Iowa Senate Race Could Reveal Political Trends Heading Into 2012 Elections
An unexpected November election for the Iowa Senate could threaten gay marriage and collective bargaining rights.
Victory was sweet for Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske, of Iowa City, when they and five other same-sex couples won a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage.
After more than 18 years and two children together, they gained the same rights as every other married couple when they legally exchanged vows later that summer. To the nation, the turn in this swing state was a sign of the gay marriage movement’s momentum.
Depending on the outcome of an unexpected election scheduled for Nov. 8, gay marriage in Iowa could be at risk.
Unions are under threat, too. Nuclear power could make a comeback. In fact, virtually every hot-button issue that was once "settled" by virtue of Iowa's split government, could be resurrected if Republicans gain a seat in the Iowa Senate.
The reason is simple math: Last session, Senate Democrats held a 26-24 majority, preventing the Republican-dominated House and Iowa's very Republican governor, Terry Branstad, from pushing through any legislation that wasn't put forward with a solid consensus.
That majority slipped to 25-24 earlier this month, when Branstad lured a Democrat to resign her Senate seat by offering a $137,000-a-year position on the Iowa Utilities Commission. If a Republican fills that Senate seat vacated by Swati Dandekar, of Marion, the Senate will have a 50-50 split.
Ties will go to the Republicans.
“We need to make sure everyone knows this is a big deal,” said Jen BarbouRoske, 41. In 2010, the gay-rights movement took a hit when Iowa voters ousted three of the state Supreme Court judges who voted to legalize gay marriage. Some saw this as a referendum on the issue, and it energized those calling for a ban.
“We actually do have to take it seriously this time," BarbouRoske said. "We have to do something. You can’t just sit and wait and see what happens.”
The district is divided fairly even politically. According to Iowa Politics, as of Sept. 1, Republicans had 15,972 registered voters compared to 15,759 for the Democrats. Independents had the most, with 19,873 voters, Iowa Politics reported, citing data from the Iowa secretary of state's office. As an incumbent, Dandekar won the 2008 election against Republican challenger Joe Childers by more than 3,000 votes, or 52 percent to 43 percent.
Outcome May Signal National Trends?
The outcome could signal the political tide heading into the 2012 presidential election, not just in Iowa but beyond.
“I think it is a test for what Republicans are able to do. Will they have the party discipline in an election like this and get their people out to claim that seat?” said Bruce Gronbeck, a long time political watcher and an emeritus communications professor at University of Iowa. “Nationally, this race will be read as a set of tea leaves for 2012.”
Democrat and Republican party officials are aggressively turning their attention to the abandoned District 18 seat, which covers rural and urban parts of Linn County.
The Democrat message is "let's not go the path of Wisconsin," connecting a Republican win to the massive protests last spring when Wisconsin scaled-back state unions' bargaining rights. Republicans are hammering Democrats for big spending and stifling business with regulation.
An Expensive Race Is Expected
The campaign is expected to be intense and expensive, albeit brief.
“It’s a swing seat, in a swing state, in a swing year,” said current Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton. “Iowa is a bellwether state. Iowa is one of a handful of states where we can truly flip the balance of power. There is national interest. There is no doubt about it. The way Iowans vote is very interesting.”
Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky added, “This is a short amount of time, and the stakes are very, very high. You don’t need to be a senior in a high school government class to know this is important.”
Deanna Howard, 31, of Marion who voted for Dandekar but said she is undecided in the current race, said the buzz about the election is just starting to pick up around town.
"I think more people are going to go to the polls to vote that wouldn’t have been voting before," Howard said. "I think people are just hoping to get someone into the seat that is as good as Swati."
A GOP Win Could Break Political Gridlock
A GOP win would break the political gridlock and open the door for new debate on gay marriage, collective bargaining, nuclear energy and state-funded preschool.
During the past session, the Democrat-led Senate thwarted several GOP-backed bills. The Iowa House passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and a bill to cut back the negotiating rights of public workers, but Senate Democrats wouldn’t put those bills on the agenda to debate. Branstad has also said he'd like Iowa voters to decide on gay marriage, which would have to be put on the ballot by the Legislature.
“There will be the opportunity for votes on issues that are important to Iowans,” McKinley said of a GOP win.
That prospect has the BarbouRoskes, even though they can't vote, calling friends and donating money to the District 18 race.
"It should never come to a popular opinion about whether Dawn and I should be married," Jen BarbouRoske said.