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Battleground: The future of gay rights in Iowa


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As the scattered 2011 fall elections draw closer, there isn’t alot on people’s radar.  The Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky governor elections are not competitive (with Louisiana and Kentucky being blowouts).  Perhaps the most widely followed election in the ballot measure in Ohio, which aims to veto the anti-union legislation passed by the Ohio Republican legislature and signed by Governor John Kasich.  However, among the many down ballot and obscure races taking place in November, the most important is one taking place in Iowa’s 18th Senate district.

A turncoat Democrat

The district is being vacated by a so-called Democrat, State Senator Swati Dandekar, who vacated her seat to take a position working for the newly-elected Republican Governor, Terry Branstad,  on the Iowa Utilites Board.   This forces Democrats to defend a seat in the middle of the session, which is the goal of Branstad, who is eager to to get one more Republican into the Iowa Senate to help push through his party’s agenda.  The fact that Dandekar would take this position, knowing full well its done so Republicans can try and win her seat, makes her career in Democratic politics OVER!

A real Democrat

The district will hold its election on November 8th.  Democrats have nominated former aanchorwoman Liz Mathis (her photo is to the right), and Republicans nominated businesswoman Cindy Golding.   With Mathis’ career as a TV anchor, there is the hope among Democrats that she will be able to bring name recognition to the race, and hold the seat for the party.  Democrats are taking the race very seriously, because they understand that alot rides on winning this one race.

Currently, the Iowa Senate stands at a 25-24 Democratic majority (was 26-24 before the Democrat resigned).  If Republicans win the seat, the result will be a 25-25 tie, allowing the Republican Lt. Governor to cast the tie-breaking votes to give control of the chamber to the GOP.  With republicans controlling the state house and governor’s mansion already, this would give the GOP full control of the state.  Make no mistake, THAT is why Governor Branstad picked Dandekar for a position in his administration.  A vacancy followed by win for the GOP gives his party control of the state senate.  Let us all join in loathing former Senator Dandekar .


The Iowa Senate and Gay Rights

So why does it matter to gay rights who controls the Iowa Senate?   Because, ever since 2009, when the Iowa Supreme Court voted 9-0 to allow gay marriage in the state, conservatives have been clamoring to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the courts decision (similar to California’s Prop 8).  However, because Iowa doesn’t allow petition gathering to get something on the ballot, any action must go through the legislature.  In order for a constitutional amendment to be put to a vote, both chambers must pass the measure two sessions in a row.  This puts a long timeline on getting any measure on the ballot.  If the Iowa legislature had passed such an amendment in 2009 or 2010, they would have had to pass it again following the midterm elections (at which point the composition of the legislature is likely to have changed somewhat).   Since Democrats controlled both the Iowa House and Senate during the 2009/2010 session, no vote was ever held.

Gay Rights Protector

After Republicans took control of the Iowa House and reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate to 2 votes, there was hope among conservatives that this could lead to the first set of votes on the constitutional amendment.  Even though the Senate was controlled by Democrats, who resisted such votes, there is the belief that there are enough conservative and rural Democrats that would side with Republicans on such a vote.  However, Democratic State Senate majority leader Michael Gronstal (picture to right)  has made it very clear he will not allow any such vote under his leadership.  Thus, as long as Democrats control the state senate, no vote will be taken.  However, if the 25-25 split happens, Gronstal will not have the power to stop such a vote.  Passage of the measure in the 2011/2012 session would allow for it to be brought up again in 2013/2014, and if Republicans still control the legislature in that session, the second passage allows the amendment to go for a vote in 2014.

This means the result of the election for Senate District 18 are crucial to the future of gay marriage in the state.  Since gay rights continuing to have a steady and strong upswing in support as each year goes along (look to my last post to read more on the subject), the longer it takes the measure to get put to a vote, the harder it will be for the measure to pass.


18th Senate District Basics

The 18th Senate district is one of three district to cover Linn County Iowa.  Iowa has pattern of working to ensure district are compact and within county boundaries and much as possible, so the 18th only resides within the county.  Map below

Linn county is a perfect square and the district encompasses about half of the county’s total mass, covering the entire western and northern rural outskirt areas and moving inward to the cities of Ceder Rapids and Marion.  The pink precincts are the outer boundaries of Ceder Rapids, while the purple chunk is the entire city of Marion.    Most of the population is focused within those city areas.  The dot proportion map below shows larger dots representing larger population zones.


