By Craig Robinson
Unlike the battle for control of the Iowa Senate, most people assume that the Iowa House of Representatives will stay under Republican control after the 2012 elections. House Republicans already hold 60 of the chamber’s 100 seats, so the objective is to retain a sizable majority, not necessarily expand it.
As is the case in every cycle, Republicans have a number of retirements with which they must contend. Two members of the Republican leadership team in the Iowa House retired, and another was defeated in a primary. In total, House Republicans had 14 retirements to contend with on top of redistricting.
While the Presidential race, Iowa’s four congressional contests and the battle for control of the Iowa Senate are at the forefront of peoples’ minds, Iowa House elections should not be ignored. And, House Republicans have many accomplishments of which they can be proud.
Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen and Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer have proven to be a strong leadership team in all facets of their jobs. Even despite all of the attention given to other races this year, the House Republican caucus has done an excellent job fundraising. Paulsen and Upmeyer lead the way in the recent reporting period by raising a combined $617,091.00 for the House Republicans’ effort. The two reported having $1,113,685 in cash-on-hand, which puts them in a strong position to help House Republicans once again secure a majority in the House.
Let’s look at where they will be investing those dollars.
The Iowa House by the Numbers
Unopposed Republican Incumbents: 18
HD1, HD3, HD4, HD5, HD6, HD8, HD10, HD11, HD17, HD22, HD24, HD27, HD42, HD50, HD54, HD78, HD84, HD96
Other Republican Incumbents Expected to Win: 18
HD18, HD19, HD20, HD21, HD25, HD38, HD43, HD49, HD51, HD56, HD60, HD67, HD75, HD79, HD88, HD91, HD94, HD97
Open Seats Republicans Expect to Win: 6
HD2, HD23, HD28, HD37, HD44, HD48
Democrat Seats: 35
(Consists of Unopposed Democrats, Democrats Expected to Win, and Open Seats Democrats Expect to Win)
HD9, HD14, HD29, HD31, HD32, HD33, HD34, HD35, HD36, HD41, HD45, HD46, HD52, HD53, HD57, HD59, HD61, HD62, HD64, HD65, HD69, HD70, HD74, HD77, HD81, HD83, HD85, HD86, HD87, HD89, HD90, HD93, HD98, HD99, HD100
Of the 100 seats in the Iowa House, I believe only 23 of them are in play. While there are always surprises on Election Day, and leadership from both political parties would argue that some of the above seats are competitive, the battle for control of the Iowa House lies outside of the 77 seats listed above.
The 23 remaining seats up for grabs include eight seats currently held by Republicans where an incumbent is seeking re-election. Republicans have an advantage in most of these seats, but Democrats have recruited well, and many of these contests are rematches from 2010 or former legislators attempting to run again, but for a different seat.
Republicans might find some of the seats that I included in this list of 23 races to be odd. I’m a tough grader, and if I’m going to error, I want to error on the side of being too pessimistic. There are some strong Republican seats listed below, but the combination of a good Democrat opponent combined with exterior factors like early voting advantage for Democrats in urban areas made me more cautious.
Below is the brake down of the 15 toss-up races that are either open seats or have strong Republican challengers.
Republican Challengers in Favorable Districts: 5
With Republicans already having a large majority in the Iowa House, the opportunity to pick up Democratic seats are slim. Remarkably, House Republicans do have a handful of opportunities to knock off five incumbent Democrats. That means there is a slight chance that they could see their majority grow in the chamber, but not many expect that to happen. Still, the following five candidates represent the best opportunities for House Republicans to take a seat that Democrats currently hold.
Tedd Gassman – House District 7
Gassman is challenging Democrat incumbent Rep. John Wittneben in the district that includes all of Emmett and Winnebago counties and a portion of Kossuth County. Wittneben won his house seat in 2010 by only 32 votes over Republican Lannie Miller. The new district has a slight voter registration advantage for Republicans and should be in play on Election Day.
Barney Bornhoft – House District 12
House District 12 might be the best opportunity for House Republicans to knock off a Democrat incumbent. Bornhoft is running against first term incumbent Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, but the new district is heavily Republican. The district has a Republican voter registration edge of 2,727. This district is also part of Senate District 6, which is a Republican open seat that they expect to maintain.
