No Signs of Congressional Primary at 4th District Convention

FullSizeRender-2If you didn’t know Congressman Steve King was facing a primary challenge this June, the Fourth Congressional District Convention this past Saturday wouldn’t have changed your way of thinking. Not only were the grounds outside of the Fort Dodge High School covered in King for Congress signs, the delegates meeting inside the school’s gymnasium were solidly behind their incumbent representative.

Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, also made no bones about who he is supporting in the primary – Congressman Steve King. When Northey told the assembled convention delegates that the district already has a thoughtful conservative representative in Congress he got a standing ovation from at least 90 percent of gave him a standing ovation.

King’s challenger, State Senator Rick Bertrand, had a booth in the lunchroom, but he opted not to show up to the convention. While the delegates are clearly in King’s corner, the decision not to speak to the grassroots activists he hopes to represent sent a bad message. Speaking to what could be a hostile crowd is never easy, but Bertrand knew what he was signing up for when he decided to challenge King. Regardless of the audience, he should have gone and made his case to the delegates.

Bertrand’s Primary Challenge Obviously Got Under King’s Skin

SKingOn Thursday, State Senator Rick Bertrand made it official, announcing that he’s challenging Republican Congressman Steve King in the 4th Congressional District primary.

High profile primary challenges against incumbents are rare occurrences in Iowa, especially one challenging a conservative stalwart in the most conservative district in the state.   Not only is King universally known, but Bertrand is also attempting to oust a sitting Congressman in a campaign that will last just 82 days.

The word daunting just doesn’t quite seem to describe the task Bertrand has chosen to take on. Some may believe it will be impossible for Bertrand to be successful in this endeavor. That sort of thinking is justified, but as is the case with most things in life, where there is great risk, there is also great reward.

King’s strengths are well known. He’s intelligent. He has developed a real connection with the grassroots of the Republican Party because he’s willing to fight the good fight and champion core issues. King has also has a history of being a good campaigner, the type that goes everywhere and does everything.

King’s weaknesses are equally known. While smart, his choice of words or use of certain analogies repeatedly get him in trouble with the media. He’s a notoriously poor fundraiser. Despite being a 14-year incumbent, King has never figured out how to keep his campaign coffers full which, at times, makes him a charity case but also means that he’s not able to help the effort to expand the Republican majority in the U.S. House.

Since redistricting in 2012, King’s Democrat opponents have raised more money than he has for his campaigns. That doesn’t bother King one bit. He wears the fact that he has won despite being outspent as a badge of honor. King will likely be outraised in the abbreviated primary against Bertrand. At the end of 2015, King reported having just $118,000 in the bank. Even without a primary challenger until now, King has spent more money than he has taken in during the current election cycle.

While Republican activists may struggle with Bertrand’s decision to run against an incumbent congressman, the hill he now has to climb is not insurmountable. There has always been a rub between King and the business community is Sioux City, which is something Bertrand will have to exploit if he is to be successful. Furthermore, the current configuration of the fourth district provides Bertrand opportunity to stake out territory as there are more counties in the fourth district that were represented by Tom Latham than King before redistricting.

In some ways, trying to knock of King in a primary may be easier than waiting and running once King vacates the seat. There are plenty of Republicans who are eager to run for the seat, which would make for a costly and crowded primary. While challenging an incumbent will not make him popular with some people, he is the lone alternative to King. With no other Republican primaries taking place, it’s a rather simple game – whoever turns out the most people to vote wins. Bertrand may benefit from some Democrats and independents who do not like King playing in the Republican primary.

Besides fundraising, another King liability is message discipline.   Just look at the press release his campaign sent out Thursday evening. It was petty and defensive. It said nothing of what he hopes to accomplish for the fourth district, and instead read like a “how dare they challenge me” letter.

King’s release also included the following paragraph.

Over the last few weeks, calls came from a surprisingly large number of potential candidates who were asked to challenge me in a primary by a couple of wealthy and petulant establishment Republicans who think they should own a Congressman. In every case but one, the answer was a resounding ‘No.’

What King fails to mention is that those “petulant establishment Republicans” are also constituents who donated to his campaign and organized fundraising events for him in his previous two campaigns. King is obviously bitter and distracted by a couple of individuals instead of his actual opponent.

King would be wise to rise above petty bickering, but he chose to close out his press release with the following snide sentence. “I regret the impending needless and blatant dishonesty which will surely come from my opposition.” Again, how dare someone challenge The King?

Bertrand is a talented politician, and it is a mistake to not take him seriously. He not only was able to win a tough State Senate District in 2010, but he was able to also get re-elected. I don’t know really know Bertrand all that well, but he’s impressive on the stump and meets people well. His business background should also be a benefit.

