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Cover Story

Who will win?

10/22/2014

Only a few weeks remain until the Nov. 4 election decides the fate of the U.S. Senate, the Iowa Congressional delegation, control of the Iowa General Assembly and the future of Iowa politics. Iowans couldn’t have a closer — or more closely watched — election.

This election cycle has become as entertaining as any NFL season with plenty of fumbles, interference calls and perhaps a few fourth-quarter comebacks still in the works

The new shotgun offense — absentee and early voting

Several races may hinge on the proliferation of absentee ballots and early voting, which have been increasing in Iowa and across the country. Nationwide, 33 states allow voters to cast ballots early at courthouses or satellite locations. All states allow absentee balloting, with 27 permitting absentee request without an excuse, 20 requiring a reason for the ballot to be issued, and three other states that have elections completely by mail. Iowa law allows unexcused absentee balloting and early voting, and both political parties are taking advantage of these opportunities.

In 2008, 36 percent of Iowans voted by absentee ballot. That figure climbed to nearly 44 percent in 2012, and a new record appears in store this year. Democrats have been more successful in turning out absentee voters. In the last election, 42 percent of Democrats cast absentee votes along with 32 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of no-party voters. More Republican voters turned out on Election Day.

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“Both sides are now using absentee balloting effectively, thus cancelling out the advantage the Democrats had during past election cycles,” said Des Moines attorney and Republican strategist Doug Gross.

As of last week, Republicans have requested 112,037 absentee ballots, a 37 percent increase from the same time period in 2010. Democrats have increased their requests by 21 percent but still have a lead in total ballots, requesting 130,126. Independent voters have also gotten into the mix with 59,184 requests, up 57 percent from 2010.

“In past elections, especially 2008, Democrats used early voting in order to get their supporters to the polls,” said Dennis Goldford, Drake University’s professor of politics. “Republicans have learned that tactic since 2008, and they are drawing a higher early-voting total than in the past, though still trailing Democrats. In a tight election, a feather on the scale can make the difference.”

“Democrats are not good at turning out in off-year elections,” said Des Moines attorney and Democratic strategist Jerry Crawford. “Every vote our party goes out and finds is value added to the bottom line, as many of those folks would not have shown up on Election Day. I think this is worth two or three points statewide, and right now the Senate race is a two- or three-point race.”

Prediction: Record absentee voting sets off a debate about an “all absentee” election

The Super Bowl — control of the U.S. Senate

Control of the U.S. Senate is clearly the Lombardi Trophy in this year’s election. The Republicans are hoping to win the Senate and run both Houses of Congress for the final two years of President Obama’s presidency. Currently there are 55 Democratic votes with 45 for the Republicans, who need to gain six seats to win control as Vice President Joe Biden would be the tie-breaker in an evenly-split chamber. Republicans have comfortable leads in Montana and West Virginia and have led for some time in South Dakota, which should add three seats to their total.

Recent polling has Republicans leading the contests in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and Iowa. Winning any three of those five should put the GOP in control. Runoffs could occur in Louisiana and Georgia that could throw those races into overtime. But with Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu suffering in Arkansas and Louisiana, it is more likely the final key races necessary for Republicans to take control are in Alaska, Colorado and right here in Iowa.

Prediction: Republicans flip the U.S. Senate

Bruce Braley versus Joni Ernst

CVA_23 PAGE 21The battle at the line of scrimmage between Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst is one of the most watched in the country. Ernst had a terrific showing at the Sept. 28 debate at Simpson College. She was calm and cool, well-prepared and engaged the television audience. She waited patiently to release her zinger line, “How can we expect you to work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard,” referencing Braley’s beef with his neighbors in regards to wandering chickens.

Braley certainly didn’t look like a multi-term Congressman and experienced trial lawyer as he was quick to temper, his hands were shaking, and he was disconnected with the television audience. Democrats were in a bit of a panic after his performance, but he mounted a comeback with an excellent showing in the Oct. 11 debate at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Ernst was not as polished as before but still managed to deliver a key rebuke of Braley, reminding the audience of his comments about farmers, lawyers and Sen. Charles Grassley. Ernst again waited patiently for an opening in the defense to deliver her well-scripted remark.

“Bruce was much better in the second debate, but you have to wonder how many people saw the debate or coverage of it,” Crawford said.

Ernst has led in both polls conducted by Selzer and Company, which historically has been the most reliable indicators of Iowa election outcomes. The most recent Oct. 12 Iowa Poll, published by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News, had Ernst leading 47 percent to 46 percent. While not yet over the critical 50 percent threshold, she appears to have the edge, especially when considering she raised $6 million during the third-quarter reporting period, the most of any candidate in the country. Braley took in just $2.8 million.

Like a playoff game where one side is heavily favored, Iowa’s Senate race began as a sure thing for the Democrats — it was Braley’s to lose, and he seems to have done nearly everything to do just that. He has stumbled backing up from center, fumbled the ball and thrown several interceptions. Still, the Democratic Party’s excellent get-out-the-vote effort may still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

“Braley is just now bringing his base back, but Ernst’s positive personality and fresh image will carry the day,” Gross said.

