Education is shaping up to be a defining issue in an open-seat race for a strongly Republican Iowa House district.
State Representative Stan Gustafson, who currently represents House district 22, is planning to retire at the end of his current term. Samantha Fett, a former Carlisle school board member and chapter leader of Moms for Liberty, announced last month that she will seek the Republican nomination. Fett has spoken at several Iowa House or Senate meetings during the past two years, urging lawmakers to approve various education-related or anti-LGBTQ bills.
Garrett Gobble announced his candidacy for the same district in a September 8 Facebook post. He previously represented part of Ankeny in the Iowa House for one term. A recent guest commentary for the Des Moines Register indicated that Gobble hopes Governor Kim Reynolds and groups focused on school policies will stay out of his upcoming race.
GOP PRIMARY WILL LIKELY DETERMINE NOVEMBER WINNER
Iowa House district 22 covers Norwalk, Cumming, Carlisle, and several other areas of Warren County outside Indianola.
Democrats did not field a candidate against Gustafson in 2022. According to the latest official figures, active registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in House district 22 by more than 2,000. According to the map Josh Hughes created in Dave's Redistricting App, Donald Trump received 57.5 percent of the presidential vote in this district's precincts in 2020, while Joe Biden received just 40.2 percent.
The upshot is that whoever wins next year's GOP primary is likely to become Gustafson's successor. Aside from Fett and Gobble, I am not aware of other Republicans preparing for this legislative race. Norwalk Mayor Tom Phillips told me in July that he will not seek the office.
There is plenty of time for more candidates to join the field, since the filing deadline for Iowa's state and federal candidates is March 15, 2024.
FETT HAS HEAD START, POWERFUL ALLIES
Fett has lived in Carlisle for many years and raised her children in the community as well as serving on the school board. But she is less well known in other parts of the House district. Norwalk has more than 13,600 residents, whereas Carlisle's population is around 4,200.
According to her campaign Facebook page, Fett has already started canvassing in House district 22 and is recruiting volunteers to help her reach her goal of hitting 5,000 doors by the end of this year.
Prominent Republicans who spoke at Fett's kickoff event last month include Tana Goertz (a surrogate for Trump who worked on his 2016 and 2020 campaigns), Todd Erzen (a producer for the Steve Deace Show who favors Ron DeSantis for president), and State Representative Eddie Andrews, who represents a suburban Polk County district, northwest of Des Moines.
Andrews explained his choice by saying, "When I look for candidates…I look for someone with conviction, backbone and little bit of that stuff that makes you go…and not be afraid…I think we found that person in Sam." Remember, Andrews served in the Iowa House with Gobble in 2021 and 2022.
Fett plans to attend the "Iowa Liberty Fest" in Johnston on September 16. The event will feature all-around conspiracy theorist Steve Deace as well as James O'Keefe, who gained fame by staging deceptive "sting" videos for Project Veritas and is now under investigation for his handling of that group's finances.
The biggest advantage Fett brings into a primary campaign is her advocacy on several of the conservative movement's current obsessions. As a chapter chair for Moms for Liberty since early 2022, she has frequently come to the capitol for legislative hearings. Last year, she spoke in favor of an Iowa Senate bill that would have made it a criminal offense for educators to distribute "obscene material" to children. (She supported that proposal, which did not become law, because the Carlisle school district had rejected her effort to get Maya Kobabe's book Gender Queer out of the library.)
This year, Fett urged legislators to pass several bills that Republican lawmakers later approved and Reynolds signed. She spoke at subcommittee meetings on measures to remove supposedly obscene materials from schools and ban gender-affirming care for minors.
Perhaps most important, Fett was on hand when the governor's "school choice" plan was fast-tracked in January, telling legislators, "School choice will not defund public schools. This is a win-win for both entities." Soon after signing that bill, the governor spoke at a Moms for Liberty event in Des Moines, where she urged activists to "stay involved."
The August news release announcing Fett's campaign noted,
Fett supports the new Education Savings Accounts passed in the 2023 Iowa Legislative session and championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. She also plans to support additional education reform.
“We need to get back to basics in education and make sure our students are learning at an efficient level,” Fett said. “We are seeing political propaganda prioritized over reading and the results are low-test scores and non-proficient learning levels. I want to raise the exceptions in our learning environments because we can do better for the students of Iowa.” [...]
“What I have heard is we need to tackle issues around education reform, growing our workforce and trade programs, creating bridges to self-sufficiency, and protecting Iowa seniors from surging costs,” Fett said. “Government works best when we are involved in the process. What you can expect from me is bold leadership, transparency and access. I am ready to serve my district, not as a politician but as a concerned citizen, a taxpayer and a parent.” [emphasis in original]
Education reform was a fault line in several contested GOP primaries for Iowa House seats in 2022. Candidates backing the governor's position won most of those races.
