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September 19th, 2011

Gronstal on special election: ‘We are Wisconsin now’

INDIANOLA, Iowa—Democratic leaders implored state activists Sunday at an annual fundraising event for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to get involved in a special election that will determine which party controls the state Senate.

Senate District 18 in Linn County became vacant Friday when former state Sen. Swati Dandekar (D-Marion) resigned to accept a nomination by Gov. Terry Branstad to the Iowa Utilities Board. Democrats hold a razor-thin 26-to-24 seat majority, and the Nov. 8 special election is expected to be the most expensive state Senate race in Iowa history as both parties, presidential candidates and independent campaign groups get involved.

State political strategists on both sides of the aisle are comparing the showdown to the recent state Senate recall elections in Wisconsin, which could have flipped control of the state Senate from Republican to Democrat (Republicans beat back the Democratic challenge).

“Our connection to Wisconsin is that first of all, we went up there, and we have a lot of friends who owe us one,” Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said in an interview with at the Harkin Steak Fry. “The second connection is that what we are trying to prevent here is that exact thing…”

“The loss of the majority in the [state] Senate is of paramount interest to every one of our partners—I mean our elected partners, I mean Tom Harkin and Bruce Braley and President Obama, and all of our coalition partners: labor, Planned Parenthood,” she said. “Democratic activists from all over eastern Iowa and some from western Iowa are going to be living in Marion.”

Republican leaders are also mobilizing for a bruising six-week campaign after local party officials select their candidates this week in a special convention of precinct party committee members.

“The fight to end Senator Mike Gronstal’s one-party, Democrat reign over the Iowa Senate doesn’t have to wait until November 2012,” Strawn wrote to activists on Friday. “I know you share my goal of restoring principled, conservative government to Iowa. Too often our principled agenda of smaller government, balanced budgets and lower taxes was blocked by one-party, Democrat control in the Iowa Senate.”

Democratic state House leader Kevin McCarthy also compared the stakes to Wisconsin. He recounted a bill on collective bargaining that passed the Iowa state House this year that he said was “a lot worse than Wisconsin… total elimination of workers rights!”

McCarthy said that state House Democrats would hold their pre-session caucus in Cedar Rapids so that the 40 members can campaign door-to-door “in solidarity with our Senate brethren.”

“If we lose this seat, these bills that we’ve been fighting hard against that have been dying in the Senate, have a chance for survival. And that’s a thought that scares the hell out of me, to be frank with you… If they get control, our society is going to be fundamentally changed, and we cannot allow that to happen.”

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal fired up the crowd with his trademark bulldog bark of a pep talk.

“Sit down, sit down, shut up! Shut up!” Gronstal yelled over a boisterous standing ovation from 200-some Democratic activists. “It’s a rainy day out there. Don’t let that dampen your spirits. It’s a sign of fertility. We can’t harvest the crop of absentee ballot requests without a little rain, and that’s what we’re going to be doing over in Cedar Rapids.”

“Are we going to let Republicans take this seat away from us and walk away from the minimum wage in this state?” he said. “Folks, this race in Cedar Rapids is ground zero. We are Wisconsin now. We must win this race. I need every live body in this room that can get over there to get over there and help us pick up absentee ballot requests.”

“We’re gonna prove that little, old smart game Terry Branstad—‘let’s see if we can knock off some Democrat by givin’ ‘em, appointing them to a good job and then we’ll get that seat’—let’s prove him not so smart,” Gronstal said. “See you in Cedar Rapids!”

In an interview with, Gronstal declined to speculate on Dandekar’s motivation for resigning. Many politicos speculated that Dandekar’s departure was at least in part due to Gronstal’s refusal to allow the Senate to consider a bill on nuclear power, a priority for Dandekar.

“I would encourage people who want to know what motivated Swati to ask Swati,” Gronstal said. “I think Sen. Dandekar saw an opportunity. I think that it will allow her background as a scientist, and so I think she made that decision. I don’t agree with her decision. I don’t particularly like her decision, but that’s the decision she made, so we’ll live with that. We will find a great candidate, we will run a great campaign and we will do our very best to win.”

Gronstal framed the stakes in typical partisan bluster: “If you want to dismantle universal access to preschool, if you want to take away health care coverage for every kid in the state of Iowa, if you want to restrict people’s voters rights, if you want a war on working families, you’re gonna go with the Republicans,” he said. “If you want to keep moving our society forward, you want the Democrat.”

Dvorsky said that she is “absolutely confident” that Democrats will win the race, which will pose an organizational test to both parties as well as a challenge to determine which party’s message can appeal to suburban independents. Republicans outnumber Democrats by 193 registered voters in Senate District 18 (15,945 to 15,742), but independents are the largest voting bloc in the district (19,873). The district has been trending Republican recently. Since Jan. 2011, Democrats lost a six voter registration edge (15,889 Democrats to 15,883 Republicans and 19,481 independents). In Jan. 2010, Democrats held a 1,630 edge in voter registrations over Republicans.

“It’s a happy accident of an opportunity,” Dvorsky said. “Our people are kind of sitting and they’re stewing a little bit. The Democratic Party is at its heart a field organization. That’s who these people are [pointing to the crowd]. They’re field people. They want to do things. They don’t just give their money. They do a thing, and they’re desperate to do a thing. And this gives us, in Oct. of 2011 when everybody said, ‘Oooh, it’s an off year,’ this gives us the opportunity to do the thing.”

Dvorsky said Dandekar, who was considered a business-friendly Democrat, knew the political implications of her resignation and decided to stick it to the state party anyway.

“I am a person who doesn’t spend a lot of time looking at motivation, because it doesn’t matter,” she said. “The fact of the matter is she did it. She did it now, and we have to deal with that. Other people are going to do a lot of psycho-pop analysis of why Swati did what she did. She is, you know, not an infant. I mean, she’s not a virgin at this. She knew what she was doing. She did it anyway.”

From Harkin Steak Fry 2011
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About the Author

Jeff Patch

Jeff Patch is a correspondent for He’s a communications, research and political consultant for Iowa candidates, causes and companies. E-mail questions, comments, insults or story ideas to jeff [at]

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