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The Low Profile Battle for State Senate Majority

Clay Masters

  Most of the attention during this mid-term election season in Iowa has been on the races for U.S. Senate and Governor. However, further down the ballot, Iowa voters will determine who controls the Iowa Senate. Right now, Democrats hold a 26 to 24 majority. Democrats must hold all of their current seats, or pick up others to maintain control and are defending six seats in this mid-term election.

Democratic Senate majority leader Mike Gronstal said he’s cautiously optimistic and sees a handful of seats Democrats can pick up.

“We’ve recruited good candidates,” Gronstal said. “It’s the job of the leader to worry. There are lots of things I worry about. That said, I’ve been encouraged by the work our candidates are doing. I have good reason to believe we can return all our incumbents.”

One of the seats Democrats are defending is an open one long held by retiring Senator Dennis Black. The district includes Newton and Altoona. Republicans are hoping to pick up the seat that leans Democratic with Crystal Bruntz. On a recent Tuesday morning, Bruntz talks to a couple dozen activists at the Republican Party of Iowa headquarters.

“I grew up in Iowa, up by Ames,” Bruntz introduces herself to the audience much like she does while knocking doors. “I have an accounting degree from Central. Right out of college, I went to work for Maytag for about 6 years in internal audit as well as tax.”

Bruntz’s opponent is former Newton Mayor Chaz Allen.

“I need to spend most of my time telling them who I am,” Bruntz told the crowd. “My opponent… people know who he is, especially on the Jasper County side. I have a lot of work to do just so people know who I am.”

“As you move further down the ballot people are relying less and less on specific information they may have about a person or their particular policy stances,” said University of Northern Iowa Political Science Professor Chris Larimer. “They’re relying more and more on shortcuts.”

Larimer said one shortcut voter’s use is incumbency, another party affiliation. For the Democrats that 

Credit John Pemble / IPR
Gray skies over Capitol's gold dome on the opening morning of the 2014 general assembly of the Iowa Legislature.

 shortcut leads to President Obama. Larimer said that could be a disadvantage for the party this year since the president has low approval ratings in Iowa. He said Republicans want to capitalize on that.

“I’d be surprised if the Republicans don’t present a unified front because they should have a lot of things lining up for them,” Larimer said. “You have a very popular incumbent governor on the ticket as well. And it’s a midterm election, you’re going to have a voter advantage.”

A unified party is certainly the message Jeff Kaufmann pushes. He’s the Iowa Republican party chairman who started in June with a zero balance in the party’s checking account. Kaufmann said the party’s raised $400,000 since he took over. He claims 2014 will be the most active Iowa Republicans have been in a midterm election.  He said races for the state senate are grassroots politics at its best because candidates can knock every door in their districts.

“Once you move to that next level, to Congress or to the statewide officials like the Governor, you can’t do that,” Jeff Kaufmann said. “It’s a job that certainly that rises above the level of local position. Certainly the amount of dollars you’re looking at and the stakes are high, but yet you can still see your senator on a weekly basis.”

Iowa is one of just a few states in the nation that has a divided legislature, with Republicans holding the majority in the House. And Chris Larimer at UNI said with Iowa’s largest group of registered voters being no-party and figuring out what those voters are going to do is the tricky part.

“Political Science research will tell you yes, people like to say they’re no party or moderate in terms of their ideological leanings but if you push them a little bit generally they’re going to fall one way or the other," Larimer said. "And you really only have five to ten percent of the electorate that is truly independent.”

Larimer said with low profile state senate races; voters might not even take the time to fill in a bubble that far down the ballot.