For Senate Democrats, A Tumultuous Three Years

Jeff Danielson’s decision to resign from the Iowa Senate yesterday was the latest reminder of how much upheaval the Senate Democrats have experienced in recent years. The Democratic side of that chamber is a very different place than it was a little over two years ago in mid-2016. A slew of departures – both voluntary and not – have resulted in a complete reshuffling of their membership.

Of the 26 Democratic senators who were serving through 2016, only 11 remain today. Seven were defeated over the course of two campaign cycles, but eight others left for a wide variety of reasons (including one passing). It’s been an noteworthy development for a legislative chamber that is typically known for its incumbents’ longevity.

Compare that to the Iowa House, where 31 of House Democrats’ 43 members from the 2015 – 2016 session still serve in the chamber today (two more at still at the Statehouse, they just moved up to the Senate). They’ve also increased their number of seats.

With Danielson leaving, the party is down to 17 Senate members, though they can easily get that back up to 18 with a successful special election.

Here’s a quick look at how we got here.

Defeats – 7

Mike Gronstal
Mary Jo Wilhelm
Chris Brase
Steve Sodders
Brian Schoenjahn
Tom Courtney
Tod Bowman

The Trump wave in 2016 wiped out a raft of Democratic incumbents in rural and blue-collar districts, taking Democrats from a 26-member majority to a 20-seat minority. Most of those were perennial swing seats that suddenly turned a deep hue of red, while one (Courtney’s Burlington district) was a surprise upset. The changing voter trends in Eastern Iowa claimed Bowman’s career in 2018.

Retirements – 4

Wally Horn
Bob Dvorsky
Dick Dearden
Matt McCoy

Several of the chamber’s longtime members in safe Democratic districts decided to call it a day in recent years. Dvorsky made a point of stepping aside for a new generation of leaders; 27-year-old Zach Wahls ended up taking his place. McCoy moved over to county government in his supervisor race, with Claire Celsi winning his seat. Horn was the Statehouse’s longest-serving legislator at the time of his retirement; Todd Taylor moved up there from the House. Dearden tried to hand off his seat to his daughter, but Nate Boulton defeated her in a primary.

Resignations – 2

Jeff Danielson
Chaz Allen

Danielson’s departure sets up a special election in the next month, but Democrats should be slightly favored to hold it. Allen stepped down in the middle of the 2018 campaign cycle, setting off a series of ill-fated candidacies for Democrats.

Deaths – 1

Joe Seng

The longtime legislator from Davenport passed away in September of 2016. Democratic House member Jim Lykam won the seat in a special election after the general.

Lt. Governor Runs – 1

Rita Hart

Fred Hubbell selected the well-liked farmer from Eastern Iowa to be his running mate in the governor’s race. They were unsuccessful, though, and a Republican picked up Hart’s seat.

Still Kicking – 11

Rich Taylor
Tony Bisignano
Joe Bolkcom
Amanda Ragan
Herman Quirmbach
Bill Dotzler
Janet Petersen
Liz Mathis
Kevin Kinney
Rob Hogg
Pam Jochum

Of the eleven senators still around from the 2015 – 2016 class, two were elected in 2014 (Kinney and Bisignano, though Bisignano also served in the 1990s) and one (Rich Taylor) came in during the 2012 cycle. Three senators have unbroken service records in the Legislature that date back to the 90s: Jochum’s been at the Statehouse since 1993, Dotzler has served since 1997, Bolkcom since 1999.


by Pat Rynard
Photo of 2015 – 2016 class via Senate Dems FB page
Posted 2/15/19

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *