High-profile showdown coming in Iowa Senate district 37

Next year’s campaign in Iowa Senate district 37 will be closely watched statewide and may draw some national attention. Republican State Representative Kent Sorenson has decided to challenge first-term Senator Staci Appel instead of seeking re-election to Iowa House district 74. The socially conservative Sorenson made a splash this summer with his open letter imploring Senator Chuck Grassley to provide “principled and bold leadership” to advance the Republican Party platform. Appel is assistant Senate majority leader and chairs the State Government Committee. Her husband is one of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices who unanimously struck down our Defense of Marriage Act in April.

Republican blogger Craig Robinson is upbeat about Sorenson’s chances.

My opinion on this matchup hasn’t changed since Robinson first discussed the prospect in May: Bring it on.

Here’s Robinson’s case for Sorenson as a strong challenger:

In 2008, Sorenson defeated State Representative Mark Davitt by 163 votes. Sorenson’s victory surprised many Republican insiders that year. Since his campaign wasn’t on their radar as a potential pick-up, Sorenson was left to himself to orchestrate a winning campaign. With the help of a dedicated volunteer base, Sorenson pulled off the upset of the night when he sent Rep. Davitt home after serving three terms in the Iowa House.

Sorenson will not be flying under the radar in his race against Staci Appel. This time around, he finds himself as one of the top recruits for Senate Republicans. Making things more intriguing is that the Sorenson-Appel match-up will be ground-zero for the gay marriage debate in Iowa. Sorenson is an unabashed supporter of traditional marriage. Appel is one of the most liberal members of the Senate and is also married to one of the Iowa Supreme Court Justices who ran roughshod over Iowa’s marriage laws.

Despite raising huge amounts of money for her campaign in 2006, Appel only won her seat by 772 votes. Her opponent in 2006 was relatively unknown and underfunded. Sorenson brings a number of attributes to the race. First, Sorenson already represents half of the district. The part of the district that he already represents is the most difficult for a Republican candidate to win. Second, Sorenson has shown that he has the determination to do what’s necessary to win. While some candidates look for help from the day they are recruited, Sorenson and his crew of volunteers work tirelessly at the grassroots level.

Another factor to consider is that Sorenson and Steve Deace, the afternoon drive radio host on WHO Radio, are good friends and share a similar worldview. While many Republican candidates are hesitant to go on Deace in the Afternoon, Sorenson has embraced it. Deace will have to offer Sen. Appel air time as Election Day nears, but there is no chance she would walk into that studio and sit across the table from Deace. Sorenson’s access to WHO Radio’s listeners will help him counter the fundraising edge that many people expect Appel to have.

Appel faced a “relatively unknown and underfunded” opponent in 2006 because her strong fundraising and hard work on the ground scared Republican incumbent Doug Shull out of seeking re-election. She won by “only” 772 votes at a time when Iowa Democrats did not have the large voter registration advantage over Republicans that they now enjoy. Four years ago, Appel was a community volunteer seeking elective office for the first time. Now she chairs a Senate committee and has plenty of achievements under her belt.

I give credit to Sorenson for his narrow victory in House district 74 last November. It shocked and disappointed Iowa Democrats and prevented us from passing some important bills during this year’s legislative session. But as Robinson himself acknowledges, Sorenson is not going to be an under-the-radar challenger next year.

He now has a public record that he lacked as a first-time candidate in 2008. Sorenson was an early endorser of Bob Vander Plaats for governor. As the GOP primary unfolds, more and more Iowans will learn about Vander Plaats’ unworkable plan to halt gay marriage as well as his other wacky policy ideas. Sorenson appears to be ignorant about the separation of powers, as his clerk in the Iowa House erroneously told the Warren County recorder that she did not need to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.

This summer, Sorenson criticized Chuck Grassley for not being staunchly conservative enough and not flatly ruling out a compromise over health care reform. That will put him out of step with many moderates. Grassley’s approval rating has fallen this year, and the Des Moines Register’s recent statewide poll showed that “52 percent of Iowans would rather see Grassley compromise with Democrats than walk away from the [health care reform] negotiations. Thirty-nine percent would rather see him drop out of the talks than support proposals he disagrees with.”

Sorenson is willing to take his message to voters’ doorsteps, but Appel’s a hard worker with years of experience canvassing this district.

I’m not convinced that Sorenson will benefit much from WHO drive-time host Steve Deace’s assistance. Deace tends to go on the warpath against insufficiently right-wing Republicans (like John McCain), and next fall the GOP nominee for governor may be on his hit list. Deace has a big audience, but I think his blessing will only emphasize how far Sorenson is outside the Iowa mainstream.

