First thoughts on the Iowa House district 29 special election

State Representative Wes Breckenridge resigned from the Iowa House this week, effective September 10. The three-term Democrat, who is a retired Newton police officer, was recently hired as assistant director for the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. He wrote in the Newton Daily News that he didn’t feel he could do justice to his legislative work and his new responsibilities.

Breckenridge was among the most conservative members of the House Democratic caucus. During this year’s legislative session, he voted for both versions of a policing bill that will exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In fact, he was the only Democrat to vote for the final version of that bill. He was also the lone Democrat to support a bill that eliminated permit requirements for Iowans to purchase or carry pistols or revolvers. However, Breckenridge voted against the extreme constitutional amendment on guns that will be on the 2022 ballot. He had opposed several other GOP bills over the years that loosened Iowa’s gun laws.

Governor Kim Reynolds will soon schedule a special election to fill the remainder of Breckenridge’s term. The seat will be a tough hold for Democrats.

House district 29 covers much of Jasper County. Its population center is Newton, one of many smaller Iowa cities that were once solidly Democratic (thanks to blue-collar voters) but have swung dramatically toward Republicans. Barack Obama outpolled Mitt Romney by 56.1 percent to 42.5 percent in this district in 2012, but Donald Trump won 53.2 percent of the presidential vote in 2016 to just 40.8 percent for Hillary Clinton. The result was even more lopsided last year, with Trump beating Joe Biden by nearly 16 points.

Breckenridge was one of only six Iowa House members whose districts voted for the other party’s presidential candidate in 2020. His vote share (51.4 percent to 48.4 percent for GOP challenger Jon Dunwell) was about 10 points higher than Biden managed. Republicans didn’t target this legislative race, probably because Breckenridge had won easily in 2016 and 2018, despite Trump and Governor Reynolds carrying his district.

I have not heard of any Democrats preparing to run in the special election. (Please reach out if you know of prospective candidates.) On the Republican side, names floated include Dunwell and Newton City Council member Randy Ervin. I’ll write more about this race after the field is set, but it may not be as hard-fought or expensive as the campaign underway in House district 37.

Democrats will rightly feel let down by their colleague resigning in the middle of his term. Breckenridge told reporter Christopher Braunschweig he thought holding both positions would be a conflict, since “A lot of state agencies put forth departmental bills and legislation, whether it be code cleanup or legislation that can assist in providing the training or standards for law enforcement academy.” That sounds like a cop-out. Many Iowa lawmakers have worked in professions or for institutions (like state universities) that are affected by proposed legislation.

While control of the state House does not hang in the balance (Republicans now hold a 58-41 majority), adding even one vote to the GOP caucus could help them pass various terrible bills that didn’t get through the chamber in 2021.

UPDATE: On September 14 the governor scheduled this special election for October 12.

I forgot to mention the latest voter registration figures for House district 29: 6,522 active registered Democrats, 6,255 Republicans, and 5,849 no-party voters.

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