Democrats keep Iowa Senate, professors explain key lessons
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The victory of Democrat Liz Mathis in an Iowa Senate District 18 special election revealed a number of things in advance of the 2012 general election, political experts say: Democrats can win tight elections, political organizations are willing to spend heavily on legislative seats and name recognition is crucial in short races.
Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/liz_mathis_125.jpgLiz Mathis
Mathis defeated Republican Cindy Golding on Tuesday, meaning Democrats will retain a 26-24 advantage in the Iowa Senate and be able to turn back controversial legislation from the Republican-dominated Iowa House.
Timothy Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, agreed Mathis’s background as a TV news anchor in the area was a key factor in her victory. Because of that, he doesn’t think the race says a lot about which way the political winds are blowing in the state.
“One of the reasons this race doesn’t have great significance is given the very, very short time frame,” Hagle said. “When the Democrats picked Liz Mathis it was going to be a very hard sell for the Republicans given she had such great name recognition and there was such an imbalance in terms of what was raised.”
Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University, agreed Mathis’s prominence in the community played an important role in the race. But he said Mathis’s victory also shows Democrats can win tight elections in the state.
“Initially my gut sense was it’s a seat that was likely to go Republican, so I was a little surprised that it went to the Democrats,” Goldford said. “I think that shows the advantage of name recognition, number one. But number two it showed that if Democrats will organize and do the hard legwork necessary to turn out a vote they can win an election.”
Final numbers aren’t out yet, but reports from October and November show Democrats not only organized well but funneled a lot of money into the race. Mathis raised $128,452 and took in-kind contributions worth $690,776, mostly from the Iowa Democratic Party. Golding raised $86,846 and took in-kind contributions worth $250,325. And the National Organization for Marriage made independent expenditures on behalf of Golding worth $40,133.
“The most significant thing about it was these elections have become so important that I think we crossed the $1 million mark on that election,” said Iowa State University politics professor Steffen Schmidt. “That’s a lot of money for a state Senate seat.”
But Democrats’ victory in the special election could help the GOP down the line, Hagle said. Mathis’s victory could mean a bigger push by Republicans to unseat Senate Democrats in 2012, he said, and could lead to some Democrats feeling pressured to vote with Republicans on certain issues.
Goldford agreed, saying Republicans out-organized Democrats in 2010 and will be energized to do so again in 2012.
“Republicans desperately want to take control of the Senate,” Goldford said. “Even if they’d won this election it still would have been 25-25 and I think this will push Republicans to fight even harder to get a majority in the Senate.”
The bottom line, Schmidt said, is likely another year of deadlock in the Iowa Legislature on controversial issues like same-sex marriage and abortion that Democrats have been reluctant to vote on.
“It basically leaves the status quo, makes it hard for the Republicans in the tea party and others to push some of their conservative agenda, at least until the next election,” he said.