voice continues: He’d start hauling milk every morning at 5, then he’d go to his second job as a painter. [viewer sees black-and-white photo, labeled “CRAIG JOHNSON’S FATHER LOYD,” showing Loyd standing near his truck with several feet of plowed snow along the side of the road; Johnson’s campaign logo visible near lower part of screen]

Sometimes I’d get to ride along in the milk truck. [different photo shows a truck near large canisters of milk or cream; Johnson’s campaign logo still visible]

Today, our families are working harder than ever, but we’re still falling behind. [footage of an unidentified woman looking stressed out, worried]

Johnson speaking to camera again: I’m Craig Johnson, and I’m running for state Senate to put Iowa back on the right track.

I’ll work to cut taxes, [footage of Johnson, walking with his family; “CUT TAXES” visible near bottom of screen]

bring back quality jobs, [Johnson speaking with workers in what looks like a factory setting; “BRING BACK JOBS” on screen]

fix our schools, [Johnson seen talking with teacher and students, the same people featured in other Republican Senate candidates’ ads, “FIX OUR SCHOOLS” on screen]

and repair our roads and bridges. [Johnson sitting at a desk, writing on a legal pad. “REPAIR ROADS AND BRIDGES” on screen]

Johnson speaking to camera again: It’ll take some work, but together we can get this done.

Old family photos are often appealing in a campaign commercial. Otherwise, nothing in this generic ad sets Johnson apart from any number of candidates running for office. In fact, the hallway and students in the “fix our schools” portion also appear in several other GOP Senate ads, some of which will be airing on the same Cedar Rapids tv stations.

A few words about “repair roads and bridges”: Iowa has more road miles per capita than any other state. Many local roads are in poor condition, and we have long been among the worst states for structurally deficient bridges. Schoenjahn voted against last year’s gasoline tax increase, which produced hundreds of millions of dollars of new revenue for transportation projects. It’s hard to imagine a Republican making a big issue out of a Democrat’s opposition to a tax hike, though.

The Senate district 32 campaign is sure to be an expensive race by Iowa standards, with both sides using direct mail and paid advertising. Most of that money will come from Democratic and Republican leadership funds.

For reasons I don’t understand, Schoenjahn has not raised much money during this election cycle. After raising just $15,065.00 during 2015, he brought in only $2,889.21 from January through early May of this year. The next reporting period was a little more productive: $5,940.00 in contributions, but more than half the total came from political action committees. As of mid-July, Schoenjahn’s campaign had $25,330.56 cash on hand, not enough to cover most of the expenses related to a battleground legislative race. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has some money to spread around from his own campaign fund and the Senate Majority Fund, but he needs to defend multiple incumbents Republicans are targeting and will play for at least one GOP-held district.

Johnson raised $16,610.00 during 2015, all from individuals, a decent showing for a challenger. His campaign took in $9,594.00 from January through early May, all from individuals, and $6,340.00 from mid-May through mid-July, of which $2,500 came from Ernst’s Joni PAC. Johnson’s $18,251.07 cash on hand is not bad for a challenger but won’t pay for the kind of campaign he needs to defeat an incumbent.

Any comments about the Senate district 32 race are welcome in this thread.

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