Governor Terry Branstad and legislative Republicans will wield full control over the executive and legislative branches of Iowa government come next January. Democrats lost their majority in the Iowa Senate, which they’ve held since 2006, as early returns showed Senators Mike Gronstal, Chris Brase and Brian Schoenjahn losing their reelection efforts. That bumps Democrats down to 23 seats, and Republicans up to 26, with one independent (and this is assuming Democrats win the Joe Seng Davenport seat in the December special election, which is very likely). However, early indications show that Democrats are losing in seats even thought to be safe, so that Republican majority may grow substantially.
[Update: It appears Democrats have lost six or seven seats, and are down to 18 or 19 seats overall. Mike Gronstal, Mary Jo Wilhelm, Brian Schoenjahn, Steve Sodders, Chris Brase and Tom Courtney all lost. Rich Taylor’s race remains very close.]
This is the first time Republicans have held total control since the 1990s.
Republicans will be extremely pleased to have captured at least three Democratic seats overall tonight. Former Republican Senator David Johnson split with the party this summer over Donald Trump and will likely remain an independent next session. He opposes the Republican line on Medicaid, water quality and education spending, so by controlling 26 seats the party can essentially ignore him.
It’s unclear yet if Democrats will pick up any seats in the House. It seems certain they will not get a net win of eight to take control of the chamber.
Tonight’s results could vastly change the course of Iowa politics and policies for years to come. When Republicans took complete control of state governments in the wave year of 2010, like in Wisconsin, they were not shy in moving their states in a sharp rightward shift. It’s unclear what exactly Speaker Linda Upmeyer and Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix will prioritize, considering the campaigns their candidates ran this year were light on policy proposals. It’s also yet to be seen what the dynamic between the Republican legislative leaders and Governor Branstad will be like. Will Branstad take the lead on major legislative initiatives, or will the House and Senate dictate terms of the debate?
Tonight’s outcome has been many years in the making. The nonpartisan redistricting map produced in 2011 was always going to be difficult for Senate Democrats. Large concentrations of the state’s Democratic voters were placed in a handful of districts, while the swing districts in more rural areas mostly had slight Republican registration advantages.
For three cycles in a row, Democrats tried to hang on to a narrow 26-24 majority, with no room for error. They succeeded against difficult odds in 2012 and 2014, but repeated missed opportunities gave the party no cushion for this presidential year, in which the political winds in Iowa made it feel more like a tough midterm election.
Democrats will have their chance to retake control or force the Senate into a tie in 2018, with at least two key pick-up contests in Sioux City and Ottumwa. But having to pick up any more than three will likely make that a multi-cycle endeavor.
With Gronstal headed to defeat tonight, Senate Democrats will need to quickly choose their new leader. There is no obvious replacement, though current Senate President Pam Jochum will probably have first consideration.
A December 27th special election is planned to replace Joe Seng, who passed away in September. It’s a heavily Democratic district, but Republicans may still make a play for it.
This post will be updated as more results come in.
by Pat Rynard