Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Story of 2014

I'm not ready for numbers yet. Instead I'm going to tell a story. The story of how Election Cycle 2014 led us to where we are tonight, with the improbable Dave Loebsack and the unstoppable Mike Gronstal as the ranking leaders of Iowa Democrats.

Tom Harkin Retires. Of course that was the biggest event of the cycle. The troops were beginning to gear up for one last Harkin campaign when he shocked even his closest supporters with his January 2013 retirement. The ripple effect of office shuffling ran all the way down to new state representatives Abby Finkenauer and Timi Brown-Powers,

But more importantly, it gave Iowa its first real taste of the all out war of a modern, swing state, open seat Senate race.

Bruce Braley clears the Democratic field. In retrospect, even a token primary like Roxanne Conlin saw in 2010 would have forced Braley to take to the stump earlier and get the biography ads out sooner.

Bruce Braley clears the Republican field. Since he appeared on paper to be such a strong candidate, the top tier Republicans took a pass on the race, creating an opportunity for a fresh face.

Pat Murphy doesn't clear the field. The former House speaker with a quarter century of IOUs to call in announces very very early for Braley's seat, to a collective meh from the district. Activists start looking for an Anyone But Pat.

Swati Dandekar Splits Linn County. The former Linn County legislator, who risked Democratic Senate control to take a high paying job from Terry Branstad, had alienated most Democratic activists, but retained enough residual support in Linn County and enough out of state fundraising names to split the Linn County vote with Monica Vernon. With Anesa Kajtazovic strong in her Waterloo base, the Vernon-Dandekar split helped Murphy win the primary with just over the 35% convention threshold.

Tyler Olson's marriage crumbles. Olson had a huge lead in lining up the activists and legislators, and in the one poll for the primary that never was, led Jack Hatch 2 to 1. But then in November, the shock announcement that he and his wife were separating cut the legs out from under his Young Family Guy image. Democrats quickly lined up behind - or, more accurately, settled for - Hatch, but the enthusiasm never recovered, and cast a malaise over the whole top of the ballot.

Tom Latham plays his retirement like a Stradivarius. He lets Democrats line up behind a reluctant, second tier Staci Appel. Then once the activists and unions are locked in, he drops a late retirement bombshell.

David Young Drops Down. The most improbable win of the night. Getting absolutely no traction in the Senate race, Young switches to the now-open 3rd CD race, and finishes dead last in the primary (not counting the crazy Some Dude). But by making himself everyone's  second or third choice, he wins a convention and goes to Congress.

Walt Rogers Drops Out. Rogers was looking like the GOP frontrunner in the 1st District, but decided he didn't want to spend the whole legislative session fundraising. So he dropped back down to run for re-election to his Cedar Falls seat, and now can only wonder what might have been had he faced off with Rod Blum in a primary.

Democrats Recruit Kevin Kinney. When Republican Sandy Greiner retired, it opened up swingy Senate 39 and created a must win race. But Democrats found a perfect candidate in Kevin Kinney: deputy sheriff, school board member, farmer, with a folksy personal style that played well and won over lots of Republicans. Republican Mike Moore was a strong candidate too, but Kinney held him off by 11 points.

This Democratic gain balanced Daryl Beall's loss and kept the Senate at 26-24 Democratic. That's right: Kevin Kinney saved the Iowa Senate.

March 25, 2014. The day the whole election turned. Two pieces of video came out in a suspiciously simultaneous way, almost as if the release of the months-old video of Bruce Braley at a closed-door fundraiser...

...was timed to coincide with this ad that will live on in political communication classes forever.

The day the two clips came out, I muttered under my breath without writing it: "Senator. Ernst."

Both went viral, or as viral as any Iowa political video that isn't Zach Wahls can go. The Ernst ad blew up immediately. Late night comedians laughed, and her schtick didn't play here in the People's Republic.

But it played in about 90 counties. Iowa Republican primary voters ate it up like a giant tenderloin, and it broke Ernst out of the crowded pack. (Remember when we were all talking about a convention for that nomination?)

The Braley clip simmered, but we all knew that it would be the centerpiece of countless ads.

Big Liberty Is Overthrown. Terry Branstad geared up the campaign machinery early and the regulars re-captured control of the Republican Party structure from the Ron Paul supporters who took over in 2012. Chair AJ Spiker left for a Rand Paul gig weeks before his term ended, and caretaker chair Danny Carroll was ousted by former legislator Jeff Kaufmann. With the grownups back in charge, the Iowa Republicans ran a solid and competent operation.

Dennis Boedeker fails to campaign. A local one here.  Faced with the prospect of a fourth campaign by the unelectable David Johnson in House 73, legislative leaders recruited Boedeker. He looked solid on paper, a three term Cedar County supervisor. But after filing, he did almost nothing, and Johnson squeaked through to a two dozen vote primary win. So a potential battleground seat was off the table, and Johnson went on to lose to Republican Bobby Kaufmann by a humiliating 68-32 margin. Shit, even I got 38% when I ran.

The sheer chutzpah of the Ernst campaign. Team Ernst pulled a classic jujitsu move. Vulnerable on attendance because she missed about half the session (a little was Guard duty but most was campaigning), her campaign attacks Braley for missing low-profile, sparsely attended, schedule overlapping committee meetings.

Mark Chelgren saves his mail. The Ottumwa Republican was a fluke 10 vote winner in 2010. Everyone thought he was a goner, especially when Democrats nominated popular county supervisor Steve Siegel.

But Siegel let his personality get the best of him. He responded to a Chelgren survey card with smart-ass answers, most notably on abortion. Chelgren bided his time, then revealed the responses a couple weeks before the election. It may not be the only factor, but it helped fumble what was considered a sure Democratic state senate gain.

Branstad decides to run up the score. Not content with the Guinness Book Of World Records governor tenure title, he wanted to bring as much of the ticket in with him. He wanted to win Lee County, one of two he'd never carried. He succeeded, leaving Johnson County as the only one of 99 he's never won.

The courthouse and sales tax fail to campaign. Another local one. Both ballot measures saw virtually no campaign. Both fell just short.

Bruce Braley gets every bad break in the book. No national politician seemed able to say his name right, and his final rallies were marred by Tom Harkin making a tone-deaf remark about Ernst's appearance. Yes, she's going to vote like Michelle Bachmann, but leave it at that. Not helping: the day after, Taylor Swift announced a Des Moines concert date.

I don't have a conclusion yet. Just check back for some numbers tomorrow.

No comments: