Democrats won’t have “Senator Sizzler” to kick around anymore.
But Democrats’ chances of making up ground in the Iowa Senate also got a little harder today with Senator Mark Chelgren’s announcement that he wouldn’t run for reelection in 2018. Three-time congressional candidate, ophthalmologist and former state public health director Mariannette Miller-Meeks declared she would run instead. The handoff occurred this morning at the Wapello County Republican convention.
Senate District 41, which covers Ottumwa, Fairfield and Davis and Van Buren counties, has been a top target for Democrats since Chelgren won the blue-collar district in an upset in 2010. Chelgren ousted incumbent Democrat Keith Kreiman by just 10 votes in the Republican wave year, taking Kreiman by such a surprise that he had been spending the final weeks of the election campaigning for Democrats in other districts.
Redistricting put some more Republican voters in SD 41, but registered Democrats still currently outnumber registered Republicans there, 12,868 to 10,717. Chelgren won his hotly-contested reelection race in 2014 by 51% to 49% after a last-minute reveal of an embrassing answer his Democratic opponent wrote on an old survey mailer.
Democrats were increasingly optimistic about their chances of defeating Chelgren in 2018 after a series of controversies dragged down the senator last year. He made national news when it was revealed that he had claimed having a college business degree that was actually a training certificate through a Sizzler Restaurant management training course. And his antics in the Senate were a constant distraction for Republican leadership, not least for his annual filing of bizarre and controversial bills that went nowhere. He also briefly ran for the 2nd Congressional District in 2016.
Still, Chelgren had his own quirky, unique appeal to a part of Iowa that has felt left behind. Few places in the state swung toward Donald Trump like Wapello County, once a Democratic stronghold that had gone for Democrats’ presidential nominee for 44 years straight. Hillary Clinton carried just one precinct in Ottumwa. Trump won SD 41 by 57% to 38%. And Democrats always had to be careful in their attacks on Chelgren’s colorful personal history, considering his outsider persona appealed to many local voters.
Miller-Meeks’ entrance into the race changes the dynamics in the key swing district. Although Miller-Meeks lost congressional races to Dave Loebsack three times in a row, she always remained extremely popular with the state party and local activists. She’ll also be a candidate that Republican leadership can likely work with in a much better manner than Chelgren in the campaign.
Chelgren was never a prolific fundraiser, and while Miller-Meeks didn’t raise a lot compared to successful U.S. House challengers, she did bring in $1.2 million for her 2010 race and $940,000 for her 2014 bid. Republicans should have a much better-funded candidate with Miller-Meeks now in the race.
Miller-Meeks came the closest to defeating Loebsack in 2010, losing by five points. She won 1,141 more votes than John McCain did in Wapello County in 2008, but was right on par with Joni Ernst’s totals there in 2014.
Were Miller-Meeks to succeed in the general election, it would be an act of sweet revenge against the Senate Democrats who rejected her nomination to the Iowa Hawk-I board in 2016. Nominated by Governor Terry Branstad, Miller-Meeks was the only nominee that year to fail to win Senate confirmation after 18 Democrats voted against her (you need a 34-vote, two-thirds majority to pass). She had drawn criticism from Democrats over her false suggestion that the most-purchased item with food stamps in Iowa was Mountain Dew (she claims her remarks was taken out of context).
Democrats have two strong candidates facing off in a primary. Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy and retired educator Mary Stewart of Ottumwa are both competing for the party’s nomination. Two other Democrats, Steve Siegel (Chelgren’s opponent in 2014) and Jamie Allen, passed on campaigns after initial organizing efforts.
by Pat Rynard