Six of Iowa’s 34 Republican state senators introduced a resolution this week urging the federal government “to investigate and arrest” officials running the Washington, DC jail where some involved in the January 6 attack on the Capitol are being held pending trial. Senate Resolution 8 characterizes conditions at the jail as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” and akin to “the most notorious concentration camps of World War II, the gulags of the former Soviet Union, the prison camps of Communist China, and the torture camps of North Korea.”
Five of the six senators who co-sponsored this resolution represent solidly Republican districts, where Donald Trump received more than 60 percent of the vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Then there’s Brad Zaun.
It’s the latest sign Zaun is not moderating his behavior to reflect the mostly-suburban Senate district 22, where he is expected to seek re-election next year. That’s a risky approach for the five-term Republican from Urbandale, given that voters in Senate district 14 sent the arch-conservative Senate President Jake Chapman packing in 2022.
ZAUN’S NEW DISTRICT LEANS DEMOCRATIC
First elected to the Iowa Senate in 2004, Zaun faced no challengers in his 2008 and 2012 re-election bids. Democrats fielded a candidate against him in 2016 but did not target the race.
Zaun’s 2020 campaign was his toughest by far. Republicans spent nearly a half-million dollars defending the seat in the northwest suburbs of Des Moines, where Democrats had gained a slight voter registration advantage and Trump was expected to be a drag on the GOP ticket. However, Zaun managed to outperform Trump (more on that below) and defeated Johnston City Council member Rhonda Martin by nearly 1,000 votes.
The redistricting plan adopted in 2021 changed Zaun’s district considerably, because of rapid population growth in Grimes and Johnston. Whereas the Republican used to represent most of Urbandale, all of Johnston and Grimes, and Jefferson Township, the new Senate district 22 is centered in Johnston and Urbandale’s Polk County precincts, plus some precincts to the east in Des Moines and Saylor Township.
Democrats have a slight voter registration advantage in Zaun’s current territory, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. As of March 1, Senate district 22 contained 14,992 active registered Democrats, 13,890 Republicans, and 11,541 no-party voters.
The map Josh Hughes created in Dave’s Redistricting App indicates that in the 2020 general election, Joe Biden received 53.2 percent of the votes in precincts that are now part of Senate district 22, while Trump received 44.7 percent. The voters favored Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield over Republican Joni Ernst by 51.4 percent to 46.4 percent. In the 2018 governor’s race, Democrat Fred Hubbell received about 52.0 percent of the vote in these precincts, compared to 46.4 percent for Governor Kim Reynolds.
Remember, Trump won Iowa in 2020 by 53.1 percent to 44.9 percent, and Ernst was re-elected by 51.8 percent to 45.2 percent for Greenfield. Reynolds defeated Hubbell in 2018 by just under 3 percent statewide.
The upshot is that while Senate district 22 is not a solid blue district, its residents vote well to the left of Iowans as a whole.
ZAUN’S 2020 WINNING MARGIN CAME FROM AREAS HE NO LONGER REPRESENTS
Zaun had the advantages of incumbency in 2020 and has long outperformed other Republican candidates in Urbandale, where he previously served as former mayor and city council member. The results from his last race demonstrate that crossover appeal; he received more votes than Trump in every precinct.
I created this table using certified results from the 2020 general election, grouping the precincts by the two House districts that were contained in Zaun’s old territory.
|Iowa Senate district 20 results|
|House district 39 total||12,055||12,934||13,019||11,796|
|House district 40 total||7,943||10,249||8,924||9,172|
|Senate district 20 total||19,998||23,183||21,943||20,968|
Although Zaun was the first Iowa lawmaker to endorse Trump and spoke frequently at his rallies during the 2016 campaign, he retained support from a significant number of constituents who preferred Biden. That saved his legislative career.
On the other hand, the precinct totals show Zaun would have lost to Martin without the numbers he ran up in Grimes and Jefferson Township. Those are not in the current Senate district 22, where he would be on the ballot if he seeks a sixth term. While the Republican may do well in the Saylor precinct on the eastern edge of his new district, he’s likely to struggle in the Des Moines neighborhoods.
Zaun would enter a re-election race in a stronger position than Chapman, because he has been representing most of his constituents for many years. In contrast, most residents of Senate district 14 live in Dallas County suburbs, where Chapman had never been on the ballot prior to 2022.
On the other hand, the district where Chapman lost to Democrat Sarah Trone Garriott was more evenly divided. In the precincts that now make up Senate district 14, Biden edged out Trump in 2020 (49.8 percent to 48.1 percent), but Ernst outpolled Greenfield (50.4 percent to 47.1 percent), and Reynolds carried the area in 2018 by 50.2 percent to 48.2 percent.
That is to say, Senate district 14 is a textbook swing district. Zaun’s Senate district 22 tilts to Democratic candidates.
ZAUN NOT MODERATING HIS LEGISLATIVE WORK
During his last re-election bid, Zaun’s campaign literature portrayed him as an “independent voice,” focused on non-controversial issues like growing the economy and improving education and mental health services. His final television commercial featured his wife, who vouched for his work to “stop animal cruelty” and “fight for mental health funding in Iowa.”
Since winning a fifth term, Zaun has reverted to the same extreme positions he has long pursued. He was the strongest legislative ally of Chapman’s efforts to ban controversial books from school libraries and create a new felony offense for distributing “obscene” material in schools. Iowa Starting Line reported on one Johnston School District community meeting in November 2021:
“My warning to all the teachers and the administrators is you’re going to be in jail,” [Zaun] said. “Because this is distributing pornography. And I will work my tail end off and it will become law.”
