Pella Chronicle

September 18, 2009

What can we learn from the Iowa House 90th District Election?

Steffen Schmidt

A Democrat won by a margin of 107 votes, an off year special election in Iowa’s House district 90. The race was interesting and maybe even important because off year elections allow you to take the temperature of politics or better said see what direction the political wind is blowing.

This race was also interesting because it’s the first contest after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage in Iowa is legal because it is a constitutionally protected civil liberty. Because it is the first test of how the gay marriage issue might play out "outside" groups poured huge amounts of money into the race. The National Organization for Marriage was especially prominent and pro gay marriage groups also opened their wallets more than you’d expect in such a basically insignificant contest.

So what does the victory of the democrat tell us?

First, it tells us that the gay marriage issue, which was the prominent campaign theme, was not enough to swing this election.

Second, it tells us very little about support for gay marriage because although Republican Stephen Burgmeier was the recipient of the anti gay marriage largesse, Democrat Curt Hanson was actually also not a supporter of gay marriage. So the choice was between two candidates opposed to gay marriage one of which was the clear standard bearer of that cause (Burgmeier) and the other candidates emphasized other issues more. Let it be said that outsiders actually stoked the emphasis on gay marriage. Burgmeier himself may not have made that the central storm of this race. That too is a lesson to take away from this election.

Third, the Republican should have won the race because when there are open seats the "out" party in that jurisdiction (District 90) has the best chance of winning.

Fourth, judging from the private reaction of Republicans with whom I have spoken this was a big disappointment for the GOP.

Fifth, this race has put front and center the question of whether gay marriage is a "good" issue for Republicans to run on in 2010. As we know several Republican contenders for governor have said this would be their lead campaign issue. On the other hand Rep Steven King has decided NOT to run for governor and many INSIDERS have told me it’s because he believes that he could not run for governor successfully on his anti-illegal immigration and anti-gay marriage positions. Illegal immigration has shrunk as a hot button since the recession and other issues such as jobs and health care costs are more urgent for Iowa voters in 2010.

Sixth, the pending announcement that former Gov. Terry Branstad will run for governor has underscored the necessity for the GOP to use its former winning strategy of walking down the political center as the most successful road to political office. Both Branstad and Gov. Robert Ray were very successful by concentrating on non-divisive issues and harvesting majorities of voters in the state. There is no indication from GOP contests in the near past that moving to a more conservative corner of the political spectrum is a winning move. So, the race for the vacant seat in the 90th district adds fuel to the internal struggle within the GOP in Iowa and is giving some new life to that "bigger tent" of GOP leaders, candidates, and voters who are not solely concerned with the divisive social issues.

Seventh, the race suggests that the GOP needs to re-examine its bigger course. The party is running behind both "no-party" and the democrats in registered supporters and has lost some 100 thousand adherents and now trails in third place. Although not framed in these "political science" terms the GOP in Iowa appears to have moved into the quadrant of "ideological political party" where it adheres to clear and hard positions on social issues regardless of what are the high intensity concerns of Iowa voters. Although admirable for its clarity and integrity this is the position taken by "Parties of Principle" (the Libertarians, Greens, Socialists) whereas elections in the United States are only won by "Parties of Pragmatism" (The Democrats and Republicans).

Pragmatic parties (and candidates) adjust their message and position to meet the salient interests of voters in order to gain a majority (or plurality) of those voters and win the election. Parties of Principle do not yield on their positions regardless of the mood and demand of voters and therefore only win when and if their hard position actually fits the current concerns of the electorate.

The 2008 election was lost by the republicans in part because of the true believers on the conservative right especially media celebrities like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and others. They attacked republican candidate Sen. John McCain for not being conservative enough, forced him into choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, pushed McCain far right on issues all of which put him too far to the right (into the former Barry Goldwater end of the spectrum) and lost him the vital independents that both parties need to "peel off" if they are to win elections.

Conservative Republicans seem to have forgotten that no true conservative has ever successfully won a national election. Ronald Reagan, the former democrat and tax-raising Governor of California never was identified with the divisive social issues which color the current party, George H. W. Bush was a moderate by any definition. George W. Bush was a hard-core hawk and NeoCon on defense but campaigned as a "Compassionate Conservative."

This race is a very interesting case study of how al these issues come together and it forces the GOP and its candidates to study the results. On the other hand for supporters of gay marriage and for Democrats in Iowa the race is a cautionary tale because the Democrat who won is NOT a supporter of gay marriage. Thus, that issue will still simmer in 2010.



©2009 Steffen Schmidt, Prof of Political Science, ISU. Reprinted with permission from syndication @ http://www.insideriowa.com, Iowa’s Internet Magazine.