Erin Murphy mug

Erin Murphy

They knew the score. They knew the daunting reality, the limitations of their power.

For Iowa Democrats, the 2017 legislative session transpired precisely as they feared. Maybe even worse.

“Overall, the session has been worse than my worst nightmare,” said Rob Hogg, the Democrats’ leader in the Iowa Senate.

The all-Republican control of the Iowa Capitol, ushered in by the 2016 election, rendered Democrats completely helpless as the GOP implemented its agenda.

Republicans did not waste the opportunity. With their newfound authority, they passed sweeping measures that brought dramatic, conservative changes to Iowa laws regarding collective bargaining for public employees, gun and abortion regulations and lawsuit reform, just to name a few.

Democrats vehemently argued against each of those bills but to no avail. Elections have consequences, and Democrats didn’t have the votes.

“I expected that they would do some kind of Republican priority things. I thought some of them would be some minor, reasonable things, and they’ve rammed through hot-button issue after hot-button issue,” Hogg said. “And it’s just been a really ugly session.”

Said Mark Smith, the Democrats’ leader in the Iowa House, “I think that these have been three months that have changed Iowa, and not for the better.”

Without enough votes to stall any bills, the best Democratic legislators could do was extend the clock, drag out the debate, keep the discussion in the public eye for as long as possible.

They picked their spots and did just that many times, most notably during the collective bargaining debate. Democrats in both the House and Senate drafted dozens of amendments in an attempt to weaken the legislation, knowing full well the majority Republicans were not going to let that happen, and extend the discussion.

The marathon collective bargaining debate spanned three days; the Senate at one point literally debated through the night.

Democrats now hope that those messages — the many speeches they gave in committee hearings, on the House and Senate floors, at rallies in the Capitol rotunda and back in their districts at legislative forums — resonated with Iowa voters and that they will affect the November 2018 election and help change the Statehouse power structure to give Democrats a seat at the lawmaking table again.

Hogg is hopeful. He said he will spend the months after the legislative session traveling the state to help Democrats organize in preparation for 2018.

“I think Iowans across the state have a very high level of concern about what the new Republican majority has been doing,” Hogg said. “I think they don’t like it. I think they feel like they’ve been shut out, that they feel like nobody’s listening to them. And they’re organized and engaged at a higher level than I’ve ever seen before. There’s really a growing sense of citizenship across this state.”

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and state government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is