By Craig Robinson
For the most part, legislative politics in Iowa have been drowned out by four competitive congressional campaigns and the presidential race this cycle. Two of Iowa’s congressional races are garnering national attention. The Latham vs. Boswell race pits two incumbent members of congress against one another. The other race features Congressman Steve King and former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack, which is captivating in its own right. The other two congressional races in eastern Iowa are also interesting.
In the shadows of those larger contests is the battle for control of the Iowa State Senate. Republicans are currently in the minority but only need a net gain of two seats to win the majority. With television sets inundated with political ads about federal issues, small budget local campaigns are unable to break through all the noise and get noticed.
Despite all of the attention that the congressional and presidential races are receiving, it’s the battle for the state senate that will likely determine whether or not the 2012 election is considered a success or failure in the eyes of local Republicans. For example, if Congressmen Latham and King are successful in winning re-election this fall and Republicans take the state senate and hold the Iowa House, it will be a successful election. Anything more than winning that would be considered a phenomenal year for Iowa Republicans, especially if Romney is able to carry the state.
Winning control of the Iowa Senate will institute the most political change, and thus, in my opinion, it is the biggest prize for Iowa Republicans in this election cycle. Defeating President Obama would also bring a lot of change, but Iowans are only a part of that process. While Iowa is an important battleground state, states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia are equally important to Romney should he want to win the election. Iowa Republicans need to do their part and win the state for Romney, but winning control of the Iowa Senate would bring immediate change to Iowa politics.
Iowa Republicans have not had sole control of the Iowa Senate since 2002. After the 2004 elections the chamber was split evenly with 25 Republicans and 25 Democrats. Since 2006 the Republicans have been in the minority and have never really had a play to take the majority in the chamber. The unexpected gains that Senate Republicans made in 2010 make it possible to win the majority in 2012.
Senate Republicans have recruited a strong class of candidates, and while winning the majority will not be easy, it is realistically obtainable. In order to layout the roadmap to a Republican controlled Iowa Senate, I sorted the candidates into three different classifications: incumbents seeking re-election, open seat races, and challenger races.
Typically, incumbents have the best odds of winning re-election, but since the 2012 elections follow redistricting, incumbency isn’t as big of a factor as it is in other cycles. Redistricting can also pit two incumbents against each other, which is the case in Senate District 26. Open seats often present good opportunities for the party that recruits the best candidate, especially if the voter registration numbers also give them an advantage in the district. Challenger races are always the most difficult to win.
Let’s break down all three types of campaigns:
Merlin Bartz (SD 26): State Senator Merlin Bartz is pitted against Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm in the only member/member matchup in the State Senate. Bartz is a strong campaigner with strong roots in the district, but defeating Wilhelm will not be easy.
Jerry Behn (SD 24): Winning re-election is never a walk in the park for Behn, but he has served in the chamber since 1997, meaning he has won re-election in some of the most difficult years for Iowa Republicans. Behn is expected to be in the win column for Senate Republicans.
Joni Ernst (SD 12): Earnst joined the State Senate after winning a special election to fill the vacancy left by Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds following the 2010 election. Ernst does not have a general election opponent.
Randy Feenstra (SD 2): Feenstra represents one of the most conservative areas of the state. Feenstra does not have a general election opponent.
Shawn Hamerlinck (SD 46): Hamerlinck won a primary over his senate colleague State Senator Jim Hahn back in June. He now faces stiff competition from Democrat Chris Brase.
Tim Kapucian (SD 38): Kapucian’s district isn’t a cakewalk, especially with Grinnell College located within its boundaries. This is a seat the Democrats could have made a big play for, but Kapucian has worked hard and the seat looks like it should remain in Republican hands.
Brad Zaun (SD 20): Zaun’s new district is a dream compared to his old district. It also doesn’t hurt that Zaun doesn’t have an opponent this fall.
