DES MOINES — Al Ringgenberg often carries a copy of the Council Bluffs Nonpareil while he campaigns in Iowa’s 8th Senate District.
It’s the one that lists delinquent taxpayers in the Nonpareil’s circulation area, and it gives the retired Air Force lawyer a campaign prop as he runs for the seat held by Democrat Mike Gronstal, the powerful Senate majority leader.
“It’s 16 pages in a broadsheet, that’s a lot of names,” said Chris Dorsey, a consultant working for Ringgenberg and a handful of other candidates this election cycle.
It’s also a page right out of the playbook the Iowa GOP drew up and branded “Iowa Strong.”
Announced in a series of news conferences this summer and fall, Iowa Strong is an attempt to brand all Republicans running for legislative seats as kindred souls on the topics of economy, state budget, education reform and community. GOP candidates say some of the people delinquent on their taxes could have been helped by property tax reform.
It stands in contrast to the state Democratic Party, which has concentrated its efforts on the ground game — opening field offices, sending out absentee ballots and knocking on doors.
At stake is control of both chambers of the Legislature. Few think the Iowa House, where Republicans hold a 60-40 advantage, will flip.
But the Senate, which Democrats control 26-24, is most certainly in play. If the Republicans take it, it would be the first time since 1998 that the GOP would have control of both chambers and the executive branch.
“Unless the (Iowa Strong) campaign has received wide coverage and discussion in Republican circles, I just have not seen much general-public coverage or discussion,” said Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University. “Its statements of principles are certainly more concise and digestible than the state GOP platform, but I think the same-sex-marriage issue, in addition to an anti-Obama vote, is the main driver of the election, in that its focus is on both an anti-retention vote on (Supreme Court Justice David) Wiggins and the goal of retaking control of the state Senate.”
Decennial redistricting makes this election more volatile than most because every district lost some old territory and gained some new ground. A tight race between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket also promises to bring more voters to the polls.
Of the 26 Senate races, Gronstal vs. Ringgenberg is a key match-up, not only for the seat, but Republicans would love to knock off the Democratic majority leader.
Gov. Terry Branstad blames Gronstal for not corralling his caucus to support the governor’s tax reform proposal, and that’s why Ringgenberg uses the names of the delinquent taxpayers in his campaign stops. But Democrats say the governor’s proposal was favored by big corporations over small businesses.
Others attracting attention are Democratic Sen. Jeff Danielson and Republican Matt Reisetter in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area, Democrat Sen. Steve Sodders and Republican Jane Jech in central Iowa and the northern Iowa race that pits incumbent Sens. Merlin Bartz, a Republican, and Mary Jo Wilhelm, a Democrat, against each other.
The House side is much more convoluted because all 100 seats are up.
Craig Robinson, publisher of the online Iowa Republican news site, said he sees 23 of those in play. He also figures Democrats will grab some of the seats held by Republicans.
He predicted a 55 or 56 Republican majority in the House by the time the ballots are counted but said that’s a conservative estimate.
“I became more bullish as Romney has improved in the polls,” Robinson said. “I’m bullish on the Senate flip, too. I’d say there’s a 60 to 65 percent chance, which, in politics, that’s big.”
If voters put a Republican majority into power, several issues are automatically back on the table from social issues such as a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage to financial ones, such as how a property tax reform package should be structured and the benefits packages for state employees.
But state Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said Democrats will keep and expand their majority in the Senate and gain seats in the House. She predicted Democrats will control the House by 2014 and calls the Iowa Strong campaign “the height of ridiculousness.”
“We didn’t roll out some phony bracelets,” she said referring to the red bands Iowa Strong supporters were asked to wear. “We’re out talking to real people about the issues that matter — good schools, supporting communities. They can’t even control their own caucus.”
Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker said the GOP has the correct philosophy — as laid out in Iowa Strong — on its side and thinks most voters agree.
Christopher Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, said it’s one thing to talk about it but another thing to do it.
“Should the Republicans pull off the upset, I don’t expect a swift and contentious-free passage of a policy agenda,” Larimer said.
“There is still disagreement among Statehouse Republicans regarding the extent of property tax reform, the size of a tax rebate, and social issues will undoubtedly come up as some, including outside forces, will see this as their best opportunity to enact social reform legislation.”