Braley may have been better served with a contested primary, where he would have received free statewide media — particularly in areas where Iowans were unfamiliar with him. He would have also garnered more debate experience and enjoyed some positive momentum coming out of the June primary, things Ernst had that enabled her to take the lead from Braley and hold it deep into the fourth quarter.

“There is a barrage of television advertising for Ernst and against Braley that’s already been on the air and will only intensify in these last few weeks,” Goldford said. “The problem for Braley is that he has no clear, positive image — most of the advertising in his favor has been negative ads against Ernst and relatively few positive ads that portray him in anything like the glowing, warm terms you see in the Ernst campaign’s ads for her.”

Prediction: Ernst hoists the trophy on election night

Conference champions — The U.S. House of Representatives

Republicans are widely expected to hold the U.S. House. Currently, Iowa voters have divided the state approximately along the north-south Interstate 35 line with Democrats controlling the two eastern Iowa House seats and Republicans the western two districts. If history and voter registration numbers are any indication, those seats will likely remain the same. The key race that could go either way is the Third District contest, which includes Polk County.

First district: Pat Murphy versus Rod Blum

The voter registration numbers in this district clearly favor Pat Murphy, but Rod Blum is making a spirited effort, and the national Republican Party is helping him with visits from Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Steve Forbes. Still, Murphy just keeps on a “slow and steady wins the race” strategy, much as he did in winning the crowded June primary. Early voting trends favor Murphy with Democrats holding a 22,000-registered voter edge over the GOP.

Prediction: Murphy wins

Second District: Dave Loebsack versus Mariannette Miller-Meeks

While Republican Miller-Meeks hopes the third time is a charm, she has little chance of winning the seat in this heavily Democratic district. Loebsack, while perhaps not the most inspiring of politicians, still has the advantage of 27,000 more Democratic voters in the District.

Prediction: Loebsack wins

Third District: Staci Appel versus David Young

This race is like watching a football game that neither team appears to want to win. Both candidates have lacked an effective game plan, suffered from poor play calling and have performed poorly on the debate field. Yet, with seconds remaining on the clock, one campaign will put up a lone field goal that barely clears the uprights to win the game.

Staci Appel may be the luckiest person in America on election night. When no one else wanted to challenge long-term Congressman Tom Latham, she alone took the field. When Latham announced his surprise retirement, she had already banked more than a half-million dollars and was able to keep other Democrats on the sidelines.

She had a head start on the Republicans, who needed a convention to select a candidate. Democrats were hoping the GOP would select Brad Zaun in what would have been a train wreck of a campaign for their party. But she was fortunate they did not select Monte Shaw, who would likely be on his way to an easy victory.

David Young was the surprise convention victor and, as it turns out, is a fine enough candidate for the GOP. Somewhat in the mold of Latham, he doesn’t really have a negative personal edge. But Young is pressing to the middle so hard that he is losing some base from the extreme right, who are so obstinate about their issues that they would rather allow Appel to prevail than vote for Young.

“Iowans like a tortoise politician — steady and dependable,” Gross said. “They are just getting to know David and will find him in that mold. He will hold this seat for as long as he wants it.”

Both candidates have seized on one unfair misstatement of the other. The Appel campaign used Young’s Iowa Press response that “I was caught up in the trappings of Washington” to insinuate that he is a Washington, D.C. insider, while the Young campaign seized on Appel’s debate response about terrorist passports, implying that she would allow free reign of the border to ISIS and al-Qaeda members. Neither are particularly fair attacks.

Various analysts have differing views on the contest.

“My hunch is that Appel’s standing in polling at the moment overstates her position in the race,” David Wasserman, the House editor for Cook Political Report, said. “As pro-Young groups reach parity on the airwaves, we expect Young’s numbers to improve. Overall, we see this race as a toss-up, but I’d probably be more surprised if Appel won.”

“This race is still a toss-up, but it appears that Appel has at least a little bit of a lead,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said. “That said, this is a district that is very similar to the nation as a whole in terms of its voting patterns, and this is a Republican-leaning year.”

“Staci has to have more things go right than wrong in a district that leans the other way,” Crawford said. “That said, Young has run some of the weirdest media I have seen in 40 years in politics.”

Crawford’s point on advertising could be a factor as Appel’s squad has a new barrage of quality attack ads that may be the best produced commercials to air so far in this contest.

This District has the most even split of registered voters in Iowa with almost exactly one-third each for Democrats, Republicans and no-party voters. Following 2010 redistricting, the inaugural election in 2012 featured two long-time incumbents — conservative Republican Latham and conservative Democrat Leonard Boswell. That race was the first indication of where independent votes would move in this district, and Latham easily won the race, 52 percent to 44 percent, at the same time that President Obama carried the District. That reality may provide the best indication of where the District will skew in this race.

