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June 5th, 2012

You Play to Win the Game

Herm Edwards, the former head coach of the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs, may be better known for a post game rant he made at a press conference in October of 2002 than for his success as a NFL coach.

Edwards said, “This is what the greatest thing about sports is, you play to win the game.  Hello!  YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME.  You don’t just play it to play it.  That’s the great thing about sports, you play to win.”

A frustrated Edwards felt compelled remind reporters that the obvious objective of professional sports is to win the game and nothing else.  The same is true of elections.

I don’t know of any candidate that would put themselves through the grind and public scrutiny of being on the ballot if he or she didn’t really care about winning.   Still, just because politics doesn’t bring the same injury risks as professional sports doesn’t mean it can’t be just as brutal.  This is especially the case in a contested primary.

The redistricting process that took place since the 2010 elections has left every incumbent in Iowa a different district to represent unless they happen to be one of the handful of statewide elected officials.  The new boundaries of a distinct can force two incumbents into the same district like they did with Annette Sweeney and Pat Grassley in House District 50, or like they did in Senate District 46 with Jim Hahn and Shawn Hammerlinck.

The redistricting process also creates an environment that can be troublesome to incumbents who have only served one or two terms.  A total of ten Republican house incumbents are facing primary challengers today.  While the number of primary challengers is likely to be high in a year following redistricting, the number of challenges to Republican incumbents is higher this year due to candidate recruitment by groups such as Iowa Pro-Life Action, Liberty Iowa PAC, and the Iowa Gun Owners.

By their nature, heated primaries make most people uncomfortable.  While nobody enjoys two Republican candidates going after each other, we must remember that the goal of the candidates on the ballot is to win, and sometimes that means they need to talk about their opponents’ weaknesses.

The two Republican congressional primaries in eastern Iowa have been rather civil.  In the 1st Congressional District, Ben Lange is heavy favorite having been the nominee in 2010, while Rod Blum has done little in terms of paid advertising to challenge Lange.  In the 2nd District, both John Archer and Dan Dolan are spending decent money trying to win the nomination, yet neither candidate has attacked the other.

The civil nature of the congressional primaries does not carry over to many of the legislative races, especially where candidates have been recruited to run against incumbent member of the Iowa House.  In those races, the incumbents are being criticized for not supporting or pushing hard enough on 2nd Amendment issues or compromising on a bill that would have pulled all government funding of abortions in Iowa and thereby jeopardizing all federal Medicaid funding.  In most cases the incumbents supported Iowa’s new right to carry and supported legislation to defund Planned Parenthood.  The problem is that some groups just aren’t satisfied with incremental changes.

In all but one instance, each of the candidates who are challenging the incumbent is to the political right of their opponent.  As should be expected, many of the incumbents are annoyed by the challenge, and they are also frustrated for being attacked on proposed legislation that would have had no chance of passing the Democrat controlled State Senate this year.

No race has exemplified this dynamic more than the Senate District 22 primary between State Senator Pat Ward and Pastor Jeff Mullen.  Mullen has relentlessly attacked Ward for being a moderate Republican, a claim that has validity.  It should also be noted that Ward took up residence in Senate District 22 instead of facing off against State Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat.  While Ward’s move was expected, it was made official long after Mullen began his campaign.

Mullen has attacked Ward for voting for budget bills that included money that would be used to pay for a limited number of Medicaid eligible abortions as well as voting to take away guns from those accused of domestic violence.  In both cases, Mullen describes the bills differently than Ward does.  The campaign has turned into a “she said, he said” argument rather than a real debate on issues, a disservice to all voters.

While Mullen’s criticisms have been harsh, he’s not inaccurate.  Ward has run ads that say Mullen isn’t telling the whole truth.  That’s not inaccurate either.  What it all amounts to is a race that has turned into a nasty mud-wrestling contest.  Mullen has gotten a lot of attention, but most of the press has been negative, and Ward has done a good job of fighting back.  Primaries like the one in Senate District 22 are never enjoyable to watch, but it is clear that both Ward and Mullen are running to win.  However, in doing so, they run the risk of turning some voters off.

Another race that has received a lot of attention is the race between Annette Sweeney and Pat Grassley, two incumbents, in House District 50.  Redistricting is solely to blame for this primary, but as the primary neared, the race got heated.

Both Grassley and Sweeney are solid Republican votes in the legislature, but the question they present to voters is, what type of legislator do you want to represent you in Des Moines?  Grassley, who has served six years in the legislature, is best known for who his grandfather is rather than anything that he has accomplished as a legislator himself.  On the other hand, Sweeney is known as a hard worker and champion for Iowa agriculture.  While she has only served in the legislature for four years, she’s been a much more visible legislator than Grassley has been.

Sweeney and the Team Iowa PAC that is supporting her are playing to win.  Team Iowa has aggressively gone after Grassley for voting to give millions in tax incentives for an out-of-state developer to build a baseball complex at the Field of Dreams site near Dyersville.  They have also attacked Grassley for taking money from out-of-state lobbyists that have also contributed to the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Barack Obama.

The group has also criticized Grassley for not writing a bill in the six years that he’s been in the legislature, a claim that is debatable and has caused some radio stations to take down a radio ad that stated as much.  Whether Grassley has written bills or just sponsored them, the point of the ad is that Grassley has done little since being elected other than just being a dependable vote.

The Grassley campaign has responded by running a television ad that calls out Sweeney for running a negative campaign.  They have also criticized Team Iowa PAC, and more specifically Bruce Rastetter, one of the group’s largest donors, for making contributions to Democrats such as Chet Culver and Mike Gronstal in the past.

While we might not like the negative nature of a contested primary campaign, we all must remember this is just the unsavory part of the political process.  Even the most savvy politico in the state can get wrapped up in the heat of the battle.  Last weekend, Senator Grassley told the Des Moines Register, “I don’t think Pat or I have had any problems that I know of with Rastetter, but I suppose if he’s an up-and-coming political leader and he could knock off a Grassley, it would probably be a feather in his hat.”

It’s easy to see how the negative nature of a campaign might make people think that it’s a personal vendetta that causes a campaign to attack someone in a primary, but more times than not, the opposition just prefers the other candidate in the race.  For Rastetter, it could be that he’s known Sweeney since childhood.  For Senator Grassley, it’s that Pat is his grandson.

What many people seem to forget is that one doesn’t typically agree to challenge another Republican if they are not willing to do what it takes to win.  Sadly, in politics, that means highlighting your opponent’s weaknesses.  In some cases that means highlighting that that they are not an overly effective legislator.  In others, it means highlighting votes you disagree with.

It shouldn’t be hard for people to understand given that we just watched Mitt Romney and his Super PAC basically mow down his Republican opponents.  Maybe you liked it, or maybe you didn’t, but one thing is certain – Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee this fall and not anybody else.

What they say about politics and sausage is true.  You might like both, but nobody likes watching them get made.   As we experience the conclusion of the primary, it would be wise to remember that just like in sports, the candidates play to win.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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