Finally, I doubt Sorenson will get much traction against Appel on the same-sex marriage issue. The Varnum v Brien decision was unanimous; it’s not as if Justice Brent Appel cast the deciding vote on the Supreme Court. A barrage of television ads highlighting gay marriage didn’t win the day for the Republican candidate in the Iowa House district 90 special election. The Register’s recent statewide poll indicates that Iowans are not eager to vote for a constitutional amendment to overturn marriage equality. If public opinion trends in Vermont and Massachusetts are any guide, Iowans are likely to be more tolerant of same-sex marriage a year from now than they are today.

Appel will have to work hard against Sorenson, but I am confident that she will be able to bring this race home, with the help of a strong coordinated campaign by the Iowa Democratic Party.

Sorenson’s decision to run against Appel improves Democratic prospects in the Iowa House next year. Republicans have just about zero chance of taking back the majority in the Iowa Senate (where they hold only 18 of the 50 seats), but the GOP has more realistic pickup opportunities in the House (where they hold 44 seats out of 100). Sorenson has just given Democrats an excellent chance of winning back House district 74, which would make the hill steeper to climb for Republicans. Mark Davitt will decide this fall whether to run for his old House seat again. According to Bleeding Heartland user MrScarletW, Democrat Scott Ourth is running in House district 74. Here’s a short bio on Ourth.

Incidentally, State Representative Jodi Tymeson of House district 73 (the more Republican-leaning half of Senate district 37) has announced that she will not seek re-election next year either. That’s another open seat for the GOP to defend and another sign that Republicans are not confident about their chances to win back the Iowa House.

Final note for political trivia buffs: I’ll wager that Iowa Senate district 37 will be the country’s only state legislative race next year in which both major-party candidates have six children.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

An early look at the 2010 Iowa Senate races

Note: Iowa Democrats will almost certainly be able to block any constitutional amendment banning gay marriage if they retain control of either the Iowa House or Senate in 2010.

Conservative blogger Craig Robinson argued earlier this month that “Iowa Republicans Have Plenty of Opportunity in the State Senate” in 2010. The GOP has almost nowhere to go but up. Republicans currently hold 18 of the 50 seats in the Iowa Senate, fewer than at any previous time in this state’s history. After making gains in the last four general elections, Democrats now hold 19 of the 25 Iowa Senate seats that will be on the ballot in 2010. Also, several Democratic incumbents are in their first term, having won their seats during the wave election of 2006.

To win back the upper chamber, Republicans would need a net gain of seven seats in 2010, and Robinson lists the seven districts where he sees the best chances for the GOP.

I generally agree with John Deeth’s view that only a few Senate districts are strong pickup opportunities for Republicans next year. Winning back the upper chamber will take the GOP at least two cycles, with redistricting likely to create who knows how many open or winnable seats in 2012.

After the jump I’ll examine the seven Iowa Senate districts Robinson views as worthwhile targets as well as one Republican-held district that Democrats should be able to pick up. Here is a map (pdf file) of the current Iowa Senate districts.

I’ll address these districts in the same order Robinson presents them, starting with the longest of the long-shots.

7. Like Robinson (but for different reasons), I would love to see wingnut Bill Salier challenge Senator Amanda Ragan in district 7 (Cerro Gordo County). Democrats have a big voter registration edge, and Ragan won re-election in 2006 with more than 70 percent of the vote. Crushing Salier would be particularly sweet, because it would show that Iowans are not interested in electing someone who’s done little lately besides speak out against same-sex marriage. I doubt Salier would take on this challenge. He seems more interested in threatening to support primary challengers against mainstream Republicans he views as insufficiently committed to overturning the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Varnum v Brien.

6. Robinson thinks Steve Warnstadt is vulnerable in Senate District 1 (Woodbury County) because the Democrats representing the two Iowa House districts in this Senate district only won by narrow margins in 2008. He thinks either of the Republican candidates who almost won House races in 2008 would be strong challengers to Warnstadt. Don’t get your hopes up, Republicans. In 2008 the Obama campaign’s GOTV was extremely weak in western Iowa, leading to poor Democratic turnout in Woodbury County and elsewhere in the fifth Congressional district. Don’t count on the Iowa Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign repeating this mistake in 2010.

5. Robinson would like to see Mariannette Miller-Meeks take on Senator Keith Kreiman in district 47 (Wapello, Wayne, Appanoose, Davis Counties). I actually agree with him that Miller-Meeks has a better chance of getting elected to the statehouse someday than of beating Dave Loebsack in the Democratic-leaning second Congressional district. However, I don’t see her beating Kreiman, who won his district in 2006 by almost a 2-1 margin. Miller-Meeks would do better to run for an open Iowa House or Senate seat. Anyway, after seeing her speak at an Iowa Politics forum in Des Moines late last year, I got the impression that she plans to run for Congress again.

