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Big Hopes for a Small Election

The District 18 election has seen its fair share of outside influences and large issues, but many say the key to victory is sweating the small stuff.

Nathan Aarhus said he's voting Republican in the Iowa State Senate District 18 race to restore "balance" by ending the slim Democrat majority in the upper chamber.

The one seat Senate majority has allowed Democrats to block hot-button legislation that would otherwise be brought to vote and to the desk of Republican Governor Terry Branstad.

If Republicans win the seat they evenly split the Senate, allowing them to propose controversial legislation to further regulate abortion, curtail labor rights, unfund pre-school education and undo Iowa's tolerance of same-sex marriage.

The stakes are high. Loads of outside money is flooding into the district, and the national media has pounced on the district. Many eyes are watching from around the state and nation, but from within the district, some residents and even the candidates are treating it as just another local election.

After all, Aarhus said, he'd probably vote without all the commotion.

"It doesn't seem like a major election," said Aarhus, who lives in Marion, the largest city in the district. "I don't think anyone thinks that way."

University of Iowa associate professor of political science Tim Hagle said the turnout for Nov. 8 special election might not hit the participation levels of a traditional two-year state senate race.

Still, The Iowa Democratic Party has donated $292,426.15 for the election, with The Republican Party of Iowa behind, raising $62,382, according to campaign disclosure reports. For some residents, all that money equates up to three or so mailings per day, political ads some residents say run at least once an hour, several billboards and hundreds of yard signs.

"There is only so much the outside groups can do when there is this one small election," he said. "You probably aren't going to drive turnout that much."

Despite gathering way more money than a typical state-senate election, Republican Cindy Golding and Democrat Liz Mathis, are focusing on local issues, to the point of possibly ignoring the state-wide issues that their high level of funding may be based on.

Diane Hoffmann, chair of the Linn County Democrats, said the old addage — that all politics is local — holds true even for small elections that carry big implications.

"Obviously, there are broad issues with the state and how power is going to be divided between Democrats and Republicans, but the average voter in Marion or Center Point — they are not really thinking about what is playing out in the legislature, they are thinking about their everyday problems." 

Aaron Sayler, who campaigns for Mathis, said that in his door-to-door interactions with Marion residents there is no talk of topics like same-sex marriage or labor issues.

"My sense of Marion and District 18 voters is that it really is an independent group," he said. "The kind of group that would be more likely to make decisions on affinity towards candidates and a more-nuanced view than the hot button issues."

But what all the money from the hot button issues can do is spread name recognition, which Hagle said is what really matters in the race.

It seems Mathis has the advantage, as a former Cedar Rapids news anchor. But Hagle said with Golding status as a businesswoman she stands to gain most from name recognition, which can help her win the trust of a large swath of the population that's concerned mostly with jobs and the poor economy. 

But Hagle said getting Golding's name out will be difficult, as the timing of the special election means both parties have to scramble to get their message out. Already, early show Mathis with a significant lead.

Hoffman, the Democratic chairwoman, said with all the campaign money spent on advertising, people will remember to vote.

"Sometimes that does happen where a city election comes up and people say: Oh gosh I forgot," she said. "I don't think that is happening this time."

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