Swing-state Iowa pivots to the right with GOP now in control

Swing-state Iowa pivots to the right with GOP now in control
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Iowa has been a swing state for decades. But this legislative session, the state swung decidedly to the right.

Republicans in Iowa asserted a broad mandate after winning complete control of the state’s government in November, enacting a sweeping conservative agenda unlike anything seen in the state.

Among the measures passed this year: new limits on abortion rights, a package of election reforms that includes a requirement that voters show identification at the polls, a broad expansion of gun rights, reforms to collective bargaining laws for state workers, limits on worker compensation claims, and a measure pre-empting Iowa cities and counties from setting their own minimum wages higher than the state rate.

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“Voters wanted government to get work done and to work on their behalf,” House Speaker Linda Upmeyer (R) said in a floor speech Saturday as the legislature came to a close. “We took that to heart, and while Congress still looks like a pickup truck stuck in the mud, we rolled our sleeves up.”

Iowa was one of four states — along with Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire — where Republicans captured total control of state government in November’s elections. 

That outcome was emblematic of the sweeping gains Republicans have made at the state level, especially during the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, when the GOP captured more than 1,000 state legislative seats across the country. Newly elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has said winning back those seats is one of the party’s top priorities.

Perhaps no state experienced a political jolt like Iowa. Until this year, Democrats had controlled the Iowa state Senate, where many of the most controversial measures passed by the state House landed in a filing cabinet that came to be known as Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal’s “kill box.”

In November, Gronstal lost his seat, and Democrats lost their majority. And while the other three states advanced many Republican-backed bills, none went as far as Iowa.

Iowa political analysts said the total Republican control of government, for the first time in decades, gave the GOP the platform it needed to advance the aggressive agenda.

“Republicans knew when they won the trifecta that it wasn’t the sort of thing that lasts forever in Iowa, so they buckled down and got to work,” said David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political columnist who now hosts the public affairs program Iowa Press. “By Iowa standards, this session was historic. Whether it was good history depends on your point of view.”

Conservatives hailed the agenda as making good on the party’s campaign promises.

“There’s a lot to celebrate on a lot of fronts, whether it was economic policy or Second Amendment policy or pro-life policy,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the conservative activist who runs the Family Leader group. “People are sick and tired of politics as usual. They’re sick and tired of politicians doing one thing but when they get to office doing something completely different.”

Democrats and civil rights groups say the agenda, which was advanced on party-line votes, could haunt Republicans in future elections.

“Instead of working with us, Republicans chose to pursue a divisive, partisan agenda that Iowans expect to see in Washington, D.C., but not here in our state capitol,” state House Minority Leader Mark Smith (D) said. 

Many of the most controversial bills passed this year were more comprehensive than the headlines they generated. A measure banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy also requires women to wait three days before receiving the procedure. A measure requiring voters to show identification at the polls also cuts the number of early-voting days ahead of an election. And a measure expanding gun rights also broadened a so-called stand your ground provision, which allows someone who feels threatened to use deadly force for protection.

“This was a very challenging legislative session. There were a lot of bills that attacked key civil liberties,” said Veronica Fowler, communications director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. She specifically cited the abortion ban and the voter identification bill, which died when Democrats held the state Senate.

“That is something we’ve been fighting tooth and nail, and to see that progress was really disheartening.”

The Republican legislature isn’t finished yet. Several observers said the legislature is expected to work on a tax reform package over the summer. A so-called religious freedom bill, which would protect business owners who object to same-sex marriage from litigation, is likely to be a top priority of conservatives next year.

And anti-abortion rights groups say they hope to take a step beyond the 20-week abortion ban in Iowa, one that would eventually lead to a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We’d like to see a life at conception bill, a heartbeat bill, something to challenge Roe v. Wade,” Vander Plaats said. “We didn’t get all we wanted, but it’s year one of a two-year session.”

Democrats are struggling to return to power in Iowa, as the state is increasingly trending toward Republicans. Gov. Terry Branstad (R), President Trump’s nominee for ambassador to China, will hand the governor’s mansion to his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds (R), and several top-tier Democrats have already said they will not run against Reynolds next year.

The party would need to reclaim four of the 10 Republican-held seats up for reelection in 2018 to win back the state Senate. They would need to win back 10 of the 100 state House seats up next year to reclaim the lower chamber. Until they do, the party seems lost in a very red sea.

“Democrats were really stunned by the election results and just didn’t have the numbers to make much of an impact on big issues. They really are at a loss for ways to stop things they don’t like,” Yepsen said. “Grim time for the Ds.”