Tale from a Purple State

Tale From a Purple State

Watching the returns last Tuesday evening (and Wednesday) it was easy for me to be a little disappointed. Of course I think most on this site were probably disappointed as I was that Sharron Angle lost, and maybe that she lost enough that it was an early call Tuesday night. The result (still unfolding) in Alaska was and is certainly frustrating.

Watching some of the early-closing poll returns, I was encouraged as I went to vote myself around 7pm CT. Knowing Rand Paul was a winner, and Marco Rubio was a convincing winner gave me hope that it could be a big night for conservatives in my own Iowa district.


In particular, Iowa has 3 of its 5 Congressional districts represented by Democrats. Nearly all are rated “Lean D” by the Cook rating system, but no district rates more blue than D+7. I live in one of these and work in another. One district is IA-3, (D+1) where Democrat fossil Leonard Boswell defended his seat against Iowa Senator and former small businessman Brad Zaun. The cash discrepancy in this race was apparent. Even though Boswell has been in Congress since 1996, and he’s voted straight-party-Pelosi since Democrats have been in control, Zaun was immediately on defense since convincingly earning the Republican nomination in June out of a field of several strong candidates. Rather than sell what he must view as huge legislative achievements in this cycle, Boswell sought to define his opponent before Zaun could do it himself. Specifically, for months we have been subjected to TV commercials and a grocery sack full of mailers that are 98.44% personal attacks on Zaun and using snippets of his candid comments totally out of context – portraying Zaun as a heartless plebe who apparently prefers anarchy over the clear virtues of bringing home the bacon.

The AFL-CIO heartily jumped into the race to firewall Boswell with their own $ millions. On TV ads Zaun sought mostly to tie Boswell to Pelosi, but from my view was never able to convincingly sell his own ideas – and even at that the TV ads mostly came within the last 2-4 weeks of the cycle. By that time, much of the damage had been done. Further, Zaun periodically buckled and tried to moderate or soften clearly conservative positions on several points. I didn’t hear many radio ads from Zaun and only received mailers from him and the RNC-Iowa inside the last 2 weeks before the election…by that time I already had a grocery sack of mailers touting anti-Zaun smears. In a locally televised primetime debate Zaun was able to showcase a warm, personable style against a grumpy-old-man in Boswell’s chair and did at least look the part of a Congressman.

Sadly, voters rewarded Boswell’s negative style with a result that mirrors past returns in this district: 51-47. Zaun appeared to win the primary on his strength in the capital city area, but this heavily populated area still went strong to Boswell and seemed enough to carry him.

Another district of note is IA-1 (D+5), where Democrat Bruce Braley defended his seat against a young upstart Ben Lange. A 501(c)(4) group here named American Future Fund helped Mr. Lange even out some of the cash disparity, much to the dismay of local papers and even the New York Times. Although Braley hails from Waterloo, much of the roadside signage visible to my circle of driving in the area was for Lange – from my view Lange certainly had the “energy” in this district. Not particularly viewed as a competitive race at the outset, the DCCC and unions firewalled this district with scores of Lange attack ads on the TV and radio. Lange kept his radio ads personable and generally sold his ideas against his opponent well. The actual result was the closest of the 3 districts, with Lange losing by a mere 3,955 votes, or a 49.5%-47.5% margin while the other two GOP challengers lost by 5 and 4 points. This is compares well against previous Braley results of 55-43 and 65-35 in local Democrat waves of 2006 and 2008, respectively. I hope to see Mr. Lange running for office again soon.


On the plus side, statewide voters ousted three Supreme Court justices, including the Chief Justice, ostensibly after the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously overturned Iowa’s marriage law in 2009. Without digging too deep into the weeds, this was a momentous victory for conservatives. Even though the only law in the Iowa code (the part written by elected legislators) recognizes marriage between one man and one woman, the Varnum ruling somehow enacted the reverse to be true in April 2009. And while the Democrat governor originally pledged a moderate stance of supporting “traditional marriage” while he was running for office, the Executive of our state immediately threw up his hands and claimed he must do the bidding of the moonlight legislators and ordered Auditors to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. During his unsuccessful reelection campaign, Culver “explained” in a debate:

… a voter asked Culver why he didn’t stand by a promise he’d made to support a vote of the people after the law was struck down. “The Supreme Court voted 7-0 to overturn the law,” Culver said. “It’s not as easy as saying (we should) let the people vote. If that were the case, every Supreme Court decision” could be subjected to referendum.

Conservatives have since been trying to get a vote upon a Defense of Marriage Amendment but have been blockaded by the Democrat-held legislature. A group called Iowa For Freedom championed by 2010 GOP gubernatorial runner-up Bob Vander Plaats sought to bring visibility to this democratic opportunity to send a strong message. Mr. Vander Plaats and the movement at large successfully painted the retention vote as not just some social conservative plank, but a broader referendum on judicial activism. The side supporting the retention of justices had the weak argument of blasting the movement as “injecting politics into the courts” even though voters were merely using the retention system as it was originally designed. In a televised debate, retention supporters could not explain how Justices could both be above the Constitution and interpreting its meaning for “these people” and under the Constitution at the same time. The best quote of election night was from Bob Vander Plaats

The people of Iowa stood up in record numbers and sent a message … that it is ‘We the people,’ not ‘We the courts.’

h/t Des Moines Register

Vote Percentage map by county

Further, the Governor’s mansion will now hold a (moderate) Republican (former 4-term Governor Branstad), the Iowa House flipped from 56-44 Democrat to convincingly Republican 60-40, and the Iowa Senate went from 32-18 blue to at worst a 2-seat Republican minority, up to possibly tied 25-25 depending upon outstanding recounts in districts with razor-thin vote margins. This is all after having suffered convincing Democrat victories in every cycle since outgoing Governor Chet Culver first took office in 2006.


So in what was surely a Republican tsunami night nationwide, the results from my state were disappointingly mixed. I knew the state wouldn’t go all red in the CD’s, but I didn’t think we would get locked out. My negative feelings are tempered by the other successes, state and national; hearing one local radio host mention that more Republicans will be sitting in the U.S. legislature in 2011 than at any time since 1948 helps me regain perspective. We didn’t even have 50 states back then! Still, it makes a conservative like myself think, ‘if we can’t win Iowa’s swing districts in a climate like THIS, when can we?!’ Iowa will now be one of just three landlocked states with a Democrat majority of congressional representatives.

While the culture of Iowa is conservative by my view, old habits apparently die hard, and the hurdle of ousting incumbent congress critters is frustratingly high. I don’t believe our state shares much in political makeup with Vermont and New Mexico, but Rush Limbaugh’s oft observation of people generally living conservative but often voting moderate seems to hold too true here. In truth, Iowa has been spared much of the economic malaise that has devastated other areas, and the economy is best described as sluggish but stable. There are certainly bad examples here, yet the unemployment rate at large holds well below national average at 6.8%, tied for 8th in the U.S.

The power of the moderate is apparently strong, but I still believe that an unapologetic conservative whom is willing to “educate” the populace on the intellectual (and political) wisdom of that position has a legitimate shot at victory.

I believe people still generally respect and admire “a government that benefits America instead of being a burden to it,” as Jim DeMint expertly said. I believe people here agree that we must be good (better) stewards of the blessings we are given. Yet sadly I think that message has yet to be convincingly sold at large here as “conservative.” I think Peggy Noonan has a great point, the messenger does matter in politics. Mr. Lange did fare reasonably well, yet his lack of political experience did tend to hurt him in some cases. Fortunately, we do have several independent groups committed to that kind of “political education” operating outside any election cycles.

The heavy lifting has only begun in the land of the purple.