Gobble is already trying to neutralize this advantage for Fett.
A GROVELING ABOUT-FACE ON SCHOOL VOUCHERS
As mentioned above, Gobble officially declared his candidacy for this House race last week. But but he's been planning for this campaign for approximately a year. He moved from Ankeny to Norwalk in late 2022, and filed paperwork this May indicating that he would be a 2024 Republican candidate in House district 22. He has been volunteering with the Warren County GOP at several public events over the summer.
Why did he wait so long to make his next campaign official? It appears he wanted to deal with the elephant in the room first.
A former public school teacher, Gobble was rumored to be among the House Republicans who stopped the governor's school voucher plan from advancing during the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions. The bill never came to a vote in committee or on the House floor those years, because it lacked support to pass.
To my knowledge, Gobble never publicly acknowledged he was among the voucher holdouts—unlike several of his former colleagues, who lost their 2022 primaries. He didn't face a primary challenger last year in Ankeny-based House district 42, but narrowly lost the general election to Heather Matson, the Democrat he'd beaten by a small margin in 2020.
Gobble was on the sidelines when the legislature passed a more sweeping "school choice" plan in January. He didn't post about the topic on his political Facebook page. In contrast, he repeatedly posted approving messages this summer about Republican efforts to ban abortion.
A few days before Gobble announced his new House campaign, the Des Moines Register published his latest op-ed, under the headline, "I thought Kim Reynolds' ESAs could hurt public schools. I was wrong."
In content and tone, the column is embarrassing. Gobble started by touting the "unique perspective" he brought to the state House as a public school teacher, ticking off how he "fought to get kids back to school during the pandemic" and "worked on a variety of education bills to bring more transparency in the education system for parents, like requiring districts to provide access to instructional materials."
Then came the flip-flop:
When it came to the issue of education savings accounts, or ESAs, I was concerned they would harm public schools, particularly those in rural communities. As the product of a rural school upbringing and a teacher at a public school, I never wanted to vote for anything that would harm good schools. Maybe you were led to believe this too, but I think it’s safe to say we were wrong.
It is now clear to me that the Students First program, championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, will be a positive and long-lasting change for Iowa families.
Gobble declared the rollout a success because of "overwhelming" response from families, and prompt approval of many applications by the out-of-state vendor administering the program.
Keep in mind, only incoming kindergartners and low-income families are eligible this year. The extraordinary number of applications proves that the governor was right: Many low-income families want more control over their kids’ future. ESAs dismantle economic obstacles and allow all Iowa families to choose the best educational setting for their kids.
Offering choice is not an attack on public schools, but it will make all Iowa schools and communities better. The new marketplace for K-12 education will force all schools to up their game to compete.
Gobble misrepresents several facts. The voucher program is not just for "low-income" families. Iowans with a household income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level qualify this year. That's up to $90,000 for a family of four. The income threshold will increase to 400 percent of the federal poverty level next year and will disappear in year three and beyond.
In addition, Gobble's logic makes no sense because the budgetary impact on public school districts isn't yet clear. We don't know how many students have left public schools because of this program, or how many more will do so when the income limits go away. For a small rural school district, even a loss of a dozen students could force painful cuts to staff or programs.
State Auditor Rob Sand refuted more of Gobble's talking points in a Register column published on September 11. For instance: you can't speak of market-based competition when private schools get to play by different rules and aren't subject to regular audits.
But for the purposes of this post, I'm more interested in the subtext of Gobble's column than its overt message. It came across as a desperate plea for Reynolds and others not to endorse Fett in the House district 22 primary.
Three conservative groups—Americans for Prosperity, the American Federation for Children, and The FAMiLY Leader —spent more than $600,000 on Iowa House primaries in 2022, Erin Murphy reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette last year. The governor held GOTV events or recorded robocalls for several of her endorsed House candidates.
I don't know whether Reynolds plans to intervene in legislative primaries next year. Arguably, she doesn't need to spend her political capital that way, since she already got almost everything she wanted through the House and Senate during this year's session. The same argument could apply to the outside groups that spent money on the 2022 primaries. Maybe they will move on to states that haven't already enacted "school choice," abortion bans, and other items on their legislative agenda.
On the other hand, why wouldn't the governor want someone who was "loud and proud" urging the legislature to adopt her education policies, as opposed to the guy who stood in the way when he served in the House and is now begging for forgiveness?
Gobble's political Facebook page describes him as a "Conservative dedicated to fighting for the great people of Iowa!" That may be a hard sell in a GOP primary, especially since he's relatively new to Warren County.
Have a tip about a candidate planning to run for the Iowa House or Senate in 2024? Reach out to Laura Belin confidentially.
Top image: Samantha Fett, cropped from photo published on her campaign Facebook page, and Garrett Gobble, cropped from his official legislative photo.