Prediction: Young prevails

Fourth District: Jim Mowrer versus Steve King

As much as U.S. Rep. Steve King drives Democrats crazy, they need to come to the realization they cannot defeat him in the currently configured 4th District where Republicans boast more than 56,000 registered voters than Democrats. Democrat Jim Mower, like others before him, is running a valiant effort, but the numbers just don’t add up. Democrats need to start working on their effort to either defeat King after re-districting in 2022 or hope that Grassley retires in 2016, that King seeks the Senate seat, and that he then loses that election.

Prediction: King wins

Iowa Statewide Races

Quarterback — Governor

Jack Hatch versus Terry Branstad

CVA_23 PAGE 22This race has never been a contest and was over before it started. This election victory will be the crowning political achievement of Gov. Terry Branstad’s long tenure in office as he caps off his 20th undefeated election in stunning fashion. Any student of politics who wants to understand how to win elections should spend time studying the campaigns of Branstad.

Prediction: Branstad is carried off the field on GOP shoulders

The offensive line —statewide offices

If Congressional races didn’t dominate the election, the races for statewide elected officials might be more closely watched. If that were the case, some incumbents might actually be defeated, but these races seem to be lost in the shuffle.

Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey faces little threat from Democrat Sherrie Taha, and the same is true for Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald against Republicans Adam Gregg and Sam Clovis. Gregg may be angling to become the GOP nominee when Miller retires, and Clovis is doing his part to help bring evangelical voters to the polls for his party. The other incumbent is newly appointed GOP Auditor Mary Mosiman. She leads in polling and has the edge over challenger Jonathan Niederbach.

The only open race is for Secretary of State, where Republican Paul Pate wants his old job back against Democrat Brad Anderson, the former statewide director of the Obama presidential campaign. This job has turned into a platform for running for higher office, as four of the last five occupants have either run for governor or Congress (Matt Schultz, Chet Culver, Paul Pate and Elaine Baxter.)

Anderson is now on television with a terrific ad featuring his family. Pate is only on the radio, but he may be able to capitalize on his eastern Iowa base, which could undercut stronger Democratic turnout for Anderson. Pate may have name recognition from his earlier service and stint as mayor of Cedar Rapids, but in a down-ballot race, Anderson could benefit from his common name — just ask Miller and Fitzgerald.

Prediction: wins for Anderson, Fitzgerald, Miller, Mosiman and Northey

The defense — the Iowa General Assembly

If the executive branch, run by Republican governor Branstad, is the offense, then the legislative branch is on the other side of the ball and the Democrats’ only line of defense against the whims of the administration. Control of the State Legislature is critical for Democrats who are assured of a Republican governor for at least four more years.

Winning seats in the legislature is also important, as it tends to produce future candidates for higher office. In Iowa that includes current candidates Appel, Branstad, Ernst, Hatch, Pat Murphy, King and Kim Reynolds. Iowans could have three of the four members of Congress who are former legislators as well as both U.S. Senators. Grassley got his start in the Iowa General Assembly, winning his first race back in 1958.

Iowa Senate

Democrats have been holding onto the state Senate by a thread, controlling the chamber by the slimmest of margins at 26-24 votes. Half of the 50 state Senate seats are up in 2014, but six Democratic seats and six Republican seats are uncontested. That leaves 13 contested races, with Republicans needing to win seven seats to gain majority control of the Senate. That is like needing a last-ditch, 98-yard drive with a backup quarterback to win the game.

Republicans have targeted several incumbents, including Daryl Beall, Todd Bowman, Rita Hart, Amanda Regan and Herman Quirmbach, and are also making a run at Dennis Black’s open seat in District 15. But the GOP only has a voter registration edge in Beall’s and Regans’ districts, and it is likely that all the incumbent Democrats will hold their offices, with Black’s seat remaining in Democratic hands.

Democrats are going after Republican incumbents Mark Chelgren and Rick Bertrand, and Sandy Greiner’s retirement puts her district in play. All three could be Democratic pick-ups, so it seems difficult to imagine Republicans winning the chamber.

Prediction: Democrats increase their margin

Iowa House of Representatives

Republicans control the House, 53-47, with all seats up for election. But Republicans are not challenging Democrats in 28 of those races, and Democrats are giving Republicans a pass in another 20, leaving 52 contested party races.

The Democratic Party desperately wants to take control of the House and has quietly put forward a targeted offense that could gain many yards. One question is whether early voting efforts will result in much-needed Democratic legislative votes or whether Branstad’s efforts to revitalize his Party will translate into down-ballot success for the GOP. Iowa could experience the opposite of what may happen in Washington, D.C., where the opposition party holds both chambers against the executive branch. It would not be a surprise if the Democrats pulled this upset, but overcoming an six-seat deficit may be just a little too much to expect.

Prediction: Republicans hang on to the House

Wednesday morning quarterback

On the morning of Nov. 5 at coffee shops, grain elevators and water coolers across the state, we will all become expert analysts in breaking down exactly how the election unfolded, play by play.

As the final seconds tick off the clock on the campaigns, it’s fourth down, there are no timeouts left, and it’s time to pull out the trick plays and heave that Hail Mary pass. CV

James Strohman writes about government and politics and teaches political science at Iowa State University, contact strohman@iastate.edu

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