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Erin Murphy

Iowa Democrats say one of the top keys to being successful in the 2018 elections --- after consecutive setbacks in the previous two --- is a message focused on jobs and the economy.

Yet one of the first issues seized by Democratic candidates for Iowa governor has been the state’s tax incentive programs, which are designed to entice companies to come to or expand in Iowa, thus creating jobs.

Are those messages at odds?

Some Iowa Democrats don't think so, but at least one Democratic state lawmakers does.

The 2016 election was especially jarring for Democrats in a state that twice voted for Barack Obama but went by almost 10 percentage points to Donald Trump.

One of the best ways to recoup those voters is to focus on an economic message, Democrats say.

“I think the top three issues are jobs, jobs, jobs. And then jobs after that,” Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats, said at the group’s Steak Fry fundraiser this past weekend.

But ever since the announcement that the state awarded $20 million in tax relief to Apple for a data center it plans to build in suburban Des Moines, multiple Democratic candidates for governor have railed against the state’s tax incentive program.

Fred Hubbell, a Des Moines business running for the Democratic nomination, has handed out apples at campaign events to highlight his opposition to the incentives awarded for the data center project.

Is such opposition counter-productive to Democrats’ pledge to campaign on an economic platform?

Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, doesn't see it that way.

“Democrats are always excited when companies come to Iowa, but the problem is, (Republican Gov.) Kim Reynolds and the GOP are giving away piles of money to out-of-state corporations to create a handful of jobs,” Price said in an emailed statement to the bureau. “They’re doing this despite the fact that companies like Microsoft say they didn’t choose Iowa because of the incentives.”

Price said Democrats will make the argument they want the tax dollars of “hard-working Iowans” to go toward “better schools, affordable health care and good paying jobs.”

Sue Dvorsky, a former state party chairwoman, said Democrats can highlight the large dollar amounts that the state is yielding relative to the number of jobs created. The Apple project is expected to produce only 50 permanent jobs.

But Chaz Allen is not as sure the message is a winning one for Democrats.

Allen is a Democratic state senator from Newton, where also served as mayor, which only recently has begun to recover from the 2006 closure of a Maytag plant there. Allen also serves as one of two state legislators --- non-voting members --- on the state economic development board.

Asked if an anti-tax breaks message will be a winner for Democrats in 2018, Allen replied, “I don’t think so.”

“Jobs have to come first. People have to have a reason to live here, and that’s usually a job,” Allen said. “Jobs is what we’ve got to be working toward.”

John Stineman, a Republican political consultant who worked on Steve Forbes’ 2000 presidential campaign, said Democrats attack the incentives program at their own peril. He noted Democrats have been highly critical of the more than $100 million in state tax relief awarded to a $3 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County, in southeast Iowa, and yet former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2014 won that county for the first time in six gubernatorial election victories.

“That’s directly related to economic development and the jobs that were created,” Stineman said. “It was the Iowa Fertilizer Plant and the hundreds and thousands of construction jobs and the money that was spent in those communities.”

Reynolds’ campaign, naturally, defended the administration’s use of state tax incentives, pointing to the state’s low unemployment rate.

“The Apple economic development Project will employ hundreds of Iowans (when including temporary jobs like construction) and build on the continued growth of the ‘Silicon Prairie,’” Reynolds campaign spokesman Pat Garrett said in an email to the bureau. “The project is a home run. We will continue to focus on building a better Iowa, which means improvements and reforms for better jobs, a 21st century education, and a well-trained workforce.”

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