Drama Form The Start
When Governor Terry Branstad appointed Democrat State Senator Swati Dandekar to the Iowa Utilities Board, Republicans were ecstatic about having an opportunity to force split control of the Senate chamber before the legislature reconvenes in January. Even though Branstad’s move didn’t produce the result Republicans had hoped for, it did provide them with an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed.
The drama in Senate District 18 began immediately. Before appointing Dandekar to the Iowa Utilities Board, Branstad and his team sought out to find an ideal candidate to run in the vacant seat. His choice was Marion businesswoman Mary Rathje. While Branstad has been criticized for hand picking a candidate, it was the right move politically for him to identify a candidate to run for the seat. However, Branstad’s political team may have made two errors.
First, they may not have taken in to account how Branstad publically backing a candidate would play with the district delegates. District delegates are the ones who are solely responsible for nominating a candidate and may not respond well to someone else trying to make that decision for them, including the Governor. Making matters worse was the fact that this district is home to some of the most confrontational Republican delegates in the state. These delegates may mean well, but they seem to get more worked up over personality conflicts than actually involving themselves in something productive.
Secondly, Branstad’s political team had an edge in selecting its candidate before it was even known there was an opening, but they failed to adequately prep their candidate for what was about to come. Having never run for office before, Rathje was green and unprepared for they type of questions with which the district delegates would pepper her. Rathje wasn’t prepared, and while some of that is her own fault, the people who encouraged her to run should have served her better.
Golding Had a Chip on Her Shoulder
Cindy Golding won the Republican nomination for Senate District 18 fair and square. I found her to be an impressive and aggressive candidate. I also sensed that she had very thin skin. In her remarks to the convention delegates, Golding made a couple ambiguous references to a couple of things that were written about her before the nominating convention. The vetting done by this website and others is just part of the process. This site also disclosed similar things about Rathje. Instead of reveling in the fact that she defeated the Governor’s candidate, Golding never seemed to get over the fact that she wasn’t Branstad’s pick.
The enthusiasm that Republicans had about the possibility of winning the seat faded as soon as Democrats nominated Liz Mathis as their candidate. Mathis had incredibly high name ID and almost no negatives. In local elections like this, recruiting the right candidate can make the difference between winning and losing.
Even with the Democrats fielding a superb candidate, the enthusiasm about the race across the state remained high. The problem was that the enthusiasm for the Republican candidate inside the district, or more generally in the Cedar Rapids area, never reached the same level. Evidence of this was that the Republican Party of Iowa’s “Adopt-a-Republican” program was wildly successful in this race. The Party estimates that volunteers from across the state made contact with over 6000 low and mid propensity Republicans in the district in an effort to establish a relationship and encourage them to vote.
So, what created the enthusiasm gap inside the district? First and foremost, Cindy Golding. Senate District 18 encompasses the entire community of Marion, which is the largest community in the district. Golding wasn’t from there, and in fact, was not going to live within the boundaries of the new district after redistricting. Golding essentially made herself a lame duck candidate right out of the gate with Marion voters.
Paul McKinley’s Three-Week Vacation
Democrats and labor leaders are claiming today that Democrats were able to win the race because Governor Branstad was a drag on the ticket. Hogwash. If the Senate District 18 race was a referendum on anything, it was Senate leadership. The reason why Democrats were victorious was because Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal was able to recruit a stellar candidate. That’s the sign of good leadership.
Even though Gronstal was blindsided by Branstad’s appointment of Dandekar, it was abundantly clear that he and the Democrats had their pulse on the community and thus were able to quickly lock in and nominate a universally known and respected candidate in Liz Mathis. That wasn’t the case with Republicans. The lack of a strong leader in the Senate hurt Republicans from the onset and then continued to haunt them throughout the race.
In addition to candidate recruitment, another major responsibility for the leaders in the senate is fundraising. McKinley’s three-week vacation meant that the person who was supposed to be the Republican Party’s best fundraiser for this race was nowhere to be found during the most critical time of the campaign. PACs and trade associations will donate to these races, but they want to have an idea of what the priorities are going to be if Republicans take control or have a partial control of the Senate. Not only was McKinley out of the state, but also a week before the election, he announced that he would be stepping down as leader. This was another signal to potential contributors that Senate Republicans didn’t have their act together.
If McKinley’s absence wasn’t bad enough, he didn’t have any sort of campaign apparatus in place that the Republican nominee could plug into. McKinley couldn’t provide Golding with a pollster, a media vendor, or even a direct mail vendor. Instead it was House Speaker Kraig Paulsen who offered those services to Golding. It’s impossible to state just how much not having a strong, capable leader in the Senate cost Republicans in this race. It’s not that things didn’t get done, it’s that the leadership void created unnecessary drama, and I’m not talking about the drama over who would be the next leader in the senate. I’m talking about the drama within the Golding campaign.