The population clusters are focused in the small precincts of the two major cities, while the larger precincts in the rural areas have lower voter populations.


Politics of the 18th Senate District

The 18th district is a true wing seat, with a large swath of independent voters that could swing either way in a given election.  While Lynn County overall is more lean/likely Democratic, since the 18th doesn’t have all of democratic Ceder Rapids, it does not enjoy the same blue lean.  The 18th tends to vote a few percentage points more conservative than the county at large, which can make the difference in several races.  For example, while Lynn county was one of just several to vote for Democrat Chet Culver over Republican Terry Branstad in the 2010 governor’s race, the 18th narrowly voted for the GOP.  While Lynn county voted in favor of retaining the three Iowa supreme court judges who sided with gay marriage, the results where close, and when you look at just the 18th district, it voted against retention.  This pattern of the 18th being a few points more conservative than the county as a whole hold up in most election cases.


When we look at the district when it comes to registration, a plurarilty of the districts residents actually qualify as independents.   The map below shows the strength of independents in the area.


Republicans have a small registration advantage (a few hundred voters), but with such a large swath of independents, that advantage means little.  Democrats have the plurality in some of the ceder rapids precincts, while Republicans have some rural areas, and especially the area outside of Marion, but independents dominate in parts of Ceder Rapids, Marion, and the northern rural areas.

18th District in Past Elections

There are several elections over the past three years that offer a window into how the 18th district has performed politically.  If we look at the district during the 2008 Presidential Election, Obama won the district by a comfortable margin.

Obama made strong strides in rural districts and the cities.  His performance reached the 60s and 70s in the small precincts of Marion and Ceder Rapids.

Then, if we look at the 2010 Governor’s race, where the district narrowly voted for Republican Terry Branstad.

Here we only see the precincts of Marion and Ceder Rapids  go above 55% for the Democrat, while a few other precincts went for Cutler by a plurality.  Overall though, several Marion and rural precincts made decided shifts over to the GOP that voted Democratic two years ago.  Thus showing the district has no trouble switching allegiances.

In that same year, there was a competitive congressional election for the 2nd congressional district, where Democrat Steve Loebsack was able to barely win re-election with 5% of the vote.  He won by a few points in Linn County, but his margin in the 18th was even closer.

Loebsack was able to hold on in the 18th district by a little over 1 point, winning a few rural precincts as well as taking some key areas in Marion and Ceder Rapids.  It was a win, but a very close win.  The same area on that same day gave their vote to the GOP for Governor, so the district shows its willing to split the ticket on different races.

One common tactic in any campaign is also to look at the high and low points for any party and see which area’s remain faithful to the party even in blow out elections.  Therefore, I wanted to see what precincts would remain loyal to a key party no matter how much of a landslide the race was.  Too see which area’s still voted Republican in a landslide for Democrats, I looked to the 2008 Iowa election for US Senate; where Democrat Tom Harkin crushed his opponent by over 30 points, winning every county in the state.  The results in the 18th are as follows.

Only two precincts voted for the Republican, and Harkin even won precincts that almost always vote Republican.

Then, for checking Democratic loyal precincts in GOP landslides, I looked to the 2010 election for US Senate, where Republican Chuck Grassley won by a similar 31 point margin statewide.

In this case, every precinct voted for the GOP, even those of Ceder Rapids and Marion.   This map shows that in GOP blowouts, no precincts will be safe for the Democrats.  On the opposite side, the GOP has two safe precincts.   This continues to show the district is a true swing district and will go completely for one party in state-wide blowouts.

To look specifically at the local politics of this district, we can look to the 2008 State Senate election, where now-former State Senator Dandekar won her seat (thanks again for BAILING ON US!!!).  She won with 54% of the vote, no doubt with the help of the party she is ABANDONING!!  The results below.

Dandekar did very well in several of the Republican-leaning rural precincts, no doubt helped by Obama’s strong win in Iowa.   Her 10 point victory has an open seat gives hope to Democrats next month, but I doubt a Dem win will be this good.

