Stuck on 24 – Iowa Senate Remains Under Democrat Control

State-CapitolIt’s hard to imagine how things could have gone any better for Iowa Republicans on Tuesday night. They not only elected a new U.S. Senator in Joni Ernst, but they also won the state’s two open congressional seats, the open Secretary of State office, and added to their majority in the Iowa House of Representatives.

That’s on top of re-electing Governor Terry Branstad to an historic sixth term, as well as sending Congressman Steve King back to congress. It’s been 12 years since Republicans sent a new member to represent them in congress. This year, Iowa Republicans are sending three new faces to Washington, and in Ernst, we have the first female federal office holder from Iowa.

Republicans are in as good of a mood as they have ever been in Iowa, but there is one thing that is gnawing at them. Despite winning up and down the ballot, there is frustration at the Republicans’ inability to capture control of the Iowa Senate.

Going into Tuesday’s election, Republicans controlled 24 seats of the 50-seat chamber. After another fantastic election cycle for Republicans, the senate GOP caucus still stands at 24. Republican Tim Kraayenbrink defeated incumbent Democrat Daryl Beall of Fort Dodge, but Republicans lost Sandy Greiner’s seat,. Greiner retired after the legislative session.

The frustration of Republicans could be seen on social media sites, in the comment section of this website, and were voiced on WHO Radio by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Gross and syndicated radio host and columnist Steve Deace during Jan Mickelsen’s morning talk show.

Deace wrote the following on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

“Tremendous night for Iowa Republicans. But political science says they did something virtually impossible tonight. They won a dominant gubernatorial victory statewide, a solid U.S. Senate victory statewide, and picked up four seats in the Iowa House. Yet didn’t pick up a single seat in the State Senate despite that tidal wave. The formulas say you’re not supposed to do that. So either Mike Gronstal is the greatest Democrat tactician they’ve ever had, or someone needs to be fired. How does [the] GOP win governor in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois on the same night, but can’t pick up any seats in the Iowa state senate? Thanks, and I’ll hang up and listen.”

I think Deace’s Facebook entry captures the frustration of many Republicans pretty well, and I understand why most people would naturally come to this conclusion. I’ll try to break this down as best I can. For the record, I too am frustrated, but if we are going to assign blame, there are a number of things that have kept Republicans in the minority in the Iowa Senate since 2006.

First, a history lesson.

Republicans lost control of the Iowa Senate following the 2004 election cycle. In 2005 and 2006 Republicans shared control of the Senate with the Democrats. After the 2006 election, the first of three big election cycles for Democrats, Democrats took control of 30 seats. After the 2008 election, they actually expanded their majority to 32 seats. In 2010, Republicans stormed back when they won six seats that brought the Senate to the 24-26 split that still stands today.

Second, a reality check.

One thing that many people seem to repeatedly overlook is that only half of the seats in the Iowa Senate are up in any given election cycle. That means half of the state is not in play. Either by fate or bad luck, the more Republican leaning seats come up for election in presidential election cycles, while the more Democratic seats are up for election in mid-term elections.

When redistricting occurred after the 2010 elections, I thought the proposed maps were good for Senate Republicans but bad for House Republicans. I was shocked that Gronstal accepted the first proposal. Looking back on things, what he may have seen that nobody else noticed is that a number of favorable Republican districts would be up for election in presidential years, which, for the past decade, have favored Democrats.

As we saw in 2010, Republicans made huge gains, and in fact won districts that they really had no business winning in Sioux City and Ottumwa. The seats held by Rick Bertrand and Mark Chelgren were considered one-term rentals by most, yet both won re-election on Tuesday, which is impressive in and of it self.

It is true that Republicans had other opportunities to gain the seats necessary to win a majority in the Iowa Senate. As mentioned earlier, Republicans did pick up Senate District 5 where Tim Kraayenbrink defeated incumbent Democrat Daryl Beall. Senate District 39, Greiner’s old seat, has a 300 registered voters advantage for Republicans, but the Republican nominee Mike Moore wasn’t the campaigner that Greiner was, and Democrats nominated a candidate with deep roots in the district.

The other seats Republicans once had high hopes for were Senate Districts 27 and 15. District 27 has a 2000 registered Republican voter registration, but it also has a popular Democrat incumbent in Amanda Ragan. Ragan’s popularity is evident by the fact that she defeated her Republican opponent by almost 3000 votes.

Senate District 15, which includes eastern Polk County and Jasper County, was vacant. The District has a 1200 registered voter advantage for Democrats. Republicans believed that had a shot, but Democrat Chaz Allen was the ideal candidate. Allen won by 1300 votes, or basically the same margin the Democrats have in registered voters.

