DES MOINES — Despite the high-minded rhetoric of state government leaders, this session of the Iowa Legislature is shaping up to be one long campaign rally.
Given the current political climate nationally and in Iowa, Democrats see the session that opens Monday as a way of energizing and mobilizing their base ahead of the November election.
“We’re going to be very aggressive. We’re going to be very outspoken on what we think is bad policy and bad for the people of Iowa,” predicted House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown.
Majority Republicans, who are beset by low presidential approval ratings and the fact the president’s party nearly always loses seats in midterms, plan to stick to their game plan to “move Iowa forward, to grow Iowa’s economy, protect Iowa taxpayers, deliver the core services that Iowans count on, but doing it in a responsible way,” according to House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights.
In the wake of the divisive 2017 session — the first under GOP control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office in two decades — the chances seem slim for the parties to find much common ground.
This session may be more about what happened in 2017 than pursuing ambitious new policies, said Chris Larimer, who teaches political science at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.
After pushing through major parts of their agenda in 2017, Republicans will be content “simply to work around the edges,” Larimer predicted. Democrats likely will use the session to protest changes Republicans made last year to collective bargaining, workers’ compensation, family planning funding and other Democratic priorities.
Even in those areas where the parties seem to share priorities — expanding access to mental health services, for example — Larimer expects gains will be difficult if Democrats blame the problem on former Gov. Terry Branstad’s closure of two mental health institutions.
But election-year politics could work in favor of small victories on those shared priorities.
Republicans made good on several campaign promises last year, which could mean a “somewhat less active legislative session” with lawmakers this time pushing fewer measures, said Tim Hagle, who teaches political science at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.
“State legislators who aren’t in safe districts might be a bit more cautious about legislation that might appear more controversial in their districts,” he said.
If maintaining control of the Legislature and governor’s office is their priority, Republicans will walk a fine line between continuing their agenda “and not doing anything too controversial,” Larimer added.
Given the controversy Republicans created in 2017, it might be too late to prevent a “blue wave” as voters express buyers’ remorse in the 2018 election, according to Smith.
He is predicting that voters will put Democrats in control of the Iowa House, now controlled 58-41 by Republicans with one vacancy in a district with a 40-to-26 percent GOP-to-Democratic registration split.
Of course, it’s not only control of the Legislature at stake in 2018. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be seeking election to a full term, too.
Given that Iowans have been “quite favorable” to GOP gubernatorial candidates, Larimer thinks Reynolds is in a good spot for both the Republican primary and general election.
“What you may see is Gov. Reynolds pursuing a conservative agenda” that should help her fend off primary challengers Ron Corbett of Cedar Rapids and Steven Ray of Boone, “but also taking positions on a few issues that create some distance between her administration and the president’s,” Larimer said.
Although Iowa voters didn’t share the Democratic Party’s dislike for Branstad, Hagle said Reynolds needs to demonstrate her ability as a leader and not “just a fill-in for Branstad.”
In her favor, Iowa’s economy continues to grow — slowly — and unemployment is so low that employers report difficulty filling jobs. Political scientists say a good economy favors incumbents.
While Iowa hasn’t been as divided along party lines as some other places, Hagle said “the sharp uptick in bitter partisanship at the national level will likely affect us here as well.”
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, doubts that nationalizing the election will work for Democrats in Iowa.
“It’s all local,” she said. “To be clear, we’re going to hold the House.”
It’s not just Democrats that Upmeyer and other Republicans need to fear, according to Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.
“I can tell you, in my tenure in Legislature, I have never seen people as energized as I have, really since the start of last session,” said Petersen, who was elected to the Legislature in 2000. “I hear from a lot of independent and Republicans who are frustrated as well.”
Upmeyer, a lawmaker since 2003, understands “people get frustrated if they’re not on the same side as the president, but I think this is very early to predict a wave.”