Bennett Smith weighing independent bid in Iowa House district 54

Iowa House district 54 shouldn’t be on the map of competitive 2020 state legislative races. Democrats haven’t fielded a candidate in the district outgoing House Speaker Linda Upmeyer is vacating in any of the last four elections.

However, Republicans are no longer guaranteed to keep this seat in the GOP column.

Clear Lake City Council member Bennett Smith announced on December 5 that he may run for the Iowa House as an independent. Although it’s been nearly a century since anyone with no party affiliation has won an Iowa legislative race, Smith would be a credible candidate.

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How Linda Upmeyer could use her unspent campaign funds

Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer raised more than $1.5 million during the 2018 election cycle and donated most of the money to the Republican Party of Iowa, for use in competitive state legislative races. Upmeyer surely raised significant funds during the first nine months of this year, before she confirmed plans to step down as speaker. (We won’t know how much until Iowa lawmakers file their next campaign finance disclosures in January.)

What’s going to happen to the money in Upmeyer’s campaign account, given that the soon-to-be-former caucus leader won’t run for re-election in 2020?

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Dems contesting far more Iowa House, Senate seats than in 2010 or 2014

Democrats are fielding a nearly full slate of Iowa House and Senate candidates this year, leaving far fewer GOP-held seats unchallenged than in the last two midterm elections.

The improvement is particularly noticeable in the Iowa House, where Republicans have an unusually large number of open seats to defend. Twelve of the 59 GOP state representatives are retiring, and a thirteenth seat (House district 43) is open due to Majority Leader Chris Hagenow’s move to safer Republican territory in Dallas County.

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State Representative Wendt (D) stepping down for health reasons

Charlotte Eby reports that Democratic State Representative Roger Wendt won’t return for the rest of the current legislative session or seek re-election this year because of a “serious unnamed medical condition.” I will update this post as more is known about Wendt’s condition. I’m sure the Bleeding Heartland community joins me in hoping that Wendt will receive the medical care he needs now.

UPDATE: Bret Hayworth reports that Wendt has lung cancer. He had apparently been cancer-free since beating the disease in his other lung 17 years ago. Best wishes for another full recovery.

Wendt was first elected to House district 2 in 2002. The district includes part of Sioux City (here is a map (pdf file). In 2008, Wendt defeated Republican Rick Bertrand with about 51.5 percent of the vote. Bertrand is running again this year.

Democrats hold a 56-44 majority in the Iowa House, but leaders haven’t always been able to find 51 votes to pass bills on their agenda, particularly relating to labor and taxation. Wendt’s departure will complicate efforts to pass House File 2420, the “fair share” bill that would require non-union public employees to compensate the union for bargaining services done on their behalf.

Woodbury County Democrats will have to work harder than ever on getting the vote out this year. In November, State Representative Wes Whitead announced plans to retire from House district 1, which is also in the Sioux City area. Rick Mullin, a past chair of the Woodbury County Democrats, will face Republican Jeremy Taylor in the first district. Taylor nearly defeated Whitead in 2008.

Republican State Representative Chris Rants is retiring from House district 54 this year, leaving a third open seat in Woodbury County. That district, which stretches from southeastern Sioux City to the Sergeant Bluff area, is less friendly territory for Democrats. I believe we have better pickup opportunities in House district 74 in Warren County and in House district 51 in Carroll County, which Republican Rod Roberts is vacating in order to run for governor this year.

UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s blog recounts some highlights from Wendt’s career. He left a mark on this state’s education policy while chairing the House Education Committee:

* Wendt fought for a model core curriculum, intended to give all students the same strong education foundation, in 2008.

* He supported an anti-bullying law. The legislation in 2007 forced public and private schools to have policies that prevent and punish bullying or harassment of any student, including based on sexual orientation.

* Wendt was one of the lawmakers who led the charge three years ago on a statewide sales tax to raise money for school building projects. The old method was more piecemeal – counties voted periodically on a tax for their area. Urban schools, where most shopping and sales taxes happen, raked in more money, while rural districts felt funding inequity. Money is distributed equally per pupil across the state now.

* He began speaking out about a “dramatic need” for preschool programs in 2005.   Two years later, a law passed so that nearly all of Iowa’s 4-year-olds could attend preschool on a voluntary basis, paid for by the state and taught by licensed teachers.

* He helped make high school more rigorous. He believed that students – and their parents – need to take high school more seriously. Too many students coast in their junior and senior years, he said.

LATE UDPATE: Dave Price notes that three other Iowa legislators are currently battling cancer: Republican State Senators David Johnson and Pat Ward and Democratic State Representative Paul Bell. Wishing them all a full recovery.  

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