When Iowa State Senator David Johnson left the Republican Party last week over issues with Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the news quickly went national and international. But while Johnson’s act of registering as an independent generated tough stories for Donald Trump and Republicans, the longer-lasting impact will be felt at the Iowa Statehouse in this election and the next legislative session.
The Iowa Senate was split 26 Democrats to 24 Republicans. With Johnson’s departure, it would stand as 23 Republicans and one Independent. Republicans have badly wanted to take back the Iowa Senate for multiple cycles, but continually come up just short.
In a lengthy interview with Starting Line, Johnson seemed intent on staying an Independent if Trump becomes the nominee at the convention. He realizes what that means for control of the Senate.
“That means that Republicans, instead of having to flip two seats, are going to have to flip three, if I were to remain an Independent,” Johnson said. “I believe in this particular year it is going to be a longshot. Getting two was going to be long odds as well, but well within the realm of possibility. But it sure looks like a blue year to me in Iowa.”
He does, however, rule out joining the Democratic caucus.
“There isn’t any guarantee I’d caucus with either party,” he explained. “I would not caucus with the Democrats. I’m not going to change my party registration to Democrat. No way.”
Johnson said he will wait to make a final decision on how to caucus in the Senate after the official Republican nomination. But it certainly seems like he’s played through in his head what not caucusing with the Republicans would be like.
“I’d have to go directly to the Legislative Services Agency and work with them to draft bills and to ask questions about legislation,” Johnson predicted. “I would not have a staff anymore. I would not have staff on my committees. And that’s the other question – where would I fit into the committee structure? Those are questions that we’re just going to have to wait to be answered, and it’s all based on that scenario [of Trump being nominated].”
He’s partially right on the balance of the Senate. Originally, Senate Republicans needed to pick up just one seat to send the Senate into a 25-25 tie. Not ideal, but still much better than being in the minority. However, if Johnson refuses to join the Republican caucus, picking up one seat would result in a 25 Democrats, 24 Republicans, one Independent arrangement. Democrats would retain the majority and control the agenda. They’d still need to make deals on certain policy issues, however.
Were Republicans to pick up two seats, the Iowa Senate would be 25 Republicans, 24 Democrats and one Independent. Republicans would hold the majority, but in this situation Democrats might make a serious effort to find a way for Johnson to join them, despite his current stance.
Where three seats come into play is on the policy front. Since Johnson hasn’t followed the party line on several key issues recently, Republicans would need three more seats to pass certain bills.
And Johnson doesn’t seem like he’s in the mood to make Dix’s life any easier given his frustrations over how the Senate Republicans have operated in recent years.
“What would be my position within the caucus?” Johnson asked of if he were to rejoin the Republicans. “I believe that my position, despite anything you might hear from our leadership, has seriously eroded over the last few years. I could talk about the Democrats as well, but I’ll talk about the Republicans because I am a Republican. We have a poor approach to education, to economic development, to energy, and to the environment. And you can double-underline environment. I have become a very vocal advocate for natural resources in this state, which are seriously underfunded.”
He feels like he’s been on the outs with the party over a number of policy splits he’s taken in recent years on Medicaid, the environment and schools.
“I was very vocal about the Governor’s inititiave to change Medicaid administration over to private insurance companies,” Johnson said. “So I’ve been getting sideways with the Republican approach to governing in the Senate and with the Governor.”
His fellow Republicans don’t seem too happy with him either. Dix declined to comment for this story, and hasn’t reached out to Johnson.
“Even though I’ve heard from a few of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, I haven’t heard a single word or whisper from leader Dix or Senate Whip (Jack) Whitver. I have not heard anything,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what it means, I’m not even going to speculate, except that I would do things differently if I were a leader. If someone felt that they were being marginalized, as I feel, on all those issues – I want to be heard and I want to have answers on it. Maybe they’re not doing the math themselves, and they better be.”
Trump’s incendiary comments about Judge Curiel’s heritage were the last straw for Johnson, who said he was always a part of the “Never Trump” crowd, but remaining an Independent will likely have more to do with his frustration with Iowa politics. Johnson was in the Senate majority for the first two years he served there, but hasn’t been since due to Republicans’ failures in legislative races.
