Iowa local elections are nominally non-partisan, but Republicans have reason to celebrate attorney Brad Hart’s victory in today’s Cedar Rapids mayoral runoff election. Hart defeated former city council member Monica Vernon by 9,518 votes to 7,995 (54.3 percent to 45.6 percent), according to unofficial results. It’s the third straight win for the GOP in Iowa’s second-largest city. Outgoing Mayor Ron Corbett, a former Republican speaker of the Iowa House, did not seek a third term because he is running for governor.
It is a tough loss for Vernon, who was first elected to the city council as a Republican herself. She switched parties in 2009 and has since run for office several times as a Democrat. After finishing second in the 2014 first Congressional district primary, she became the lieutenant governor nominee for that year’s general election. Vernon ran for Congress again in 2016, winning the Democratic primary but losing to Representative Rod Blum.
All the Democrats who represent parts of Cedar Rapids in the Iowa House or Senate had endorsed Vernon, while Hart had more support from current and former city council members. He did not campaign as a “loud and proud” Republican. On the contrary, his official bio did not mention his party affiliation, playing up his career accomplishments and volunteer activities instead.
I wasn’t following this campaign closely enough to have a sense of why Vernon lost the runoff despite leading the eight-candidate field on November 7 with about 30 percent of the vote to 20 percent for Hart. Turnout was nearly as high today (17,522 votes cast) as in the November election (17,661 votes).
I’d welcome feedback from Bleeding Heartland readers in the area: does this outcome point to a voter persuasion problem, poor GOTV/voter mobilization, or the reality that it’s hard to win an election when the other side spends a lot more money? Brian Morelli reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette tonight,
Vernon had touted her experience serving the city as mayor pro tempore and earlier on the planning commission, while vowing to hold meetings in each neighborhood in Cedar Rapids and devote full-time attention to the part-time position.
Hart casted himself as community servant leader who’d bring a fresh perspective and would not be bogged down by partisan baggage as opposed to Vernon who ran as a Democrat in divisive campaigns for higher office.
Hart outspent Vernon nearly 2-to-1, or $112,814 to $63,684 in the regular election and runoffs, and they both were frequent faces in television ads.
Vernon and Hart struck similar positions each calling for a focus on flood protection, streets, and economic development. Vernon has advocated pushing harder on the federal government to release money for flood protection, while Hart said the city should ask the state to extend a special sales tax program that provides flood protection money for Cedar Rapids.
Whatever the reason, Democrats missed a good opportunity to win an important local office. As Pat Rynard argued here,
Cedar Rapids, despite being a heavily-Democratic city, has been run by a Republican mayor for the past eight years. Aside from the policy implications, that’s a big deal for regional and state politics.
Outgoing Republican Mayor Ron Corbett is running for governor, challenging Kim Reynolds in the GOP primary. Very few expect him to succeed in that candidacy, but imagine if he did (or if he had a much better chance in an open field). A Republican with deep roots in one of Eastern Iowa’s top Democratic strongholds? That would be a very tough candidate to beat. Indeed, there’s a lot of Democratic insiders who would much rather face off with Reynolds than Corbett, all things being equal. […]
The mayor of Cedar Rapids today could easily be the congressperson of the 1st District or a statewide elected official tomorrow. The Democratic bench isn’t very deep in this state after multiple red wave cycles, but we should at least have a pipeline of promising stars coming up in our Democratic cities.
Governor Chet Culver lost the 2010 governor’s race by ten points statewide despite carrying Linn County. Democrats would struggle to beat a GOP candidate for governor who could keep it close in the Cedar Rapids metro area.
Today’s runoff wasn’t a total loss for the Democratic bench. The progressive millennial Ashley Vanorny defeated incumbent Justin Shields in Cedar Rapids city council district 5 by an impressive 20-point margin. Former State Representative Tyler Olson, who retired from the Iowa House in 2014, easily won the at-large city council seat with nearly 57 percent of the vote in a three-way field.
Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.
UPDATE: A reader pointed to another victory to celebrate: Dale Todd gained more than 70 percent of the vote in the open city council district 3 race. Todd previously served on the Cedar Rapids council and as parks and public property commissioner.
SECOND UPDATE: Vernon confirmed the mayoral race was her last campaign, Todd Dorman reported in his latest Cedar Rapids Gazette column. More of his take:
“I think the message resonated,” Hart told me over the noise [at his victory party]. “Some people said he’ll take a fresh view. Some people said he really does have the skill set to do this. Other people said, I don’t want a partisan politician. I’m sure that was part of it.”
Outside Cedar Rapids, this was seen as purely a political proxy war. Vernon was backed by local Democratic lawmakers. Hart had considerable Republican support. It’s true, partisanship likely was a significant factor. But I think it’s more complicated.
Hart’s no Sioux County Republican. And these movers and shakers who helped him raise more than $100,000 wanted a mayor who will keep the city, as Mayor Ron Corbett puts it, “open for business.” Hart’s partisan label was less important than his record serving with these same leaders on numerous nonprofit boards and fundraising campaigns. He was endorsed by 10 current and former City Council members.
Vernon’s partisan defeats dented her brand. But she also had a long council record before those runs, providing her both with experience and critics. The notion among some voters that she saw the mayor’s office as a congressional consolation prize persisted.