Sunday, March 07, 2010

Special Reshapes Primary

Johnson County Special Reshapes June Primary

Johnson County Democratic primaries are essentially local elections. The classic case in point was 1998, when 1000 more votes were case for county recorder than for governor.

But our local battles ripple through state Democratic nomination politics. We've had years where Johnson County has had the highest Democratic primary turnout in the state. Not just percentage--I mean more Democratic primary voters by raw number than much larger Polk County.

2006 was a record-setter in Johnson County. For most Iowa Democrats it was about Blouin vs. Culver vs. Fallon, but Johnson County was all about an open-seat county attorney's race and the hard fought supervisor race where Larry Meyers knocked off incumbent Mike Lehman.

Meyers' death last September started the chain of events that led to Janelle Rettig's January special election win. Rettig's earlier than expected incumbency reshapes the June Johnson County primary and sends a ripple through the whole state.

A year ago, the Johnson County supervisor primary looked like a wide-open contest for two open seats. Meyers was telling supporters he planned to seek a second term, his health problems left the question open. Meanwhile, retirement rumors were buzzing around four term incumbent Sally Stutsman. Rettig's campaign was up and flying even before Meyers' death.

But now, Rettig is an incumbent coming off three wins: the appointment, the Democratic convention, and the special election itself. And Stutsman has decided to seek re-election.

There still may be a primary challenge, of course; there's plenty of precedent for that in Johnson County. Historically, our supervisor fights have been duked out in Democratic primaries, not in general elections. But this time it seems like the local conservatives have decided to run under the GOP label, with self-funder Lori Cardella (again) and self-starter Chad Murphy.

Meanwhile, a few conservaDems who sat on the fence in the special, waiting to see the margin, have to contend with the reality that Rettig pulled Obama-like percentages in the Democratic strongholds. They probably didn't want see Cardella actually in government, but quite a few would have liked a weak Rettig win to set her up for primary vulnerability.

It's not a done deal; the special election returns showed a huuuge urban vs. rural gap, at least on county issues. (Those percentages roughly corresponded to the split on the 2008 conservation bond, and that didn't seem to ripple into Obama, Harkin, or Loebsack's numbers.)

But the dynamic has shifted from two open seats to two incumbents seeking re-nomination, either as favorites or without opposition. When you've been the nominee once, it's that much easier to get primary voters to choose you again.

This ripples through the state, and likewise the state dynamic ripples through the county.

Iowa is what I call closed primary lite: you have to be registered with a party to vote in a primary, but you can change party at the polls. But the one way in which the primary is truly closed is that you only get one party's ballot. Sometimes that means voters have to make a strategic choice. What's more important: a "tantamount to election" Democratic county race, or the white-hot Republican governor primary? The gubernatorial primary is a big draw, which disadvantages a conservaDem primary candidate who might draw "Democrat for a day" crossover votes from Republicans.

So anyone looking at the local race needs to factor that in. Let's say no one does. A Johnson County primary with no contested courthouse races lowers turnout and shifts some people into the Republican governor's race and out of the Democratic U.S. Senate race.

Terry Branstad never did well in Johnson County primaries, but it's, um, been a while. He only took 38% in his 1978 (!) lieutenant governor primary, and lost to Fred Grandy in the epic Gopher Primary of 1994. As for BVP, he was third in 2002, and his 28% was a touch below his statewide percentage.

Over on the Democratic side, Tom Fiegen represented a tiny sliver of the county for a couple years, but faced some bumps in the road back then from party activists over choice issues. Choice was an epic issue in the 1990 Democratic governor primary, but times have changed enough that anyone for whom right to life (sic) and the other cluseter of social issues are the top priority will to be over in that Republican governor primary.

The Senate primary is still taking shape, so it's hard to say who's helped or hurt by lower Democratic Johnson County turnout. Roxanne Conlin took 65% here in her three-way 1982 primary, back when the Human League ruled the planet. An exodus of conservaDems to the GOP primary may help her percentage, but reduces the overall numbers.

Anyway, as a general All Politics Is Local principle, the three contenders would be well advised to watch local races at filing time and ration the April and May campaign stops accordingly. The lack of a hot, turnout-boosting local race may mean we see less of the Senate contenders.

As for the big picture in the Senate race, Chuck Grassley looks less vulnerable than he did a few months ago, but there's still a lot of time for the national climate to turn around. Not to mention, 52 years of incumbency is a lot of baggage to carry this particular year. What did Greg Ganske ever do with that `58 Studebaker?

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