“2014, when the House goes to 57 Republican members, we get Joni Ernst elected U.S. Senator, and David Young to Congress, and Rod Blum to Congress as well, but what happened in the Senate?” he said. “Why didn’t the Senate go Republican? Something’s wrong.”
A large part of that, Johnson believes, is the Republican Party’s current message and platform.
“Here’s how you get elected to be a Republican: I’m going to vote for lower taxes, limited government, and I’ll invoke the name of Ronald Reagan whenever I can. That’s not governing,” he said.
Aside from what he sees as a narrow focus politically, Johnson has broken ranks on several specific, high-profile pieces of legislation. Since Democrats control the Senate, his votes simply helped add to the total, but wasn’t the deciding factor. But he’s been a particularly noteworthy swing vote considering he represents the most conservative part of the state in Northwest Iowa.
“I believe in school choice, but you don’t provide families those opportunities by trashing public education,” Johnson said. “School choice can only work if the state keeps its obligations to public schools.”
In addition to education funding, he’s also frustrated with funding for environmental efforts.
“In 2010, 53% of Iowans voted to put Terry Branstad back into office,” he recalled. “63%, a full ten points more than that, voted for a constitutionally protected trust fund for natural resources in outdoor recreation. Yet the Legislature has still not kept its side of that proposal by raising the state’s sales tax 3/8 of a percent so that you have a dedicated tax to a dedicated fund. 63%. So we get four years of Terry Branstad, but we still don’t get our funding for natural resources and outdoors recreation.”
Johnson sees the party’s adherence to strict ideological stances as hurting their ability to govern, along with their ability to simply think up new ideas.
“I would say that Senate Republicans, as a group, really don’t want to deal with these very tough issues,” Johnson said. “It seems like on the heels of this tragedy in Orlando, I’m hearing that Republicans are saying you have to keep guns out of the hands of people who have mental health issues, who are mentally unstable. Do they ever follow through? No. They never do. They just don’t.”
All of those splits with the party might make one think that Johnson would be a potential party switcher for Democrats. But he’s staunchly conservative on a host of other issues, central among them pro-life measures. Even there, though, he’s frustrated with Republicans.
“The core of what I do every day is to be grounded in the sanctity of human life. That has not changed, nor will it change,” Johnson said. “But over the years, from the Legislature to the Governor, we have had opportunities to take tax money off the table for abortion providers, and we have failed … I said this after the session, Republicans can no longer be counted on to protect human life. Usually the Republicans are considered the pro-life party, but they cannot be considered the pro-life party. They had the chance. The promises were made. And those promises have not been delivered.”
As for the Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal realizes Johnson won’t be coming to their side, though he certainly understands Johnson’s frustration with the Republican caucus.
“Those would be many of the criticisms Democrats have of the Republican caucus as well,” Gronstal told Starting Line.
“I have respect for anyone in the political process that takes a principled stand,” he added of Johnson. “That’s a tough part of politics. Parties are a construct that was never envisioned by our founders … I respect David Johnson and we’ve had a good working relationship over the last few years. We certainly have some issues we strongly disagree about.”
Iowa political watchers will have to wait until the Republican convention for a final decision from Johnson. So far, he’s gotten non-stop phone calls and emails, largely supportive.
“I would like to thank the hundreds of people who have contacted me – overwhelmingly encouraging me to continue on as the situation unfolds, and for speaking up and standing by what I believe is the right thing to do,” Johnson says, noting he’s gotten emails from people as far away as Australia, The Philippines and Sweden.
Since Trump seems practically certain to become the Republican nominee, Johnson could very well be the key to the Iowa Senate next session. Though in his mind, the Republican Party might not even be much of a party after Trump leads the top of the ticket.
“Donald Trump will lead this party into a complete collapse, which I am not afraid of,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have to reach the lowest low before you can gather yourselves back up and return to a place of moral authority. But we don’t hold the high ground anymore, not with Donald Trump.”
by Pat Rynard