Iowa lawmakers haven’t enacted any new criminal penalties for educators, but Zaun and other Republicans have voted this year for bills that would ban certain materials from school libraries. Like most other GOP senators, Zaun supported the governor’s school voucher bill, which will reduce funding for public schools in his area.
Last week, Zaun floor managed a Senate bill that would redefine administrative spending for large school districts, creating enormous potential problems for the Des Moines Public Schools, and likely for Johnston and Urbandale schools as well.
Although Trump performed poorly in Zaun’s old district, and even worse in the area that’s now part of Senate district 22, the senator hasn’t distanced himself from the former president. Just last week, he traveled to Davenport to attend Trump’s first Iowa rally as a 2024 candidate and received a shout out from the stage.
Also relevant: for many years, Zaun has backed “personhood” legislation that would ban all abortions. Republicans have shelved new abortion bills this year as they await an Iowa Supreme Court ruling on the governor’s effort to reinstate a law approved in 2018. As Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Zaun introduced that bill, which would prohibit almost all abortions after fetal cardiac activity could be detected (usually around six weeks).
If the Iowa Supreme Court reverses the lower court and allows the 2018 law to take effect, Democrats will be able to tie an unpopular policy directly to Zaun.
If the high court does not reinstate the six-week ban, abortion regulations will be back on the state legislature’s agenda for the 2024 session. Count on Zaun to back severe restrictions that don’t align with the majority of his constituents.
DEMOCRATS ALREADY ORGANIZING IN ZAUN’S DISTRICT
To my knowledge, no Democrat has announced plans to run against Zaun in 2024. But the Urbandale area Democrats have developed a strong GOTV operation, and volunteers in Johnston are using a similar “neighbor to neighbor” strategy. Democrats in the Beaverdale area of Des Moines (part of which landed in Zaun’s district) have long been well-organized and highly engaged.
Nearly 100 people attended an Iowa Senate Democrats “listening session” at the Johnston Public Library on March 16. I couldn’t capture the whole group in my photos.
Another angle, in a photo published by the Iowa Senate Democrats:
Several audience members wanted to know how they could help stop Republican-backed legislation and elect more Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls introduced Emma Weinert, the new executive director of the Senate Majority Fund, adding, “She’s going to be spending a lot of time in Urbandale and Johnston over the next few years.” Wahls said he was “excited” about the neighborhood organizing that’s already happening in Senate district 22.
It’s clear that Democrats will seize every opportunity to publicize actions that put Zaun out of step with his district.
Senate Resolution 8, which condemns the treatment of January 6 protesters in pretrial detention, might have attracted little notice this week, if not for Democrats’ efforts to spread the word. Wahls said in a written statement provided to journalists,
By introducing Senate Resolution 8, Brad Zaun and Iowa Senate Republicans are siding with domestic terrorists and extremist MAGA mobs over the law enforcement officials who defended the United States Capitol from a violent insurrection.
This resolution is an affront to American democracy and basic decency. SR8 defends Proud Boys militia leaders by name. SR8 stands up for a Jan. 6 insurrectionist accused of beating a police officer with a bat. And, to top it all off, these Republican Senators are asking the Iowa Senate to condemn and arrest police and corrections officers rather than the insurrectionists who attacked our Capitol.
Iowa Senate Democrats join the vast majority of Iowans and Americans by standing for the rule of law, and with the law enforcement officials who defended American democracy during this dark hour of our nation’s history.
Senate Democrats also highlighted the resolution in a March 23 fundraising email with the subject line, “Brad Zaun supports Jan. 6th insurrectionists.” Excerpts:
Just when you thought this session couldn’t get any worse, it did: Senate Republicans introduced a resolution in support of the Jan. 6th insurrectionists.
Brad Zaun, Republican Senator from Urbandale, said the insurrectionists acted “peacefully and patriotically”.
Brad Zaun showing support for the anti-democratic Jan. 6th insurrection is unacceptable. Last year we beat Jake “Sinister Agenda” Chapman. This year, we can take out another extremist GOP leader in Brad Zaun.
We’ve known Brad Zaun has been terrible for years. This year he voted to ban books, deny healthcare for kids, and defund public schools.
Technically, denouncing conditions in the DC jail is not equivalent to supporting the insurrection. The resolution does acknowledge “serious charges” related to January 6 are being investigated, and “if and when found guilty the appropriate sentence according to the law is being and should be issued and carried out.”
Moreover, everyone awaiting trial should have access to clean water, adequate food, and medical care. (Whether the January 6 defendants are being treated unfairly is disputed; by some accounts, they are living in better conditions than many people languishing in jails around the country.)
In any event, those are fine distinctions. Zaun and his colleagues didn’t call for a broad review of federal criminal justice facilities, with a view to improving conditions for those accused of any crime. The thrust of Senate Resolution 8 sympathizes with defendants who are charged with violent acts against law enforcement on January 6.
That’s probably why 28 of the 34 Iowa GOP senators had the good sense not to put their names on the measure.
When U.S. House Oversight Committee members visited the DC jail on March 24, Republicans including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene greeted the insurrectionists “like celebrities,” according to House Democrat Robert Garcia. Those Republicans can afford to be vocal supporters of pro-Trump extremists, because they represent solid red districts.
Which is more than anyone can say for Brad Zaun.
Top image cropped from State Senator Brad Zaun’s official photo on the Iowa legislature’s website.