Friday, November 07, 2014

Numbers Part 2: The Locals

For sheer immediate impact, Tuesday's biggest winner was not a barrier-breaking, swine-snipping senator or a Guinness Book of World Records governor. It was a big soft-spoken deputy sheriff.

Kevin Kinney's win made up for a Ft. Dodge loss and a failed effort in Ottumwa and kept the margin of the Iowa Senate at 26 Democrats, 24 Republicans. This one win keeps Terry Branstad and the House Republicans from enacting a Scott Walker style deconstruction of state government, limiting the damage of the night's other Democratic losses.

Kinney rolled up a solid 61% in the Johnson County half of the district, enough to overcome a smaller deficit on Republican Michael Moore's Washington County turf and enough for a 55-44% overall win.

This race was won on candidate recruitment. Moore was a good candidate but Kinney was even better. His deep roots in the district (school board, farmer, working the chains at the football game), regular guy persona, and across the aisle appeal played big roles in the win.

The contrast couldn't be stronger to Johnson County's other contested legislative race. David Johnson, a University IT guy who just happens to live over the line in West Branch, lost his fourth legislative race (two in the 90s and a 2012 primary) by a humiliating 68-32% to first term Republican Bobby Kaufmann.

The Cedar County based House district has been Ahab's white whale to area Democrats for about 15 years now: tantalizingly close on paper, out of reach in practice. They've alternated between top tier challengers (Mike Owen, Dick Schwab) and Some Dudes. Factoid: The 2008 Democratic candidate in this district moved away but forgot to take her name off the ballot. She won 33.5%. Johnson won 32.2%, literally worse than nobody.

Johnson seemed to think the perfect progressive platform that appealed to his Iowa City based backers was the ticket to victory. And there is a good case to make for a $15 living minimum wage, one of his talking points.

But you make that case to the platform committee or the Seattle city council. In Cedar County you first have to convince people there should even BE a minimum wage, and if you get a good door you hint that maybe it should inch up to $10. (I speak from experience, having knocked every door in Wilton.) 

Both the Kinney-Moore and the Kaufmann-Johnson races included other counties. But the supervisor race was all ours, and it was decided on primary night.

John Etheredge got on well with his Democratic courthouse colleagues, and in practice having a Republican on the board for the first time in fifty years was little different than having an old school rural conservative Democrat. He ran a game campaign, and gets credit for the best line of the whole campaign, calling himself "the People's Republican of Johnson County."

But Etheredge was always only ever going to be a half term supervisor. He won won, fair and square, in a midwinter special election, marked by low turnout and a Democratic split. In the face of full on national level partisan warfare, in a high turnout general election, in a place that's 13 to 15 percent more Democratic than anywhere else in the state, he never stood a chance. There was never a killer issue that broke through the noise of the top of the ballot. (No, a handful of letters from the terminally disgruntled Newport Road crowd doesn't count. As we saw in the primary, that's just a couple hundred votes.)

Etheredge trailed Janelle Rettig by 9,100 votes for the second seat. Democrats had 7,344 more straight ticket ballots than Republicans, more than my predicted 5000 to 6000 and contrary to reports that Democrats were skipping the straight tickets specifically because of the supervisor race. So just the straight tickets alone would have beaten him, and that's not counting the untold thousands who didn't mark the straight ticket line, but voted for all or almost all Democrats.

The race could have been called at 9:00:01 when the absentee numbers (more than half the final total) went up. Etheredge was almost 9000 votes behind Rettig and Carberry. Yet election day itself, traditionally more conservative than the early vote,  was almost a three way dead heat: Carberry at 49%, Rettig at 48, and Etheredge at 47.

Those percentages are based on votes for candidate divided by total voters, and add up, with write ins thrown in, to 147%. That means that on average, each voter cast 1.47 votes for supervisor. Or, another way, on average slightly over half cast only one vote. (Less than that, really, because some people skipped the whole race). A straight ticket Republican vote would be one vote for Etheredge and one skipped vote.

Republicans needed a strategy. With two Democrats and one Republican on the ballot in a vote for two race, just voting for Etheredge was not enough for the outnumbered Johnson County Republicans. They had to push one of the Democrats into third. They needed to choose which one of Rettig or Carberry to back, and which one to take out. And for it to make a difference, it had to be a big enough deal to be noticed. But it seems they never were able to choose between the environmental lobbyist and the lesbian, so they just voted for their guy and hoped for the best.

As expected, Etheredge's best totals were in the rural precincts. Carberry's current 634 vote (some provisionals are still getting counted) lead over Rettig for first place bragging rights doesn't have much geographic pattern. About a third of it is from Newport. The rest is semi-random, probably just Carberry campaigning a touch harder, as a non-incumbent who finished lower in the primary, and Rettig being a little more tied down by the job itself.

So one supervisor changes, but one problem stays the same: A third result above 55% but below the magic 60 for the courthouse renovation. What happened: Same as before, just a little short everywhere. The reflexive Automatic No vote on any spending measure, which I usually peg at about 20%, was probably up a little in a big Republican year. The protest vote was much quieter than it was in the May 2013 election or in the John Zimmerman county attorney campaign, but there's still a sizable faction that will vote no on anything till you can smoke weed on the Ped Mall.

Also not helping: No actual campaign. You can't get to 60% without someone actively asking for Yes votes. But the leadership of past efforts, and the community itself, was still burned out from the first two votes (and to a lesser extent from the county attorney primary). No committee ever formed, no money was raised. Not a sign, not a phone call. Put it on the ballot and hope for the best.

Even more not helping: Iowa City. After their police practices cost the county the first two justice center elections, Iowa City put the local option sales tax on the ballot in direct competition with the scaled back courthouse plan. The two measures hurt each other and the sales tax, with a lower 50% threshold, fell four points short. Again, there was no serious effort on either side. A Yes committee - named simply YES! perhaps in tribute to Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman - was opened but never really did anything.

(Word on the street is that the county is going back to square one on the courthouse, but I won't be surprised if Iowa City pushes for a sales tax do-over soon.)

Several of the small cities voted Yes, hoping to tap into the metro area's revenues. But with the failure in the five city bloc, the tiny stream of money for Hills, Lone Tree, Solon, Swisher, and that one street of West Branch to divvy up is almost a cruel joke.

University Heights strongly supported the tax, and Iowa City voting alone would have narrowly passed it. But opposition was strong, in part due to a revenue formula based on old dollar amounts, in the high growth outlying cities, Coralville, Tiffin and North Liberty.

And in North Liberty we saw the most contentious local race of the cycle. Did Amy Nielsen win the mayor election, or did Gerry Kuhl lose? Kuhl, elected unopposed to the city council just a year ago, is now out after a brief appointed tenure as mayor following Tom Salm's death.

Kuhl seemed offended that Nielsen had been presumptuous enough to oppose him, attacked other area officials who backed her, and continued the criticism even in defeat. It painted a picture of a grouch, which contrasted sharply with Nielsen's fresh face, smart mom persona.

That's much more the image that North Liberty wants to present, and mark Mayor Amy Nielsen - since it was a special election she replaces appointee Kuhl almost immediately - as the local rising star of the year.

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