Mike Klimesh – House District 55
Klimesh is running against Rep. Roger Thomas in a district that includes portions of Clayton, Fayette, and Winneshiek Counties. The district has a 1,000-register voter advantage for Republicans, but legislative Republicans have struggled in the area since 2006. Running against a five-term incumbent is never easy, but a redistricting year might present the best opportunity for Republicans to oust him. Thomas himself won his seat following redistricting in 2002.
Allen Burt – House District 71
Burt is attempting to unseat Democrat Rep. Mark Smith in a district that includes Marshalltown and northern Marshall County. The district gives a slight voter registration edge to the Democrats, but is competitive for Republicans. Marshall County is a battleground for legislative races in 2012. In addition to this race, the neighboring house seat is an open contest in a more favorable district. On top of that, House District 71 and 72 make up Senate District 36, where Jane Jech is running strong against State Senator Steve Sodders.
James Johnson – House District 82
Johnson is running against Democrat Rep. Curt Hanson. You may remember Hanson from the 2009 special election that was a result of former Rep. John Whitaker being appointed to the USDA. As was the case then, this is an area where Republicans believe they can do well. The mostly rural district includes all of Davis County and parts of Jefferson and Van Buren counties. The district has a Republican voter registration advantage of 775.
Open Seat Toss-Ups: 10
House District 26: Steve McCoy vs. Scott Ourth
This open seat is a result of the retirement of Rep. Glen Massie. The district has a slight registered voter advantage for Democrats but is in no way a slam-dunk for them. Ourth is a well-connected Democrat who has been plotting to take back this seat for some time now.
House District 30: Jim Carley vs. Joe Riding
This open seat is a result of the retirement of Rep. Kim Pearson. This district has a slight Republican advantage among registered voters. Carley is a well-respected Tea Party organizer and Republican activists. Riding has been elected to three terms on the Altoona City Council and has also served two terms as the President of the Altoona Chamber of Commerce. Riding is an ideal candidate for the Democrats, but Carley is tough campaigner and long-time resident of the area.
House District 39: Jake Highfill vs. Kelsey Clark
This is a race that doesn’t belong on the toss-up list, and I may be wrong for putting it here. Highfill defeated Rep. Erik Helland in the June primary in what had to be the biggest upset of the night. The district has 3000 more Republicans than Democrats, but Clark has done a good job downplaying her party identification. Highfill obviously worked hard in the primary, but a general election can a different ball game.
House District 40: Mike Brown vs. John Forbes
This open seat is a result of the retirement of Rep. Scott Reacker. This is another solid Republican district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 1,441. Again, I could be totally wrong about putting this race in the toss-up column, but Forbes is another good recruit for the Democrats. Forbes owns a pharmacy and is a member of the Urbandale City Council. He is also the past president of the Urbandale Chamber of Commerce. Brown is an outstanding candidate, but he drew a tough opponent.
House District 63: Sandy Salmon vs. Bill Heckroth
I would have this district in the Republican win column, but once again, House Democrats were smart to recruit former State Senator Bill Heckroth. Sen. Bill Dix defeated Heckroth in 2010, but Dix is an exceptional candidate with deep roots in the area. The fact that residents in the area have elected Heckroth before means that the Republican advantage in registered voter’s, which is about 1,400, might not be enough to win this seat. Salmon ran for the Iowa House in 2010 but was defeated in the primary.
House District 72: Dean Fisher vs. Nathan Wrage
Fisher is running against Democrat Nathan Wrage in a rural district that includes all of Tama County, part of Marshall County, and a precinct in Black Hawk County. The district has about 900 more registered Republicans than Democrats. This area of the state is a battleground for legislative races.
House District 73: Bobby Kaufmann vs. Dick Schwab
This open seat is a result of the retirement of Rep. Jeff Kaufmann. The district contains 600 or so more Democrats than Republicans, but the Kaufmann name has a history of performing well in the area. Bobby Kaufman is trying to maintain Republican control of his father’s seat. This is a toss-up district if there ever was one.
House District 76: Dave Maxwell vs. Rachel Bly
This open seat is a result of the retirement of Rep. Betty BeBoef. It is also a district that I called home for nearly 10 years. Democrats have a slight registered voter advantage over Republicans, 7,006 to 6,879, but the presence of Grinnell College looms large, especially in a presidential year. In fact, if you removed the ward that includes Grinnell College, I would be inclined to say that this seat leans Republican. The good news is that the race in Senate District 38 favors the Republican. That might help Maxwell in his house race.