Bill Dix’s Untimely Coup Attempt
Bill Dix clearly realized that lack of leadership from McKinley and sought to rectify the situation by challenging McKinley by calling for a leadership election. I thought that Dix made the right call then, and looking back now, I think Dix was justified. Let’s be honest here, Paul McKinley was never truly invested in this race. Had he been, he would have never been absent for three straight weeks with hardly any communication with his caucus. The fact that McKinley announced he was stepping down from his leadership position after he returned also gives us a glimpse of his priorities. Regardless of how bad McKinley was at leading the Republican effort in Senate District 18, the timing of Dix’s challenge was poor and created unnecessary drama.
An Ungrateful and Difficult Candidate
Nothing was ever good or fast enough for Cindy Golding. Since she was not the candidate that Branstad backed in the nominating convention, Golding was always suspect of those who were trying to help her. It also didn’t help that a handful of Linn County GOP activists were constantly in her ear telling her not to trust the Party.
Apparently Golding was upset with how long it took the Republican Party to get a campaign office. Never mind the fact that she was actually sitting in that office the day after she won the nominating convention, just one week after Branstad had appointed Dandekar to the Iowa Utilities Board. Republicans had office space before the Democrats had nominated their candidate. They had an elaborate phone system installed by the following Wednesday and everything was fully operational by that Friday. Still, Golding found it necessary to complain.
While Golding wasn’t satisfied with the speed in which the Republican Party set up an office, it was she that dragged her feet on approving the campaign’s first television ad. Her indecision cost the campaign about week of TV advertising. Instead of being up on TV before Mathis, the Golding ad didn’t run until after Mathis was on the air. Even though she signed off on the TV ad, Golding blasted her own ad in a debate with Mathis and said that she never approved it. Ultimately, there was a dispute between Golding and the media team. That led to Golding getting rid of Paulsen’s media team and pollster, and replacing them with Victory Enterprises, a Davenport company with ties to Iowans for Tax Relief.
Golding also proved to be a candidate who would not door knock and make phone calls. Those two activities are prerequisites when it comes to running for the legislature. Instead, Golding spent her time strategizing for hours and hours, leaving the voter contact responsibilities to campaign volunteers.
Iowans for Tax Relief
While the drama within the Republican caucus in the state senate was headline news, the Senate District 18 race became a turf war between the Republican Party and Iowans for Tax Relief (ITR). Golding already didn’t trust party officials, but things only got worse when officials from Iowans for Tax Relief spent hours telling Golding not to trust anything that the Republican Party was doing. It was these conversations that lead Golding to change her media team and pollster.
Changing vendors in the middle of any campaign is a risky proposition, but making those changes in a campaign that’s only spans a couple of months at best is unheard of. Apparently those involved with ITR believed the polls that had been conducted by Golding’s initial pollster were bad. They believed that the polling universe was off and wanted to commission a poll based upon their own voter data. The new poll showed exactly what the previous polls showed – Golding trailed Mathis by nearly 20 points.
ITR’s effort to inject itself into a campaign that was already fully operational was unnecessary. Instead of working together with the Republican Party, it made an already difficult situation even more toxic. While ITR is an issue advocacy group, it also profits by selling campaign services to campaigns. Golding may have lost her campaign regardless of everything that happened, but ITR’s efforts to build distrust between the candidate and party officials in hopes to gain some business seems to be counter productive to the stated goals of the organization.
Are there any Republican Winners in all of this?
There is plenty to blame to go around for the Republican loss in Senate District 18. In the end, there really are no winners, but if Republicans in the Senate are smart, they will learn some lessons from this mess. Still there were some bright spots that are worth mentioning.
RPI Victory Program: A lot of people are going to spout off against the Republican Party’s ability to win special elections. While they are not blameless and Republicans continue to struggle when it comes to absentee and early voting, their victory operation has improved greatly under the current administration. When it comes to voter contacts, the Republican Party of Iowa victory program once again put up very impressive numbers. Tracie Gibler and Don McDowell deserve to be commended for their work in running the victory office. They never allowed the drama surrounding the race to affect their work.
Mary Rathje: Rathje may have not been adequately prepped for the nominating convention but she showed a lot of class in how she conducted herself after the party nominated Golding. Rathje donated and went door knocking to advocate for her. It was a classy move from someone who could have easily become bitter about how things played out.
Speaker Kraig Paulsen: There are not enough good things to say about Speaker Paulsen and the Senate District 18 race. Paulsen poured a lot of time and effort into the race when it was never required of him to do so. Paulsen did all he could to be helpful, but in the end, it’s the candidate who makes the decision to either follow that advice or ignore it.
In the span of less than one year, Paulsen has emerged as an impressive leader. In this special election, he proved that he cares about more than just his own chamber and his own future. Paulsen’s willingness to involve himself in this senate race shows that he cares about actually enacting the Republican agenda, not just holding on to his position in the House.
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