The point is, even though it was a great year for Republicans, there were very limited opportunities for Republicans to actually gain seats. Holding the Bertrand and Chelgren seats was a tall order, but district makeup and the quality of candidates each party put up played a major role in Democrats keeping their slim majority in Iowa Senate.

Third, Republicans are still paying for the sins of their past.

Look, I get it. Despite the difficult hand that Republicans were dealt, people will still want to reprimand those who they feel are responsible for not winning a majority. Obviously the first place people will look to is the leadership team in the Iowa Senate. They are not without blame, but I also don’t think it’s fair to pin it all on them. In many ways, I think Senate Republicans are still paying for the sins of their past.

Presidential election cycles have not been kind to Senate Republicans, but there are two losses in particular that continue to haunt them. Both involve two incumbents losing their re-election bids in 2012. The first is Senate District 6 where Senator Merlin Martz lost his re-election bid to Mary Jo Wilhelm by just 126 votes.

One of the defining issues of the race was a lawsuit by Bartz over a neighbor’s fence line. We saw how neighborly lawsuits played out in the U.S. Senate race this year, so it’s easy to see how Bartz lost a heavily Republican District to a Democrat in a presidential year.

The other race involved Senator Shawn Hamerlinck in Senate District 42. Redistricting pitted Hamerlinck against Republican Senator Jim Hahn. Hamerlinck prevailed in the primary, but lost the general election by 2010 votes despite the District having slight Republican voter registration advantage.   Had either Bartz or Hamerlinck won re-election in 2012, the Iowa Senate would be split 25-25. Had the both won, Republicans would be in the majority right now.

Greiner’s decision to retire and vacate district 39 also deserves discussion. Greiner came out of retirement to win the seat in 2010. Her decision to serve only one term is somewhat of a surprise. If you listened to Greiner’s retirement speech, it was apparent that she wasn’t happy in the Iowa senate. Greiner went out of her way to praise some of her Democrat colleagues, but didn’t have much to say about her Republican colleagues.

After winning her Senate Seat, Greiner was the ranking member of the Senate Ethics committee. It’s a committee that typically does nothing, but that wasn’t the case last year. Last year, the Ethics Committee dealt with multiple issues stemming from Senator Kent Sorenson’s dealing with Michele Bachmann’s and Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns. Greiner voted in favor of authorizing the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court to appoint a special investigator to look into Sorenson’s dealings from the 2012 presidential campaign.

Greiner was the deciding vote. It was obvious that her Republican colleagues wanted the ordeal to just go away. Her decision likely put her at odds with her caucus, which could explain her decision not to seek re-election. Had she sought re-election, she would have likely won. Earlier this year, Sorenson pleaded guilty to two counts in federal court. He is currently awaiting sentencing and could serve up to 25 years in prison.

Fourth, winning the Iowa Senate was not a priority.

Nobody will admit it, but winning a Republican majority in the Iowa Senate was not a priority. Obviously the U.S. Senate race was priority number one, followed by re-electing Governor Branstad and winning two open congressional seats. With so many high-profile races on the ballot in 2014, raising money was difficult for candidates not at or near the top of the ballot.

The U.S. Senate race was a top priority for Branstad early on. Ernst was his favorite, and he worked behind the scenes to help her be successful. In the closing weeks of the election, Branstad did things to help congressional candidates in the First and Second Congressional Districts. In fact he encouraged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to campaign in both.

Branstad also made it no secret that he badly wanted to win Lee County, one of only two counties he has never carried. Branstad was successful in his quest but one has to wonder if his obsession came at a cost. In addition to Branstad taking Christie to southeast Iowa, he also spent $88,000 on TV ads in the Quincy, Illinois, media market.

Those decisions likely helped him win Lee County and perhaps benefitted the Republican congressional candidate in the First District, but maybe Christie could have been utilized in other parts of the District where there were competitive Iowa Senate races.

While it might not have helped Branstad win Lee County, Governor Christie could have been visited Clinton County where Brian Schmidt, a Republican County Supervisor, was battling State Senator Rita Hart. Schmidt lost by less than 900 votes. Mark Chelgren won his re-election campaign, but Ottumwa was another possible location to use Christie’s wide appeal to unearth some votes. Christie could have also been used in Johnson County to aid Moore’s campaign and maybe find more votes in the best county in the state for Democrats.

At the end of the day, Branstad was probably going to win Lee County anyway. Even if he needed the visit to win it, is it more important to win an Iowa Senate seat or to have won 98 of 99 counties in the state? I’m pretty sure Branstad’s place in Iowa history was already secure.


It’s easy to point fingers and blame Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix for failing to win a majority in the Iowa Senate in an election cycle where Iowa Republicans won everything but one congressional seat and two statewide offices held by Democrats for decades. The problem is that there are numerous factors that have kept Republicans in the minority in the Iowa Senate since 2007. As you can see, there is plenty of blame to go around.