An Iowa House district on no one's watch list until recently may be competitive this November.
Clear Lake City Council member Bennett Smith announced today that he will run for Iowa House district 54, an open seat due to outgoing House Speaker Linda Upmeyer's retirement. Normally this district would be in the solid red category. But Smith, who spent the past month considering this step, was a longtime Republican until 2018, and Democrats appear unlikely to field a candidate here.
House district 54 covers all of Franklin County, much of Butler County, and about half of Cerro Gordo County. A detailed map is enclosed below.
In a January 8 news release, Smith thanked Upmeyer for her service and wished her well, adding,
As I have explored a potential candidacy over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to listen to many people about the legislative issues that are important to them and had the chance to offer some of my views on how we can address those concerns. I am deeply grateful for the overwhelming positive response that my potential candidacy has received and will look forward to offering a vision and concrete proposals for how we can enhance the quality of life for all Iowans as the campaign develops this year. I was very fortunate to have grown up in Clear Lake and have had the opportunity to serve the public on various nonprofit boards and as the second ward city councilman. It is in that same spirit of public service that I now seek the office of state representative.
As an independent candidate, my objective will be to build a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and Independents that want to move Iowa forward with a positive vision for conserving our natural resources, improving our educational outcomes, reforming our healthcare system, and promoting economic development across the State of Iowa.
No Republican has launched a campaign here, and several possible contenders took themselves out of the running late last year. The two most likely GOP candidates appear to be Shannon Latham and Steve Minert. Latham was the 2018 challenger in Iowa Senate district 27, losing to State Senator Amanda Ragan by only about 500 votes. She told Bleeding Heartland in December she is considering this race. UPDATE: The Facebook page associated with Latham's last candidacy has been taken down, but her campaign website is still online. LATER UPDATE: Latham announced her candidacy on January 9.
Minert manages the Harley-Davidson dealer in Mason City. He did not return messages last month seeking comment on his political plans for 2020. Some sources say he has been perceived locally as Upmeyer's chosen successor, which is odd, since there is no record of Minert contributing to any of Upmeyer's campaigns or to the state Republican Party. (Latham's last donation to Upmeyer was $100 in 2010, and she has not been a major donor to any Republican campaign besides her own.)
This district is among only a handful of Iowa House seats where no Democrat has competed in the past decade. My contacts in the area are not aware of any Democrat thinking seriously about this race. The numbers are daunting: just 3,805 active registered Democrats, 8,141 Republicans, and 7,458 no-party voters, according to the latest official figures.
Most of the time I favor getting Democrats on the ballot even in the toughest districts. House district 54 would be a rare exception, because an independent candidate has a realistic chance to win what would otherwise be a safe Republican seat.
Donald Trump received 62.7 percent of the vote in House district 54 in the last presidential election, nearly double Hillary Clinton's 32.1 percent. But voters here favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012 by a much smaller margin of 53.9 percent to 45.0 percent.
If Trump has lost ground in Iowa--recent polls suggest his approval rating is below 50 percent--Smith wouldn't have to outperform the Democratic presidential nominee by much to win. He would need a commanding margin among no-party voters and some crossover support from moderate Republicans in addition to Democrats uniting behind his candidacy.
As Bleeding Heartland previously discussed, fundraising would be another obstacle for Smith. He would have to raise virtually all the money his campaign spends, whereas most nominees in competitive legislative districts benefit from tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars in in-kind expenditures by the Democratic or Republican parties. The GOP will not let this district go without a fight, not when they have only a 53-47 majority and several other seats at risk.
House district 54 should be a fascinating race to watch.
P.S.--Smith has not clarified whether he would caucus with Republicans or Democrats if elected or remain outside both party caucuses, as former State Senator David Johnson did after leaving the GOP in 2016. Going it alone would likely mean not having committee assignments, and committees are where a lot of important legislative work happens.