While most of the state is focused on the major Democratic primaries in the U.S. Senate race, 1st and 3rd Congressional, the most contentious intra-party battle is playing out in Newton. Three-term incumbent State Representative Dan Kelley faces a particularly strong primary challenge from fellow Democrat Wes Breckenridge, and very well could be the first incumbent to lose in 2016.
The race has exploded with accusations, long-held grudges, ideological conflicts and county-level clique politics. It’s fueled huge turnout – House District 29 has the second-most Democratic absentee requests in the state. And letters-to-the-editor about the race have inundated the Newton Daily News. Over 100 have been printed on the topic.
The content of those letters-to-the-editor are brutal.
“[D]on’t believe the obfuscation of angry Dan and Cindy the bully,” one letter read, referring to Kelley and one of his main volunteers.
“Doug Bishop and his pack of good old boy bullies at the courthouse have tried to tear down my brother,” wrote in Kelley’s sister. “Doug Bishop is a bully. Everyone who went to Newton schools in the 80s knows it…”
“Kelley, Pollard and Bryant aren’t just burning bridges, they plan to burn down the whole village before they leave,” a woman from Kellog wrote in about Kelley’s core group of supporters.
The tone of the race isn’t even its most note-worthy aspect. Rarely do primary challenges to incumbent legislators succeed. That’s typically because the party and its main progressive allies rally around the current office holder. Not so in this case. Both AFSCME and the Iowa Federation of Labor have endorsed Breckenridge’s candidacy, along with many local officials in Jasper County.
Part of the reason why Kelley, who works as a local DJ, has seen such a strong challenge seems to boil down to this: many people just don’t like the guy. But on the other hand, some in the community see support for Breckenridge, a police officer, as being pushed by a more conservative-leaning group of Democrats.
How did this race get to this point? You have to go back to 2010 and the death of the original HD 29 incumbent to start.
The 2010 Special Nominating Convention
Democratic legislator Paul Bell represented Newton in the Iowa House from 1993 to 2010, and passed away on June 7, 2010 from a battle with cancer. A special nominating convention in Jasper County was held to determine the new Democratic candidate. Both Kelley and Breckenridge threw their hat into the ring, along with another person who ended up receiving no votes.
Nominating conventions consist of the precinct chairs in the county, chosen at various stages of party meetings. Each person’s vote is weighted from the amount of Democratic voters in their precinct. Just 15 people were eligible to cast votes representing their precincts – 8 went with Kelley, representing 3,326 votes, while 7 voted with Breckenridge, representing 3,120. Kelley was a precinct chair at the time and voted for himself.
There were frustrations within the county of how the nominating convention played out, but most moved on and supported Kelley in his future campaigns.
Frustrations With Kelley Emerge
For the most part, Democrats in Jasper County seem to have been happy with Kelley’s voting record. He’s taken a particular interest in environmental issues and clean energy, important for Newton’s economy with their wind turbine manufacturer.
But issues of Kelley’s responsiveness and presence in the community started to build. Locals accused him of not returning calls or emails, holding few public meetings, missing town hall forums and just being generally difficult to get ahold of.
In a recent letter-to-the-editor, a woman from Baxter lamented how Kelley had never come to several local DOT meetings about an eminent domain matter that impacted a man’s farm. She claims that when Kelley finally scheduled a town forum in Baxter this year, he was 15 minutes late and then, upon arriving and seeing the farmer in the room, promptly left without speaking. He then reportedly said his next two meetings were closed to press.
The Newton Daily News even felt the need to do a special clarification when they printed Kelley’s response to a Q&A despite Kelley missing the deadline, which he blamed on their email going to his junk folder.
“Do I feel it’s quite generous to Rep. Kelley? Yes,” the paper wrote of printing his eventual reply. “We’ve been emailing from the same domain name to Kelley’s same email address for six years without issue. When we did not receive his response we believed his apparent carelessness with our coverage of this race was simply a reflection of his ongoing lack of communication with the local paper.”
That building local frustration led in part to Breckenridge launching his primary challenge.
“We’ve talked on the campaign trail with many constituents who’ve reached out to Mr. Kelley, but he has failed to respond,” Breckenridge told Starting Line. “He’s also blocked active Democrats from his Facebook page when they’ve tried to give input that he doesn’t agree with. One individual I visited with was disappointed that Mr. Kelley would not respond to his requests to discuss medical cannabis. His wife suffers from EDS (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome).”
For his part, Kelley seems to acknowledge the frustration, but says he’s always available to the people and has been door-knocking extensively in the district to meet voters face-to-face.
“Any legislator or candidate has to be open and accessible, and can really never rest at making sure people know their elected officials answer to the people,” Kelley said to Starting Line. “It’s true – during the legislative session, it’s a little bit of a balancing act, because I’m in Des Moines during the workday. But whether during session or any other time of the year, anyone who has a question, comment, or concern, or who needs help with a state agency, can always just give me a call directly at (641) 521-9260.”
