Senate control the focus of 2012 legislative races in Iowa
DES MOINES — If Iowa Republicans pick up just two state Senate seats in today’s election, they would have nearly complete control of state government for the first time in nearly 16 years, giving them the ability to push ahead with an ambitious agenda of tax cuts, education changes and restrictions on gay marriage and abortion.
The risk of Democrats losing their tenuous hold on the Iowa Senate has raised the stakes of legislative races in an election year where presidential politics have largely dominated the political landscape in this battleground state.
“I’m running as hard as I’ve ever run,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat seeking his eighth term.
Democrats currently hold 26 seats in the 50-member Senate. Republicans won a 20-seat majority in the House in 2010, and most think it is unlikely Democrats can gain a majority in the 100-member chamber in this election. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad isn’t up for re-election until 2014.
GOP leaders said if they gain control of both chambers for the first time since 1997, they will pass legislation dealing with hot-button social issues, but mostly emphasize jobs and the economy.
Senate Minority Leader Jerry Behn, R-Boone, said Republicans would perceive a Senate majority as a mandate to pursue property tax changes and reduce regulations on businesses to encourage expansion. He also said GOP lawmakers would give voters a constitutional amendment that would limit state spending, reduce the number of boards and commissions by 25 percent and cut state employee pay and benefits.
Republican leaders said they’d also push ahead with changes to the public school system, including increased requirements for teachers and new student testing.
Gronstal said Democrats share the GOP’s desire to focus on job creation and improving the K-12 and community college systems, but speculated total Republican control of state government would lead to a conservative agenda “that will divide Iowans.”
One of those divisions likely will be same-sex marriage. Since the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2009 that a ban on gay marriage violated the state constitution, Republican lawmakers and Branstad repeatedly have called for referring a constitutional amendment to voters that would outlaw same-sex unions.
Gronstal has refused to allow a Senate vote on the amendment that he argues would allow discrimination to have a place in the Iowa Constitution, a move that has outraged Republicans.
Republicans also have promised to again push for an end to public funding of abortions. Such cases are rare, but state law allows Medicaid payments to be used for abortions in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity or to save the life of the mother when the woman either can’t afford to pay for the procedure or her insurance doesn’t cover it.
It’s an issue that surfaced late last session during debate on a funding bill for the Iowa Department of Human Services, when Republicans insisted on holding up the funding unless Democrats agreed to change the law. The GOP-led House passed a bill, but Gronstal blocked it and the matter was dropped.
Though Republicans made great gains in 2010, it’s unclear whether that trend will continue, as the presidential election is expected to dramatically increase turnout. Iowa has a history of splitting its vote between presidential and legislative candidates.
When Bill Clinton won Iowa in 1996, Democrats lost their state Senate majority. When George W. Bush narrowly won the state in 2004, Democrats made gains in the Senate, which ended up split 25-25.
"These are local races," Gronstal said. "In most cases it has a heck of a lot less to do with partisan labels or overall turnout."