If Iowa Republicans were concerned about a voter backlash in response to the deeply conservative agenda they passed in the Iowa Statehouse this year, they’re not letting on. After a legislative session in which new GOP majorities passed sweeping rightwing reforms that transformed the very nature of Iowa government and society, Republicans are promising to go even further next year.
As Speaker Linda Upmeyer and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds explained in the days after Saturday’s adjournment, Republicans will consider large tax cuts, pension reform and school privatization efforts in 2018. And some abortion opponents want to revisit a “heartbeat bill” that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks.
That sounds like a party emboldened by their legislative victories, not concerned over whether they’ve gone too far.
Indeed, the most telling moment of how the new Republican-controlled Statehouse would play out happened very early on, when every single Republican senator co-sponsored the bill to defund Planned Parenthood. Democrats often argue that this is a very unpopular position to hold in Iowa. Polling seems to back it up, like the one that showed 77% of Iowans opposed defunding the organization. Many Democratic campaigns even ran ads on the issue in 2016 – and yet they lost.
Swing district Republican defections on the most controversial bills this year were kept to a minimum. No “moderate” bloc of Republican legislators emerged to defy leadership with politically-cautious votes. And this was even though Republicans had a healthy 59-41 majority in the House and a 29-20-1 majority in the Senate, where they easily could have let some members cast opposing votes and still be fine.
Outrage to Republicans’ actions was fierce at town hall forums, especially on collective bargaining changes, education funding and Medicaid privatization. However, aside from some blame-shifting on Medicaid, Republicans didn’t moderate their stances much. The collective bargaining reform was about as extreme as you could get. Some workers compensation modifications were scaled back, but changes to Voter ID and election reform were made worse as they progressed through the Statehouse.
So why aren’t Republicans more concerned about fallout at the ballot box in 2018? Especially when early signs point to Donald Trump’s presidency remaining unpopular, setting up the potential of a Democratic wave?
A few potential theories for the GOP’s posturing:
1. Republicans are delusional about the popularity of their programs and really are facing a wipeout in 2018.
2. They know they’ll lose seats, but they’re pushing to get as much done as possible while they have power.
3. Republicans will have plenty of campaign funds to smear Democrats in 2018, so it doesn’t really matter what they do.
4. Republicans’ positions are actually more popular with Iowa voters than we on the left think, and won’t be punished for their far-right agenda.
Democrats who find themselves increasingly cynical about money in politics will probably side with the third theory. However, after watching Republicans win election after election in Iowa over the past decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fourth idea is closer to the truth.
Others may disagree, but it all begs the question: if Democratic positions on the minimum wage, women’s healthcare access, collective bargaining rights, public education funding and mental healthcare support poll so well with voters, then why do we keep losing?
Is it all just due to dreadfully-incompetent Democratic campaigns? Does it all come down to a money advantage?
The point of the matter is that Republican leadership is not afraid of what Democrats and the left in Iowa can throw at them in 2018. People like Linda Upmeyer and Bill Dix are not fools. They’re not going to immediately wreck their newfound majorities with a too-far, too-fast agenda.
So regardless of the real underlying cause, Democrats need a different strategy for the 2018 legislative session and beyond. That applies to grassroots organizing efforts, Statehouse lobbying tactics and campaign strategies.
Perhaps once Democrats start announcing some good legislative candidates, swing district Republicans will get nervous and buck leadership more often. But something needs to put the fear of the voters into Republican lawmakers before the 2018 legislative session is gaveled in. Or things are just going to keep getting worse.
by Pat Rynard