Pottawattamie County voters elected Republican Jon Jacobsen to fill the remainder of recently-passed Representative Greg Forristall last night. But the surprising part here was just how close the independent bid of Forristall’s widow, Carol, got to victory. Jacobsen received 1,069 votes (43.9%) to Forristall’s 803 (33.0%), with another 465 write-in votes (19.1%). The vast majority of those write-ins were presumably for Ray Stevens, the Democratic nominee who failed to turn in his nominating papers in time to get on the ballot. Voter turnout in the special election was only 10.3%.
The entire ordeal was a mess for Democrats following their nominating convention, and the final results show how much of a missed opportunity it was on two fronts. Obviously, for one, the Democrat should have gotten his name on the ballot. The Republican vote was clearly split, and in theory a really strong, well-known local candidate might have been able to sneak in.
That scenario still would’ve been awfully difficult for Democrats, as registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the district 10,427 to 4,684. To top Jacobsen’s 1,069 vote total, Democrats would have needed to get their voters to show up at around a 25% turnout, more than twice the turnout of the other side. As we’ve seen in recent special elections around the country, Republican voters are matching Democratic turnout or coming close enough that upset wins in deep-red districts simply haven’t been possible.
But there was another opportunity here that Democrats missed out on: Carol Forristall. She initially tried to serve out her late husband’s term on the Republican ballot, but was defeated by Jacobsen at the nominating convention. So she ran anyway as an independent, something you don’t see very often in Iowa politics after a candidate loses at convention.
Obviously, had she won, she would have joined the Republican caucus in the House and voted with them on most issues. But would she have been a total right-winger like this Jacobsen – a longtime Republican activist and former talk radio host – is rumored to be?
I asked a few of my Republican friends who knew Carol and they saw her as someone who could actually work with the other side of the aisle, and wasn’t the kind of partisan warrior that some of the newer Republican House members are. She’s a retired teacher and as Bleeding Heartland wrote, Greg Forristall’s refusal to go along with Republicans’ ploy to mess with school start dates likely cost him his chairmanship of the Education Committee. Democrats don’t remember Representative Forristall kindly from this past session when he ran the collective bargaining bill, but he had his moments where he acted more like an actual statesman and not a far-right ideologue.
Those differences – even minor personality ones – matter these days when Republicans hold as large of legislative majorities as they do. And really, who would you trust more: a female retired teacher who worked in the Legislature for years with her husband who occasionally bucked his party, or a talk radio host endorsed by Rick Santorum that was nominated by a bunch of Republican activists?
At the time of Stevens’ failure to get on the ballot, I thought of writing a piece on how local Democrats ought to vote strategically and go with Forristall, but I knew the online backlash that would get and didn’t care enough to deal with the headache. But now that we see the actual results, I think it poses an important question for Democrats moving forward in this state.
The simple fact of the matter is that after Stevens missed the filing deadline, there were only two possible outcomes in this race: Jacobsen wins or Forristall wins. Last night’s vote totals prove this was this case. And one of those Republicans would have been slightly better than the other, and could have played a part in preventing or slowing down at least one extremely ideological bill from sailing through the Legislature.
Would enough Democrats have turned out for Forristall to get her over the top? Had just over half of Stevens’ write-ins gone for her, she could have defeated Jacobsen. Of course, that’s an awkward ask for local Democrats to make of their voters, and a Democratic Party isn’t going to just out and endorse a Republican, even in a weird scenario like this. But there’s things that activists can do quietly and behind the scenes, and I would imagine there’s at least 267 Democrats in an entire House district that would understand the importance of strategic voting if you explained it to them and there wasn’t a Democratic option, write-in or otherwise.
This was a unique situation, though one not completely unfamiliar to Iowa voters. There are plenty of times in rural, Republican counties where Democrats vote in the Republican primary for something like sheriff because there’s no Democrat thinking of running. No one makes a big deal out of it, in part because it’s for a local office where ideology comes less into play.
But that mindset could be considered in the handful of situations like yesterday where a Democratic candidate has literally zero chance of victory and there’s two Republican options where one is much more ideological than the other. The Kansas Legislature didn’t roll back Sam Brownback’s destructive tax cuts this year because Democrats retook that Statehouse. It happened because of a coalition of moderate Republicans defeated ultra-conservative lawmakers and joined together with Democrats.
We live in a red state now. There are still plenty of opportunities to win back key offices, most importantly in the governor’s race. But there may soon come a time where Democrats face an extremely long road back to relevance in Iowa, and the only way to keep even more awful things from happening at the Statehouse is by voting strategically in an odd race here and there. It’s something that people should at least start thinking about.
by Pat Rynard