At his announcement on Thursday, Bertrand painted a positive vision for his campaign and the fourth district. Bertrand believes that the Highway 20 expansion, which is being completed in large part because of the gas tax increase that he supported, makes the district the state’s new economic frontier.

As for his challenge to King, Bertrand told the Sioux City Journal, “The District needs a more effective congressman to push for changes required to maximize that growth.” He added, “I am not going in there to be a national figure. I am going to be likable and effective.” Over the past 14 years, Bertrand believes that King has become institutionalized.

Even though King has led the vocal opposition in Washington during his time there, he’s not been able to land key leadership positions in the house, mainly because of his poor relationship with leadership. This sounds like it will be the main argument put forth by Bertrand’s campaign. There have been numerous occasions where King was in line to chair a committee, only to be passed up. The most recent example was the influential Ag Committee, which King lost to Texas Congressman Mike Conaway. Unlike King, Conaway raised big money to help the GOP effort in the 2014 mid-term elections.

Presidential politics also helped pave the way for Bertrand’s decision to primary King. King is one of Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s national campaign chairmen. Presidential campaigns cause people to splinter in different groups, and with a field of 17 candidates, people fell into a number of different camps. King’s endorsement of Cruz came as no surprise, but it did pit him against the ethanol industry, which was already weary of the freshman Senator from Texas because one of the first pieces of legislation Cruz pushed was a repeal of the Renewable Fuels Standard.

Despite being a staunch support of the RFS, King repeatedly sang Cruz’s praises and helped convince Iowa voters that a Cruz presidency would be good for the ethanol industry. Ironically, after the campaign left Iowa, Cruz now makes a point in election night speeches and on national debate stages to tell people how he took on the ethanol industry in Iowa and won. Most people can understand why members of Iowa’s renewable fuels industry are a little upset with King.

This race is sure to be in the political spotlight from now until primary day on the first Tuesday in June. If King’s press release is any indication, this is going to be a bitter battle.




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.

Bertrand Relinquishes Leadership Role in Iowa Senate to Focus on Re-election

On Friday evening, State Senator Rick Bertrand relinquished his leadership role in the Iowa Senate.  The move allows Bertrand to focus on his re-election campaign.  Bertrand’s district is one of the most competitive districts in the state.  As he notes in his letter to his senate colleagues, for Republicans to gain control of the chamber, they will have to hold his seat.

Below is the email Sen. Bertrand sent to senators last night.

December 27, 2013


Leadership has many faces, and as we approach this year’s session the sour taste of the 2012 election still lingers in my mouth. Coming up two seats short of the Majority was not only a tragedy for Republicans, but for all of Iowa.

As the first Republican Senator from Sioux City proper in 30 years I reflect on my future in the Iowa Senate.  I remind myself why I ran for public office and why the Iowa Senate.   I am a conservative with conservative values, and like you I came to fight for a fiscal responsibility, we came to fight for a sound business and tax climate, we came to fight for a small and limited State government, and we came to fight for the unborn.  Friends the reality is that none of this agenda is even a discussion without winning the Majority 2014.

Colleagues we have all analyzed the map, and it is blatantly apparent that for us to win the majority we must hold our seats…and it’s not a secret– and I say this with humility– my seat will be tough to hold.

My friends I want what you want…but we must win elections. Like you I am beginning to feel a Republican tailwind starting to swirl, and I am extremely positive as I haven’t drawn an opponent to date, but it would be unlikely one will not emerge,  and with that being said my focus for the next 11 months must be on my re-election strategy, holding this seat, and winning the majority.  With this time commitment and focus I have proposed to Senator Dix that I should open my position as your Minority Whip to another colleague as I dig in for this bumpy election ride. It’s the right thing to do.

Leadership is not about titles…it’s about results, and I am not downplaying or overplaying  the importance of the WHIP role, nor the challenges of any of my fellow Senators elections, but I have decided the best way to serve my caucus in 2014 is to RUN and WIN Senate Seat 7.

I look forward to seeing you all in a couple weeks…


Iowa State Senator Rick Bertrand

Senator Bill Dix, the minority leader in the senate, also emailed the members of the Republican caucus on Friday night.


This afternoon, Senator Bertrand announced he will officially step down as Whip in order to focus on his reelection effort.

In speaking with Senator Bertrand, I know this was a difficult decision. I respect his choice to focus his efforts on Senate District 7, and help Senate Republicans claim the majority in 2014. I want to thank Senator Bertrand for his leadership as Whip.

We will hold the Senate Republican Whip election when we meet for our January 7th Caucus at the Capitol. Our Caucus is scheduled from 1-4 p.m., and this will be the first order of business on the agenda after we get settled in and get our meeting under way.

I look forward to seeing all of you at our Caucus.

Thank you,