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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The case of the missing Republican fundraising

Last week Democratic and Republican candidates for the Iowa legislature filed disclosure reports on their campaign contributions and expenditures. For most candidates, those reports covered the period from June 2 through July 14. For the few candidates who didn’t file reports on the Friday preceding the June primary, the July 19 reports covered campaign fundraising and expenses between May 15 and July 14.

John Deeth posted cash-on-hand totals for candidates in most of the Iowa House and Senate battleground districts. The numbers are encouraging for Democrats, because our candidates lead their opponents in cash on hand in most of the targeted districts.

As I read through the July 19 contribution reports, I noticed something strange. Republican candidates in various targeted Iowa House and Senate districts reported improbably low fundraising numbers. As a general rule, candidates strive for impressive fundraising to demonstrate their viability, and cash on hand in July indicates which candidate will have more resources during crunch time. However, I got the impression that several of the Republican Iowa House and Senate candidates made little effort to obtain campaign contributions during the latest reporting period. Follow me after the jump for some examples and possible explanations.  

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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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Republicans will play catch-up in Iowa House district 74

Republican Kent Sorenson’s narrow victory over State Representative Mark Davitt in Iowa House district 74 was perhaps the biggest upset in the state in 2008. The Democratic-leaning district includes much of Warren County, including Indianola and the Simpson College campus. Sorenson decided to run against Staci Appel in Iowa Senate district 37 instead of running for re-election to the House.

Scott Ourth announced plans to run for this seat in October and was already pounding the pavement months before that. I’d heard he was working hard, and I noticed that he reported strong fundraising in his filing with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. I didn’t realize until today that Ourth raised the bar for Democrats running for the Iowa House:

Ourth, a 50-year-old Democrat from Ackworth, claimed $37,359 in campaign contributions for 2009. The earnings, listed on a Jan. 19 disclosure form, trumped Rep. Tyler Olson’s 2005 record for the most money raised by a first-time Democratic candidate in the year prior to election year, according to Pat Murphy, speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives.

“No first-time candidate for the Iowa House from our party has ever gained this much financial support this early in the campaign cycle,” Murphy said in a prepared statement. “Mr. Ourth works very hard. His fundraising report definitely bears that out.” […]

More than 200 people donated by Jan. 1, including slightly more than 20 political action committees.

Ourth spent nearly $4,500, leaving him with approximately $32,800 on hand. Most of his expenses consisted of office equipment – he plans to use his home for a campaign headquarters, he said – and event invitations, according to his disclosure form.

The article goes on to say that at least one Republican plans to run in House district 74, but I haven’t heard any names floated. We’ll find out before the March filing deadline. Iowa House Republican leaders raised a lot of money last year, so they will be in a position to help out the eventual candidate here. But if I were in their position I would think hard before investing a lot in this district. Whoever jumps in for the GOP will start out way behind Ourth in retail campaigning as well as fundraising. Republicans have better opportunities to win some Democratic-held seats in other parts of the state, and some of their challengers will also need more money to be competitive.

House district 74 is likely to remain the best pickup opportunity for Democrats this year, but assuming Rod Roberts stays in the governor’s race, I like our chances in House district 51 too. (There are still a lot of Democrats in the Carroll area.) Picking up one or two Republican-held seats would make it much more difficult for the GOP to take back the Iowa House, where Democrats now have a 56-44 majority.

Any comments about state legislative races are welcome in this thread.

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