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For Iowans, high stakes in state Senate elections

By RYAN J. FOLEY, Associated Press | Nov 01, 2012

IOWA CITY (AP) —While the presidential race is getting the most attention in Iowa and elsewhere, a handful of state Senate races could determine whether Iowans get their most conservative state government in years and likely policy changes that will have a greater impact on their lives.

Republicans and aligned interest groups have launched an aggressive bid to wrest control of the state Senate from Democrats, who’ve led the chamber for six years. If Republicans pick up two seats and retain a majority in the state House, as expected, their party would control the full General Assembly and the governor’s office for the first time since 1998.

That development would allow the approval of a series of conservative economic and social policies that Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has blocked over the past two years with Democrats holding the Senate 26-24. Republicans would again push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a law to require voters to show identification at the polls, and cuts for state workers’ health care benefits. Controversial education reform plans would also likely be on the agenda.

Republicans are campaigning more on economic plans that they say will attract business. They’re pledging to enact a long-debated plan to cut Iowa’s commercial and industrial property tax rates, which are among the highest in the nation, and to slow the rise of residential property taxes.

“I’ve been telling people every time I get a chance: just two votes are what’s separating us from moving forward on regulatory reform, property tax reform, education reform. All of those issues have been summarily dismissed or blocked in the Senate,” said Senate Republican leader Jerry Behn, of Boone. “I’m really looking forward to winning the majority, winning the confidence of Iowans and getting to work on these policies that I genuinely believe are really going to make things go in Iowa.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said the party’s strong organization to re-elect President Barack Obama would help it retain control by turning out base voters. She said Democrats were also warning independents that Republicans would enact an extreme and divisive agenda.

“There is a very good argument to be made for regular Iowans that turning over the entire state government to this incarnation of the Republican Party is not a good idea,” she said. “Voters sure as heck don’t want the 2012 Iowa Republican Party in charge of everything that has to do with schools, clean air, clean water and collective bargaining rights for public employees.”

The outcome will be determined by who wins a series of local races such as those between Republican Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck and Democratic challenger Chris Brase in the Muscatine area, and Democratic Sen. Jeff Danielson and Republican Matt Reisetter in the Waterloo area. Two incumbents, Republican Sen. Merlin Bartz and Democratic Sen. Mary Jo Wilhelm, are facing off in another high-profile contest after redistricting put them in the same northern Iowa district.

The Republicans’ biggest prize would be not only to win a majority but to end the 30-year career of Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat running hard for re-election against conservative upstart Al Ringgenberg.

Both sides say winning the tight presidential race would help their candidates down the ballot. But they also say individual attributes of candidates — such as how established they are in a district and how hard they work — could be decisive.

Gov. Terry Branstad will attend three rallies with GOP senate candidates Saturday, said spokesman Tim Albrecht, who expressed confidence in a Republican takeover. He said the party’s candidates have taken the unprecedented step of running on the same campaign platform, called Iowa Strong, which has helped them get out their message.

“We believe we have the momentum on our side,” he said.

Outside groups are getting involved in campaigns more so than past Senate elections. Students First, which promotes education reforms such as making it easier to fire ineffective teachers and expand charter schools, has run ads supporting Republicans. The Iowa State Education Association, a union representing 34,000 school employees, is spending to help Democratic candidates, saying they fought to increase classroom spending that Republicans blocked.

Social conservative groups, including the Family Leader, have mailed thousands of fliers for Republicans who they hope will pass a constitutional amendment undoing Iowa’s status as one of six states that allow gay marriage. The amendment, which Gronstal has blocked for years, requires passage in two straight legislative sessions and a statewide referendum. Gay rights activists have donated heavily to Democrats to defeat that effort.

Each senator serves a four-year term, represents about 61,000 people and earns a $25,000 salary. Typically, 25 seats are up for election every two years but this year features 26, a quirk of redistricting. And the death of Republican Sen. Pat Ward of Clive this month means a special election will be held for her seat Dec. 11 — which could be decisive if the chamber ends up closely divided Tuesday.

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