When the dust settled after the 2012 general election, I was frustrated to see how close Iowa Democrats came to winning back the Iowa House majority. Democratic candidates picked up seven GOP-held state House seats that year, but lost half a dozen other races by extremely narrow margins, leaving Republicans with 53 of the 100 seats in the lower chamber.
One of the "seats that got away" was House district 72, where Dean Fisher beat Nathan Wrage by only 216 votes in an open seat due to GOP State Representative Lance Horbach's retirement. President Barack Obama outpolled Mitt Romney by about 3 percentage points among voters in the district.
The GOP expanded its Iowa House majority to 57-43 in the 2014 midterm election, but many state legislative seats are competitive this year, putting control of the chamber in play. As Wrage challenges Fisher again, Democrats won't repeat their 2012 mistake of not targeting this race.
House district 72 covers most of Marshall County outside the city of Marshalltown, all of Tama County, and a small portion of Black Hawk County:
Republicans outnumber Democrats in House district 72, but a plurality of voters are affiliated with neither party. The latest figures from the Secretary of State's office show that the district contains 5,255 active registered Democrats, 6,519 Republicans, and 7,972 no-party voters.
Both candidates come from Tama County. Here's part of Fisher's official bio from his campaign website:
Dean is a fifth-generation Iowa farmer and is proud to own a Heritage Farm located 4 miles north of Montour that has been in his family since 1852. After graduating from South Tama High in 1975 Dean went to college and received a bachelor's degree in Electronics Engineering Technology at the DeVry Institute of Technology in Chicago. Dean spent over 25 years in the electronics industry as an engineer, engineering manager, and a business manager in the design and manufacture of micro-processor based real-time control systems. The last 18 years of his career Dean worked for Motorola in their automotive electronics business, managing the P&L (profit & loss balance sheet) for a $50 million portfolio of products supplied to North American automotive companies.
After a successful 25 year career in the electronics industry Dean realized his dream of returning to the family farm in 2004, joining his brother in managing a 120 head cow/calf operation. In the spring of 2014 Dean and his brother decided to exit the cattle business and rent the land to a younger neighbor. Dean still works on the farm however rebuilding fence, spraying for weeds, and maintaining the buildings.
Since returning to Iowa, Dean has been active in increasing levels of public service, serving as a Precinct Election Chairman, Township Clerk, Tama county Republican Party Chairman, board member of the Tama Co. Pioneer Cemetery Association and has now served his first term in the Iowa House. Dean is a strong fiscal conservative and advocate of traditional social values.
To get to the know the folks in the district first hand Dean has attended hundreds of events, fish fry's, spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts, and many other community events.
"I am running for State Representative because we need representation that will fight for our district. We've seen funding cut from our schools and jobs leave our community with the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home," said Wrage, a Democrat. "In addition to that, our current representative and Governor Branstad are focused on dismantling Medicaid, leaving too many people in our district with more questions than answers about the future of their healthcare." [...]
Like many people, I've grown tired of the partisan rhetoric that has become common in policy debates. I realize that each party has its own philosophical and ideological stances, but I firmly believe that I have the skills to work with any member of the House to craft policies and budgets that benefit the people of this state. There are a number of current issues that have become political footballs, and I think it's time to quit playing games and get to work."
Candidates and volunteers from all over the state have told me Governor Terry Branstad's disastrous Medicaid privatization is a frequent topic of conversation on the doorstep.
Here's more background on Wrage from the Iowa House Democrats:
Nathan Wrage was born in 1963 and grew up on a family farm north of Gladbrook, Iowa. He attended Gladbrook Community School, graduating in 1982, and attended Iowa State University. Nathan worked for 23 years at Lennox Industries. During that time, he was a member and president of the Lennox Employees Recreation Association, a UAW member, shop steward, and CAP committee member and secretary. In 2009, Nathan took employment with the Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School District as a middle school custodian.
Nathan married his wife, Jennifer, in 1990. She is a teacher at Gladbrook-Reinbeck Middle School. They have two children.
Nathan has had a lifetime interest in the outdoors and conservation. He is a member of the Grundy-Tama Izaak Walton League and is currently Treasurer and Membership Director. He is also a member and past chairman of the Tama County Conservation Board.
Iowans tend to re-elect state lawmakers, and Fisher has several advantages of incumbency. He's been endorsed by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, the Iowa Corn Growers, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund, and the Iowa Association of Business and Industry PAC.
However, Fisher also takes some weaknesses into this race. He did nothing noteworthy to stop the Branstad administration from shutting down the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo in early 2014. Democratic lawmakers fought hard to keep that facility open, but their lawsuit failed in the Iowa Supreme Court, largely because the GOP-controlled state House had refused to approve ongoing funding for the Juvenile Home.
I'm not aware of any major legislative accomplishments for Fisher, who has served as vice chair of the Natural Resources Committee and also sits on the Appropriations and Public Safety committees. As a member of the education Appropriations subcommittee, Fisher has not made any discernible attempt to get fellow Republicans to support higher levels of school funding. K-12 school districts all over Iowa have cut staff and programs in recent years, as House Republicans insisted on "allowable growth" rates below what's needed to keep up with rising costs.
During this year's legislative session, as House Democrats fought to make medical cannabis more available to Iowans suffering from a wider range of health problems, Fisher "walked away from an Iowa mother trying to get help for her son who suffers from seizures and told her to 'move to Colorado.'" That anecdote may be what Wrage was hinting at on the front page of his website, which highlights "Empathy" as a value: "Strive to serve the people of the district and state while listening to the inputs of my constituents, regardless of political affiliations and backgrounds."
Fisher's campaign website speaks of knocking on doors and attending events around the district throughout the spring and summer. Wrage has been making personal contacts with voters the same way. Iowa House districts are small enough for hard-working candidates to meet a large share of the electorate face to face through canvassing and local parades or festivals.
For an incumbent in a battleground district, Fisher has put surprisingly little effort into fundraising. He raised $8,427 during 2015, and after starting this year with $5,746.77 cash on hand, brought in just $470.00 in contributions through early May. Fisher's July campaign finance report showed $4,265 in additional contributions and $10,015.55 cash on hand--not much for a sitting lawmaker. The latest disclosure from Wrage showed $6,437.12 in contributions from early May through early July and $12,742.49 cash on hand.
House district 72 makes up half of Iowa Senate district 36, where two-term State Senator Steve Sodders faces GOP challenger Jeff Edler in a race both parties are targeting. As of October 10, voters in House district 72 had requested 2,417 absentee ballots (943 Democrats, 887 Republicans, 584 no-party voters, and three with some other registration). County auditors in the district had received 750 absentee ballots (397 Democrats, 228 Republicans, 124 no-party voters, and 1 with some other registration).
How the presidential race might affect the contest between Fisher and Wrage is hard to guess. Fisher endorsed Rick Santorum shortly before this year's Iowa caucuses; neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz dominated GOP precincts in Tama and Marshall counties. To my knowledge, Wrage was not a public supporter of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who were also fairly evenly-matched in the House district 72 precincts. A "Trump effect" appears to be driving up Latino turnout in some states, and if the same thing happens in Iowa, it could help Wrage in Tama and Marshall counties. However, most of Marshall County's Latino residents probably live in House district 71, covering the city of Marshalltown.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.