If we look further into local politics, there district is divided into two separate state house districts that are completely contained within the larger state senate seat.

First, we see the 35 district, which includes the parts of Ceder Rapids and the upper northern rural areas.

Next we see House district 36, which includes the city of Marion.

Both districts are represented by Republicans, who had challengers in 2008, the same time the Democrat won the state senate seat.  The results are below.

Both Republicans won their re-elections, with the race being closer in the 36th.  While every race has its local issues and a focus on specific candidates, what we see here is that the 18th district voted for a democrat for state senate, but the same voters voted for the GOP for the two respective state house seats.  Again, this highlights the swing nature of the district… it is beholden to neither party.

There is one last election to look at when it comes to this seat, and that’s the issue of the court retention elections of 2010.  After the Iowa supreme court legalized gay marriage, conservative groups launched a successful effort to get voters to reject the retention (which allows judges to stay on the bench) of the three judges of the 9 that where up that year.  The conservative groups won, and the retention failed for all three by a  47-53 margin (aka, the judges where not retained, and thus removed from the bench).   Linn County actually voted for retention with around 52 to 53% (depending on which of the three judges it was).  Overall the differences in the judges was small, less than one percent.  While it can’t be clear that the failed retention happened because of their gay marriage votes (or simply the anti-government mood of 2010), the votes against retention give a possible indicator to the voters stance on full gay marriage.  While legal recognition for gay rights in Iowa is above 60% (this includes civil unions), the marriage issue is still in the mid 40s and slowly gaining more support.

When I look at how the 18th district voted, i looked to one of the races, for the judge that performed the worst in retention, Marsha Ternus,  who performed about half a point worse than her colleagues at 52.88% (compared to the others at just above 53%).  However, in the 18th, her retention was below 50%.

The 18th rejected her retention, and likely that of the other two judges as well.  While retention was supported in ceder rapids, most of marion, and other parts of the smaller cities, the rural area’s where heavily against it.  This likely is how a vote on gay marriage itself would break down, with a narrow opposition to the idea.   I use this election to highlight my concern about the race for the 18th becoming about gay rights, because that is unlikely to play well in the district at this time.  The best stategy for Democrats is to make the race about local and economic issues.  Making the issue about gay marriage will likely cause all those rural precincts to vote overwhelmingly against the Democrat.

Clearly Democrats think this already, which is why in the race, the Democratic nominee is not commenting on the gay marriage issue, but instead focusing on economic issues.


Already, the National Organization for Marriage has released a mailer that it will likely send to the rural residents of the district, highlighting that a vote for the Republican is a vote for banning gay marriage (mailer is below).  Whether this strategy works, we will only have to wait and see.

Leave it to the National Organization for Marriage to be total and complete bigoted dicks.


The 18th Senate District has proven itself to be a true swing district in every sense of the word.  Many of its elections are close, and it definitely to ticket split and switch allegiances between parties.  This is no doubt due to the general swing-state nature of Iowa, and the large plurality of independents within the district.  This race is going to be one of the most expensive state legislative seats in history because so much rides on its results.  I don’t know who will win, as the results of past elections showed the district prefers neither party.  With Democrats and Republicans unpopular, how this district votes would go either way.  One thing is sure, the future of gay marriage in Iowa could ride on this one small state senate district.




1 Comment

  1. Alibguy says:

    Wow, this blog is quite great! I really enjoyed reading this post and your post about the Washington Gay marriage initiative. Washington State has an interesting mix of extremely liberal Democrats who live Seattle and its close in suburbs and more economically liberal Democrats in the Tacoma and Pacific Coast areas. The latter Democrats may be more open to voting against the right of gays to marry. Some suburban moderate Republicans in Dave Reichert’s district and around Everett could vote for gay marriage though too. The swing vote though will be the Democrats on the Pacific Coast and in Tacoma.

    Still, Washington State is like New Jersey (until 2009) where the conservatives think they have the candidate to win but the Democrats in the end win Washington. Hopefully that plays out for the gay marriage initiative. Also, Obama turnout in 2012 should bring out the liberal Seattle voters.

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