Dirty trick almost worked in Iowa House district 56

A state election panel unanimously knocked the only GOP candidate in Iowa House district 56 off the primary ballot on March 27. Dale Bolsinger was a registered Democrat when he collected signatures and submitted nominating papers as a Republican on the last day of the filing period.

Bolsinger’s effort to prevent the GOP from nominating a credible contender in this swing district would have succeeded if he had understood Iowa law. Both parties should be aware of this risk and in future election cycles not put off recruiting candidates for any winnable seat.

THE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

House district 56 covers Allamakee County and most of Clayton County in Iowa’s northeast corner (map). On paper, it looks Republican: the GOP has a voter registration advantage, and Donald Trump gained nearly 60 percent of the vote here in 2016.

Yet this area has been one of the most competitive parts of Iowa for legislative races during the last decade. Democrat John Beard won a previous configuration of the GOP-held seat in 2008 but lost to GOP challenger Bob Hager in 2010. Democrat Patti Ruff defeated Hager in House district 56 in 2012 and held the seat in 2014, despite a statewide GOP landslide. Ruff lost to Kristi Hager (Bob’s wife) in the last general election.

Two Democrats have been campaigning here for months: Lori Egan (website, Facebook, Twitter) and Andy Kelleher (website, Facebook, Twitter). Both submitted nominating papers during the first week of the candidate filing period.

Local Republicans knew for some time that they might need a new candidate in House district 56. Hager confirmed the rumors in mid-February: she was running for Allamakee County supervisor instead of for a second term in the legislature. She’s among the unusually large group of twelve Iowa House Republicans not seeking re-election in 2018.

However, no GOP candidate emerged until March 16, when Bolsinger’s name appeared on the list published by the Secretary of State’s office.

Republicans may not have felt a sense of urgency to find a candidate for the primary. No challenger from this area filed in March 2010 against then Iowa House Democrat Beard. A special district convention nominated Bob Hager that June. Not only did he win in November, the GOP picked up a second Iowa House seat that year with a candidate nominated over the summer by convention. UPDATE: I forgot to mention that no Republican filed for the 2014 primary in House district 56 either. The party later nominated Lowell Engle, who lost to Ruff in November.

The failure to recruit a successor to Hager could have cost the GOP any realistic chance at holding this seat.

“I IMMEDIATELY KNEW SOMETHING WAS QUESTIONABLE”

Kelleher had been keeping an eye on the candidate filings. He explained in a March 27 Facebook post that when he saw Bolsinger’s name,

I immediately knew something was questionable, because I personally know him. He had been an active member in the Clayton County Democratic Party, and just a few weeks beforehand he had been trying to connect me with some of his political connections to help with my campaign. While he never openly endorsed me, he was in favor of the fact that I was running. So his appearing on the ballot meant one of two things: either he had gotten completely fed up with the Democratic Party over the course of three weeks (enough to run against them in an election), or he was holding down the Republican ticket.

I immediately contacted the chairman of the Clayton County Democratic Party to see if he knew what had happened, and he expressed shock at the candidacy. He told me that Dale was a delegate to their county convention (scheduled for 8 days after the candidacy appeared), and he didn’t know what happened.

The next day (March 17) I attended a legislative forum in Waukon, and noticed a leader of the Allamakee County Democratic Party. When I asked her if she knew anything about it, she didn’t even know who the guy was.

Some Republicans told Kelleher after the forum that they didn’t know Bolsinger, who “hadn’t reached out to any Republican leadership.” Kelleher told them about the GOP candidate’s “strong Democratic background,” but “I didn’t state any of my suspicions at that time (there was still the possibility that he was a genuine candidate, and I didn’t want to slander the competition if that was the case).”

Kelleher soon learned “from an incredibly reliable source” that Bolsinger had filed “solely to keep the Republicans from running their own candidate.” By winning an uncontested primary, he could prevent the GOP from nominating someone else at a summer convention. “In addition, the caller revealed to me that Dale intended to drop off the ballot once the time for a nominating convention had passed, leaving only the winner of the Democratic Primary on the ballot.”

Kelleher’s tipster assumed he would favor the plan, but he didn’t find the scheme fair or democratic. He set about looking for proof. Even though Bolsinger was a regular at monthly Democratic meetings and had been selected as a county convention delegate, he might have gotten “fed up and switched parties” at the last minute.

He couldn’t confirm whether Bolsinger had changed his party registration, so he asked the Secretary of State’s office for copies of the nominating petitions.

The first thing I did was check his signatures against my own voter list to see if they were valid. Of his 56 signatures, 8 of them were questionable, leaving him two signatures short. However, if two of those eight were deemed acceptable, then his papers would have been good to go, so that wasn’t a feasible route forward.

The next thing I did was call every person on his nomination petitions; I had met a few of them in the course of my own campaigning, so I was able to learn how the signatures were acquired. Of the people I managed to speak to, not a single person actually met Dale (or even knew who he was). They had all been stopped outside grocery stores or post offices by representatives of Dale. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; anyone can collect signatures for someone else, and they can do it anywhere. But some of the signers had asked about Dale and his campaign platform, and the representatives weren’t able to answer. One representative even stated that he didn’t even know Dale; he had just been told that he had to go collect signatures.

Kelleher couldn’t find any “actual campaign presence” for Bolsinger. He received no reply after trying to contact him through the phone number and e-mail published on the official candidate list. He even asked the retiring Republican lawmaker Hager if she could tell him when Bolsinger had changed parties.

He learned about the challenge to Bolsinger’s nomination on March 26, when the Secretary of State’s office published the agenda for the election panel’s meeting the following day. Hager told Kelleher someone had filed the objection on her behalf.

“A FUNDAMENTAL VIOLATION OF IOWA’S ELECTION LAWS”

I requested a copy of the objection letter on March 26 and tried unsuccessfully to reach Bolsinger by phone, e-mail, and Facebook message that day. Anne Osmundson’s challenge noted that Bolsinger was a registered Democrat “during the entire time he was collecting nomination petition signatures, and at the time he signed and filed his affidavit of candidacy.” But Iowa Code sections 43.14(1)(d) and 43.18(4) require candidates to state the political party with which they are registered to vote on nominating papers. Key passages from Osmundson’s letter:

When Mr. Bolsinger filed his affidavit of candidacy and nomination petitions to run for HD56 as a Republican, he violated both of these Code sections. The Code does not permit his [sic] to correct these statutory violations by subsequently registering as a Republican. […]

This is not merely a failure to “substantially comply” with Iowa’s election laws. The very fabric of Iowa’s primary election process is for recognized political parties to exercise their 1st Amendment rights to associate with likeminded individuals. […]

If Mr. Bolsinger truly wanted to be a “Republican,” he could have at least taken the minimal step of changing his voter registration prior to filing what amounts to an invalid affidavit of candidacy and nomination petition.

[…] This is not the type of inadvertent mistake that has previously been deemed as “substantial compliance.” This is a fundamental violation of Iowa’s election laws and strikes at the very heart of the primary election process.

The three-member panel of Attorney General Tom Miller, Secretary of State Paul Pate, and State Auditor Mary Mosiman upheld the challenge and disqualified Bolsinger. The current candidate list shows no Republican running for House district 56. The GOP will be able to nominate someone after the primary.

But if Bolsinger had been familiar with the law and changed his party registration on March 15, Republicans would have had no recourse. Alternatively, if the phony candidate had had a lower profile, Kelleher would not have become suspicious, and GOP activists might not have figured out the ruse in time to challenge Bolsinger’s nominating petitions.

There is no evidence local Democratic leaders knew about, let alone condoned, Bolsinger’s plan.

Nevertheless, the opportunity remains for others to make mischief in future election years. Iowa sets the bar low for legislative candidates to qualify for the ballot: an affidavit of candidacy and just 50 valid signatures on petitions for a state House seat or 100 signatures for a Senate seat. Someone with no intention of running a real campaign can easily do that in a day, locking up the other party’s nomination.

Add this cautionary tale to the list of reasons for parties to recruit at least one credible candidate for every Iowa House and Senate seat by the end of the March filing period. If a stronger contender emerges later, the placeholder nominee can withdraw and allow the party to nominate someone else at a district convention.

Final note: Kelleher isn’t the establishment favorite in the Democratic primary for House district 56. The Iowa House Democrats website hasn’t highlighted his campaign but announced Egan’s bid in a press release last June. Kelleher may get some blowback for trying to expose Bolsinger’s plan. I commend his sense of fair play.

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