Kelley Pushes Progressive Mantle
The incumbent Democrat has a different theory on the cause of the challenge: that essentially a more conservative-leaning “good old boys” network wants to bully their way into his seat. And in many ways, the county leaders in the courthouse and public safety networks have all lined up against him.
“I believe that for quite some time, there’s really been a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in Jasper County,” Kelley asserted. “My opponent is and always has been a conservative. We ran against each other for the first time in 2010; I was the progressive, he was on the right wing. The contrast has gotten even more pronounced in the six years since then. I mean, for example, my own current Democratic State Senator actively helped Terry Branstad back then.”
Kelley is referring to State Senator Chaz Allen, whom Kelley has feuded with since Allen’s election in 2014. Many believe Allen recruited Breckenridge to enter the race.
“Dan Kelley is progressive and conservatives are trying to take over by knocking him out of office,” said Cindy Pollard, one of Kelley’s key volunteers and a noted Democratic activist in the state. “He has been doing a great job, he should have never been in this primary. I’m proud to support Dan and appreciate the work he has done to protect our water, local schools, women’s reproductive rights and, of course, my marriage to Gayla.”
Breckenridge counters that he’s been a lifelong Democrat, active in the local party, once serving as the Jasper County Democratic Co-Vice Chair. He brought up medical cannabis as one issue he sees himself to the left of Kelley on.
“I support and will fight for legislation legalizing medical cannabis,” Breckenridge said. “Mr. Kelley has voted against this and has been reluctant to visit with those suffering to work toward possible solutions.”
The Bakken Pipeline And Union Support
Kelley views his opposition to the Bakken pipeline, which would run directly through a significant section of Jasper County – as a key motivator for his opponents. He believes that Senator Allen’s work with the pipeline company through his job with the county economic development board has fueled Breckenridge’s supporters.
He also thinks it impacted the union endorsements in the race. It’s exceedingly rare for the largest labor organizations to endorse a Democratic challenger in a primary, as AFSCME, the Iowa Federation of Labor and the Teamsters have done this year. Kelley noted that he’s a strong supporter of labor issues and grew up with a grandfather who was in the UAW.
“I would have loved the endorsements, but I understand that we have different views on the pipeline in Jasper County,” Kelley said. “Just as I can’t change my views for political reasons, I understand this is an important issue for labor, too, and I respect that.”
However, the unions say that’s simply not the case.
“His opposition to that bill had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Danny Homan of AFSCME told Starting Line. “Our endorsement of Wes Breckenridge is a direct result of our membership in that district requesting, begging, and almost to the point of demanding, that we endorse Wes. Our membership in that district is very supportive of Wes, and I think tired of some of the shenanigans that the current representative has done over the years.”
The private sector unions might be more apt to support a pro-Bakken candidate (building trades unions see it as generating jobs for their members), but even the AFL-CIO groups say that wasn’t the case either.
“We have a requirement that we have 2/3 of our votes to support [an endorsement],” said Ken Sagar of the Iowa Fed, adding that their members in the district were strongly in support of Breckenridge. “Only 5 of the 19 people on our board are Building Trades. So you start talking about 2/3, it takes a lot more than a single issue to endorse, as it should.”
Breckenridge, a police officer, is himself a former local union president and member.
The Ground Game
The early vote numbers in HD 29 rank near the top in the state with both sides working hard to generate absentee ballots for the primary. The Breckenridge team reportedly got out to an early head start, but Kelley has one of the best assets for any campaign: Pollard, who collected the most absentee ballot requests of any Iowa Democratic volunteer in 2014. As of Friday, 1,430 Democratic absentees had been requested in the district.
“We literally have the best absentee operation in the state,” Kelley said. “I believe more people should have better access to voting and to their elected officials. So our absentee program is part of that, and we’ve got a great team running it.”
“Our campaign team worked hard to reach out to voters and engage them early. We tracked that we had approximately 300 vote-by-mail request submitted prior to any others coming in,” Breckenridge said.
Neither candidate has raised all that much during their campaign compared to other races, but they’ve both brought in respectable numbers to run a small mail program. Breckenridge has raised $17,577, while Kelley has brought in $12,573 (though he had over $2,000 in debt from the previous year that Kelley had to pay off). Only 15 of Kelley’s donations in his May report were from Jasper County, something Breckenridge’s supporters pointed out often in the Newton paper.
Whoever emerges as the victor on Tuesday should have an advantage in the general election over Republican nominee Patrick Payton. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans there by 7,266 to 5,685. But the vitriol seen during the primary campaign could cause for some hard feelings to linger. Democrats in Jasper County will need to quickly mend those fences – the party will have to hold it to have any chance of retaking the House.
by Pat Rynard