It's officially a contested race for the March 5 special election for county supervisor. As expected, county Republicans tonight nominated John Etheredge of rural Kalona without opposition. He'll face Democrat Terry Dahms, and any independent who might show up to file by the Friday 5 PM deadline.
The Press-Citizen's Adam Sullivan tweeted: "Etheredge says rural Johnson County deserves representation on the board." I'll just note that Dahms is also a rural resident.
Etheredge ran for the Board as an independent last fall, with de facto Republican support, and finished a distant fourth in the race for three seats.
I noted last fall that there's a down side to running as an independent in a general election, because even as a Republican in a heavily Democratic county you sacrifice straight ticket votes: 6457 of them in Johnson County to be exact. (Granted, some greater than zero number of straight ticket Rs also marked Etheredge on the ballot.)
Nearly 30 percent of the total vote in Johnson was cast as straight tickets, with Democrats gaining a nearly 9,000 vote edge just on that. No wonder GOP Rep. Peter Cownie wants to get rid of straight tickets and make people vote for "the person not the party." But if close to a third of the voters like the convenience, and if "Republican Party" after the name says enough about the candidate, why change a popular feature of the ballot?
Now Etheredge has switched to run as a Republican - and again disadvantaged himself. There are no straight tickets in a one-office special election, thus no advantage to running with an affiliation that gets you some number, smaller but still some number, of automatic votes.
So all Etheredge gets from the label, as opposed to working with the same core people but running as an independent again, is the baggage. Which party would YOU rather have below your name in a 67% Obama county? Sure, a Grassley or a Leach can occasionally carry the day in these parts, though Grassley lost to Roxanne Conlin in 2010, his first county loss anywhere in the state since 1980.
Two reporters have asked me the same question today so you're wondering too: The last Republican to win a courthouse office in Johnson County was Gary Hughes. He got elected in 1972 with just 48%, thanks to a factional split in the Democrats, and proved to be a pretty popular guy once he was in. Hughes won his last term in 1984 and retired in 1988.
As for the supervisors, the drought is even longer. The last Republican elected to the Board was Oren Alt, who won his second term in 1958 and lost in the 1962 general election.
Now, the Republican losing streak is not a Democratic undefeated streak. Don Sehr won an April 1994 special as an independent. But he'd been a multi-term Democrat on the Board from 1976 to 1988, and he was already filling the vacancy by appointment when the liberals petitioned for the election. He tried and failed to win the party nomination at convention. Nasty, nasty party split that year. Sehr ran as an "independent Democrat" long before Joe Lieberman did, and he won the special. But when he tried to re-join the party fold he lost the 1996 primary.
So a LOT of asterisks on that one Democratic loss, and the critical precondition of a party split that we saw in the `72 sheriff race and in 1994 isn't there. Defeated Democrats Dawn Suter and Mike Carberry both promptly endorsed Dahms after last week's convention.
Still, weird things can happen in a low turnout special election. Best advice for any candidate is to feel confident you'll win but work like you're about to lose.