Scott Ourth charged with OWI

Democratic State Representative Scott Ourth has been charged with drunk driving, Stephen Gruber-Miller was first to report for the Des Moines Register on October 10. Police in Cherokee pulled Ourth over on the evening of October 5 for driving his truck with headlights off. He failed a field sobriety test, and breath tests indicated his blood alcohol content was over the legal limit.

Ourth lives in Warren County but was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser for fellow state legislator Chris Hall in Sioux City on October 6.

Iowa House Democrats did not release any statement on Ourth’s arrest or clarify whether he will remain ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee. UPDATE: I received the following written statement on October 11.

Last Saturday night, I made a terrible mistake. After an evening out with friends over dinner and drinks, I made the poor judgement of getting behind the wheel.

I am profoundly embarrassed by my actions and accept full responsibility.

I want to publicly apologize to my family, my friends, my church, and the citizens of Warren County who have put their trust in me over many years. I’m sorry I have let you down.

With support from my family, friends, and faith community, I’m meeting this situation head-on and taking all the necessary steps to address this issue to make sure it never happens again, which includes professional counseling.

To everyone whom I have disappointed, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. I will work tirelessly to earn back the trust and confidence of the good people of Warren County.

Ourth faces a first-offense operating while intoxicated charge, because more than twelve years have passed since his second-offense OWI in 2000.

It’s too early to guess how this incident will affect his re-election prospects in House district 26, covering much of Warren County (see map enclosed below). Since losing his first legislative race amid the 2010 GOP landslide, Ourth has won four times, outperforming the top of the Democratic ticket in each election. He received 52.0 percent of the vote in 2012, when Barack Obama carried 50.2 percent among House district 26 residents. He was re-elected with 53.9 percent of the vote in 2014, when Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Bruce Braley won only 42.1 percent in his district.

The trend continued in 2016, when Ourth won a third term with 53.9 percent of the vote as Hillary Clinton took 39.6 percent in House district 26. Facing the same GOP challenger in 2018, Ourth gained 55.4 percent of the vote, while just 46.1 percent of his constituents preferred Democratic candidate Fred Hubbell for governor.

Republicans didn’t spend money against Ourth last cycle but may target the district next year, in light of this criminal charge. The GOP has a slight voter registration advantage, though no-party voters are a plurality in the House district 26 electorate.

Drunk driving arrests are nothing new in the Iowa legislature. The last five six incidents show no clear pattern in terms of impact on a political career:

Democratic State Senator Bob Dvorsky was re-elected in 2006 despite an OWI earlier in the year. He faced only token opposition in his 2010 and 2014 campaigns.

Democratic State Representative Kerry Burt did not seek re-election in 2010, the year after his arrest (which wasn’t his only liability going into that election).

House Republicans elected State Representative Erik Helland majority whip shortly after the 2010 election, despite Helland’s drunk driving arrest that summer.

GOP State Representative Greg Forristall was re-elected multiple times after nearly causing a head-on collision and testing three times over the legal limit in 2011. Granted, Forristall’s district was safe for Republicans, but he also fended off a 2012 primary challenger. In contrast, Helland lost his GOP primary in 2012; his OWI was not the only example of his poor judgment.

Tony Bisignano had a drunk driving arrest in 2013 but won a hard-fought Democratic primary for an open Senate seat the following June as well as the general election. He faced no challengers in his 2018 re-election bid.

Republican State Representative Chip Baltimore lost his position as Iowa House Judiciary Committee chair after his January 2018 arrest for OWI and a weapon possession charge. Baltimore opted not to seek re-election last year, but that decision may have been rooted in other factors.

Outside the legislature, Iowa politicians have generally faced few consequences for similar offenses. After driving erratically and testing more than double the legal limit, former State Senator Jeff Lamberti not only kept his position on the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission (with Governor Terry Branstad’s blessing), but was elevated to chair that powerful body on a unanimous vote by his colleagues. Branstad reappointed him to the commission two years later.

Governor Kim Reynolds has spoken publicly many times about seeking treatment for alcoholism after her second OWI in 2000. (Reynolds was fortunate to be charged with a first offense even though it was her second drunk driving arrest in a year.) Clarke County voters continued to elect her as county treasurer, and she easily won an open Iowa Senate seat in 2008.

I’ll update this post as needed with additional comments or developments.

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