House District 80: Larry Sheets vs. Joe Judge
This district has a slight registered voter advantage for Republicans, but the Democrat opponent is the son of former Lt. Governor Patti Judge, which carries some weight in this area. Still, there are some good conservative areas to offset the Judge advantage.
House District 95: Quentin Stanerson vs. Kristen Keast
This race pits two teachers against each other in a district where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans. This mostly rural district is an area that is winnable for Republicans, but the Democrat early voting operation and the fact that President Obama visited the district might give the Democrat an upper hand.
Republican Incumbent Races to Watch: 8
Rep. Jeremy Taylor – House District 13
Redistricting has put two freshman legislators in the same House district for 2012. Republican Rep. Jerry Taylor is facing off against Rep. Chris Hall in a district that favors Democrats in terms of voter registration, but voted for Governor Terry Branstad and Congressman Steve King in the last election.
Rep. Mark Brandenburg – House District 15
In 2008, Brandenburg ran against Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal but came up short by 3,635 votes. Undeterred, Brandenburg sought a seat in the Iowa House and defeated a well-known incumbent Democrat in Paul Shomshor. The district has a significant Democrat advantage in voter registration, but Republicans have performed well in the area.
Rep. Mary Ann Hanusa – House District 16
Hanusa comfortably won her seat in the Iowa House in 2010. Hanusa’s district is Republican leaning but more importantly it’s a district that Republican candidates have run strong in. Of all the candidates on this list, Hanusa is probably the safest. Both she and Brandenburg are also aided by sharing the ballot with Congressman Tom Latham and Mitt Romney, who are both expected to run strong in southwest Iowa.
Rep. Chip Baltimore – House District 47
In 2010, Chip Baltimore defeated Democrat incumbent Donovan Olson by just 23 votes. Olson is attempting to win back his seat for the Democrats, which makes this a tough campaign for Baltimore. There is a slight voter registration advantage for Republicans in the district, and Republicans have found success there in the past. Still, this is not an easy race for Baltimore.
Rep. Brian Moore – House District 58
Another rematch from 2010 pits Rep. Brian Moore against Tom Schueller in eastern Iowa. The district is heavily Democratic, which makes it seem unlikely that Moore will be re-elected. Presidential cycles are typically difficult on Republicans in areas such as this.
Rep. Renee Schulte – House District 66
In 2008, Schulte defeated incumbent Democrat State Rep. Art Staed by just 14 votes. Despite winning what was one of the closest elections in Iowa history, Schulte ran unopposed in 2010. That’s not the case this year as Staed is attempting a comeback. Schulte is one of the hardest working candidates, but the district has a Democrat voter registration advantage, and her opponent has been ruthlessly attacking her.
Rep. Nick Wagner – House District 68
Like Renee Schulte, Wagner was elected in 2008 despite Barack Obama and Iowa Democrats doing extremely well that year. Wagner is a smart and impressive legislator, but his district leans Democrat in terms of voter registration, and Linn County is an area of the state where Republicans have performed poorly, even in a good Republican year like 2010.
Rep. Ross Paustian – House District 92
After failing to win the seat in 2008, Rep. Ross Paustian won on his second attempt in 2010. Paustian was unable to win the seat in a presidential cycle against an incumbent, but was successful in a good Republican year after Elesha Gayman decided not to seek re-election. Paustian has drawn a tough opponent in Frank Wood. Wood, an educator, is a former state senator.
Why these races make me nervous.
Besides the Baltimore and Moore contests, these are all contests in urban counties. When talking about the political make-up of Iowa, most people mistakenly believe there is a big difference between eastern and western Iowa. The difference that exists is actually between rural and urban Iowa.
President Obama and the Democrats have an advantage in urban areas for a number of reasons, but these more densely populated areas are more conducive to early voting, a Democrat strength. Candidates like Paustian and Taylor experienced what it’s like to win on Election Day but lose the race on absentees in their previous attempts at winning elective office.
Well-balanced districts in regards to voter registration, good candidate recruitment by the Democrats, and the impact that the presidential race will have on urban turnout and early voting efforts make me nervous.
As the election nears, I’m becoming more bullish for Republicans. Still, there are Republican incumbents that worry me more than they should, and there are some seats that Democrats lost in recent elections that they will probably win back. I think Republicans come back with a strong majority, but I think it’s going to be a 55 or 56 seat majority, which is nothing to be disappointed about.
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