Out of the seven senate seats listed above, Republicans should be confident in winning at least five of them. Only the Bartz and Hamerlinck seats are a concern. If Republicans win both of those seats they are going to be in great shape to re-take the Senate. If they lose one of them they are still fine, but the margin for error shrinks. If Republicans lose both the Bartz and Hamerlinck seats, winning the majority is going to be difficult.
Republican Open Seats
Mike Breitbach (SD 28)
Dennis Guth (SD 4)
Mark Segebart (SD 6)
Jake Chapman (SD 10) – No Opponent
Larry Kruse (SD 42)
Andrew Naeve (SD 49)
Ken Rozenboom (SD 40)
Amy Sinclair (SD 14)
Dan Zumbach (SD 48)
The open seat contests are where Republicans should feel optimistic. Four of the nine races should be locks for Republicans, and two other contests also favor them. Jake Chapman (SD 10), Dennis Guth (SD 4), Mark Segebart (SD 6), and Amy Sinclair (SD 14) should all be in the win column. Mike Breitback and Ken Rosenboom are also favored in their races.
The three other open seat contests are also in play for Republicans. In 2010, Andrew Neave barely lost a senate seat to Tod Bowman. Redistricting has put Neave in a new district. The new district has a voter registration advantage for the Democrat candidate, but it’s better than the district he ran in back in 2010. Neave is a strong candidate with deep roots in Senate District 49.
Dan Zumbach is facing Democrat Nate Willems, who is leaving an Iowa House seat to run for the Senate. The district leans Republican in voter registration, and Zumbach has deep roots in the rural district.
The final open seat candidate is Larry Kruse, a county supervisor from Lee County. The district favors the Democrats, but Kruse has won elections in the area. Senate Democrats are running TV ads in the Zumbach and Kruse races, which is a sign that they realize those races are tight.
Republican Challenger Races
Brad Bourn (SD 44)
David Edwards (SD 16)
Ryan Flood (SD 34)
Elliott Henderson (SD 32)
Jane Jech (SD 36)
Will Johnson (SD 50)
Matt Reisetter (SD 30)
Al Riggenberg (SD 8)
Vicki Stogdill (SD 18)
Defeating an incumbent state legislator in Iowa is not impossible, especially following redistricting, but its never easy either. The Senate Republicans’ top challenger is Matt Reisetter who is facing State Senator Jeff Danielson in Black Hawk County. Reisetter has an infectious personality, has displayed a prowess for raising money, and is one of the hardest working candidates around. To be a successful challenger, a candidate needs those three traits.
Redistricting should help Jane Jech and Elliott Henderson in their races against Democrat incumbents. Jech unsuccessfully ran for the Iowa House in 2008 and 2010, but the makeup of the new senate district might benefit her. Henderson is an impressive young candidate running against a not so impressive incumbent who likes to use Iowa road maps for campaign materials. The district leans Republican in voter registration, meaning that if Henderson hits it hard, he can find success.
Al Ringgenberg is challenging Mike Gronstal, who will never lack for financial resources. The district has a Democrats voter registration advantage, but House Republicans have found success in the area. Ringgenberg should get plenty of help by those on the ballot with him, which includes Mitt Romney, Tom Latham, and two incumbent Iowa House members. This could be a perfect storm for Ringgenberg.
The remaining candidates all have their strengths, but its difficult seeing a scenario where they could be successful. Four candidates Bourn, Edward, Johnson, and Stogdill are all running in heavily democratic districts, while Ryan Flood is running in a favorable district against a well-known and popular Democrat in Liz Mathis.
Republican Majority Math
Incumbent seats Republicans not up for re-election: 11
Incumbent seats Republicans expect to win: 6
Open Seats Republican expect to win: 6
Challenger Races Republicans expect to win: 2
Projected Republican Seats on November 7: 25
Pat Ward (SD 22): The unexpected death of State Senator Pat Ward has once again created a scenario where a special election could determine control of the Iowa Senate. Senate District 22 is a strong Republican District. In fact, it currently has a Republican voter registration advantage of over 4,700. Unless Republicans mess up and nominate a poor candidate, I expect Republicans to win the special election. That said, with so much on the line, anything can happen.
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