The Democratic Senate primary fight for the right to take on Chuck Grassley in 2016 added a new name this weekend: Ray Zirkelbach, a former State Representative and Iraq veteran from Monticello. Zirkelbach announced his intentions and an exploratory committee at the Jones County Democrats’ dinner on Sunday.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a worker, and I like to work,” Zirkelbach told Starting Line last night, presenting himself as someone who can work across party lines to get things done. “I’m able to move above the whole left and right spectrum. That’s the way I always legislated.”
Zirkelbach served four terms in the Iowa legislature, representing Jones and Jackson counties in eastern Iowa. Some of those years, however, was spent in Iraq. Zirkelbach was called up for active duty with the U.S. Army, serving in the 133rd Infantry division during 2006 and 2007. His unit completed the longest tour of duty in the history of the Iraq War, and Zirkelbach received a purple heart from combat wounds during his time there. He also has worked as a corrections officer in Anamosa, where he was a member of AFSCME.
He racked up solid wins in his Democratic-leaning seat several times before being defeated by Lee Hein in the Republican wave of 2010. He says he’s intentionally stepped away from politics for the last five years, but recently got involved again with helping local Democrats. After meeting with people in Des Moines and locally, Zirkelbach says some encouraged him to run for office again, perhaps for the state legislature. Instead he decided to set his sights on the U.S. Senate race.
“I was progressive before progressive was cool in the legislature,” Zirkelbach says of his appeal for the primary campaign. “You see these people try to tag themselves as progressive, but I don’t know if they fully understand what that means … it has to be absolutely organic.”
Looking ahead to Grassley, the 37-year-old Zirkelbach who has two young children thinks he can offer a generational contrast.
“We’re going to make it about ideas, and I’d like to see Senator Grassley bring his ideas to the table, fresh ideas, new ideas,” he says.
Longtime Iowa Legislature-watchers will likely remember Zirkelbach, but he doesn’t have a statewide profile to work with.
“We’re going to bring Iowans with ideas, Iowans who have shown that they’re proven progressives [to the campaign],” Zirkelbach says of how his campaign will compete in the primary to get his name across the state. “We’re going to break away from the establishment, we’re going to bring fresh faces into the game. I’m lining up advisers statewide right now, to be an Iowa-based, organically cultivated campaign. We don’t want to run with the establishment, we want to run outside of the establishment and show that there is something new. Yeah, I’m a Democrat, I identify with Democrats for many, many reasons, however, it’s just a label that unfortunately has to be placed on us in order to politically lead in this nation.”
As things stand now, State Senator Rob Hogg will almost certainly win the three-person field competing for the Democratic nomination. He’s the only one seriously raising money, has a statewide profile from his years in the legislature (especially his work on climate change) and his opponents won small percentages for themselves in the 2006 primary. Barring an unexpected high-profile entrance into the race by another Democrat, Hogg will likely gain the support of most of the Democratic establishment for his bid.
A run by Zirkelbach could make things slightly more interesting, given his compelling biography. But his ability to raise money for a statewide campaign is questionable, which would limit ways to become better known among Democratic primary-goers. Zirkelbach was a good eastern Iowa legislator, but few knew him beyond that. Both Tom Fiegen and Bob Krause have traveled extensively across Iowa to speak in front of Democratic activists. Fiegen has tied himself closely to the progressive cause with his support of Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
Democrats already face very long odds to knock off the popular, long-serving Grassley. Dealing with a long primary where Hogg has to spend money communicating to Democratic primary-goers won’t help much. The entrance into the race of other credible – but likely cash-strapped – challengers might force Iowa’s Democratic establishment to close ranks early on behind Hogg.
by Pat Rynard