4. Robinson thinks Staci Appel is vulnerable in district 37 (Warren and Madison Counties) because she won by only 772 votes in 2006 despite “raising massive amounts of money […] She is also the wife of Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel, adding a unique twist to her re-election campaign.” State Representative Kent Sorenson would be the perfect candidate against Appel, having upset Mark Davitt in House district 74 in 2008: “An Appel/Sorenson race would be ground zero for the debate on gay marriage in Iowa.” To which I say, bring it on. Let the Republicans run Sorenson, who has endorsed Bob Vander Plaats for governor and whose clerk erroneously told the Warren County recorder that she did not need to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Then let Appel talk about her many achievements during her first term in the Senate.

Another reason I would welcome this challenge is that it would open up House district 74. House Democrats were caught napping in 2008; they didn’t hire a campaign manager to focus on Davitt’s re-election, and he wasn’t the hardest-working incumbent in terms of voter contacts. We should be able to win back the district with a Democrat willing to pound the pavement and knock on doors–especially if Sorenson vacates the seat to challenge Appel.

3. Now we’re getting to the more realistic pickup opportunities for Iowa Republicans. Democratic Senator Rich Olive won district 5 (Wright, Hamilton, Story Counties) by only 62 votes in 2006. Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the district. Even though Olive is not particularly liberal, Iowa Democrats will need to work hard to hold this district.

2. If Republicans can convince former State Senator Sandy Greiner to run against Becky Schmitz in district 45 (Washington, Wapello, Jefferson, Van Buren Counties), I agree with Robinson that this would be a very competitive race. Schmitz won narrowly in 2006 and is in her first term.

1. I don’t share Robinson’s opinion that former State Representative Bill Dix would be a particularly strong challenger to Bill Heckroth in district 9 (Butler, Bremer, Black Hawk, Fayette Counties). That said, Heckroth is a freshman and Republicans have a registration edge, so defending this seat will be high on the Iowa Democrats’ agenda.

Generally speaking, recruiting strong Senate candidates won’t be easy for Republicans, because the party is perceived to have a much better chance of retaking the Iowa House. Life in the minority isn’t much fun.

With only six Republican-held Iowa Senate seats up for grabs in 2010, there’s not much room for Iowa Democrats to make further gains in the upper chamber. It goes without saying that we should leave no Republican unchallenged, but most of the Republican incumbents will cruise. Deeth thinks Republicans may need to play defense in Senate district 35. I am less optimistic. Democrats had a strong and well-known candidate in 2006, former Ankeny Mayor Merle Johnson. The party spent a lot of money in the district, but Johnson lost to Larry Noble by more than 1,200 votes.

Instead, I would encourage the Iowa Democratic Party to make a major play for Senate district 41 (Scott County), held by David Hartsuch of Bettendorf. Here’s why:

1. Hartsuch is a first-term incumbent who won by only 436 votes in 2006.

2. Since then, Democratic voter registration has grown significantly in Scott County.  

3. A lot of moderate Republicans dislike Hartsuch because he defeated the well-regarded incumbent Maggie Tinsman in the 2006 GOP primary.

4. He is a polarizing figure. It’s fine to be a Steve King sound-alike if you represent a heavily Republican district, but Hartsuch doesn’t.

5. Deeth says of Hartsuch, “His failed Congressional bid [in 2008] may have helped his name ID, but not necessarily in a good way.” That’s putting it mildly.

Compare the results from the 2006 and 2008 elections in Iowa’s first Congressional district.  You can find them, along with the results of the state legislative elections from that year, on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website. Both years the Republicans nominated a candidate from Scott County. Bruce Braley won the district with about 55.1 percent of the vote against businessman Mike Whalen in 2006.

Now look at how Hartsuch underperformed in 2008. IA-01 has a partisan voter index of D+4, meaning that in a typical year we would expect it to vote about 4 percent more Democratic than the country as a whole. In 2008 Democratic candidates averaged 56 percent of the vote in U.S. House races, so we would expect Braley to win about 60 percent of the vote given the lean of the district. In fact, he won 64.6 percent against Hartsuch. Granted, Democratic turnout tends to be higher in a presidential year, and Braley turned out to be remarkably effective for a first-term Congressman. Still, Hartsuch’s performance was underwhelming.

Hartsuch didn’t look particularly strong in his home base of Scott County either. Whalen kept it close in Scott County in 2006, winning about 25,142 votes in the county to 29,465 for Braley. In 2008 it was a blowout, with Braley beating Hartsuch by 49,732 to 32,766 votes in this county. I did not look up the precinct-level results for the Congressional voting; presumably Hartsuch did somewhat better in the precincts that are in Iowa Senate district 41. Still, he doesn’t look like a hometown favorite to me.

I have no idea who would be the ideal Democratic candidate against Hartsuch in 2010. Hartsuch’s opponent in 2006 was Phyllis Thede, who went on to defeat Republican incumbent Jamie Van Fossen in Iowa House district 81 in 2008. As much as I like Thede, I would prefer not to leave any of our Democratic-held House seats open next year. There must be another good Democrat in Scott County who could beat Hartsuch.