IOWA CITY – Complacency by Democrats and conditions ripe for an upset helped Republicans end a 55-year losing streak in Johnson County Tuesday, political insiders said.
But that doesn’t mean Democratic dominance will cease any time soon in what is sometimes referred to as the People’s Republic of Johnson County, some of them added.
Republican John Etheredge’s victory over Democrat Terry Dahms in Tuesday’s special election for Johnson County Board of Supervisors marks the first time since 1958 the GOP won a supervisors election here. A Republican has not served on the board since 1962.
“I don’t know what state I’m in,” Dahms said Wednesday. “I’m still confused. I’m disappointed. And I really don’t have any bottom-line explanation.”
Dahms, and others, said Tuesday’s snowstorm may have kept turnout low, with less than 7 percent of registered voters casting ballots. That was not the case in Linn County, though, where the turnout rate was 39 percent. That was for a high-profile casino vote, however, whereas the Johnson County race flew mostly under the radar.
Dahms said Democrats may have been used to 50 years of dominance and just assumed he’d win and not enough of them voted. Dahms is wrapping up a term as chairman of the Johnson County Democrats.
Liberal blogger John Deeth wrote that county Democrats were “asleep at the switch.”
Mike Carberry, first vice chairman of the county Democrats, made a similar argument and pointed to the two-to-one voter registration advantage Democrats have over Republicans in Johnson County.
“I think the Republicans outworked us,” said Carberry, who sought the nomination that went to Dahms. “We took it for granted. We got embarrassed.”
That first point is what is what Johnson County Republicans Chairwoman Deborah Thornton stressed. She said Etheredge and his supporters made a lot of phone calls, knocked on doors and encouraged people to vote.
“It was just hard work ground game, reaching out to every voter we could personally,” she said.
The effort included recorded telephone calls to potential voters from Gov. Terry Branstad and Barbara Grassley, wife of Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Republican Party of Iowa staff helped with the campaign and coordinated phone and mailing lists. Party Chairman A.J. Spiker said the next campaign disclosure report filed with the state will show some in-kind contributions to Etheredge from the state party, although he declined to provide specifics Wednesday.
The Iowa Democratic Party put staff resources toward the race but no money or in-kind donations, said Executive Director Troy Price. He also said that while the result was a reminder the party cannot take elections for granted, it also "was just a once-in-a-50-year-thing that happened."
Spiker said Etheredge’s victory shows Republicans can win anywhere in Iowa.
“When you get out there and you work hard and you turn out your voters, you win,” he said.
Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor, said Etheredge also benefited from the right circumstances. Namely, low voter turnout that allowed a candidate with a motivated electorate to take advantage.
Both Etheredge and Dahms live in the unincorporated area, but Etheredge cast himself as the more rural of the two. Etheredge also spoke against a housing development proposal that is opposed by many rural residents, while Dahms is for it.
That project would be in Newport Township, near Dahms’ home, but 70 percent of voters in the Newport precinct backed Etheredge. More people voted in Newport than in all of North Liberty despite the township have 8,440 fewer registered voters.
Hagle said it would be hard for Etheredge or another Republican to repeat Tuesday’s result in 2014, the next scheduled supervisors election. But if Etheredge catches a year like 2010, when Republicans swept to victories nationwide, or if he can use his incumbent status and make a name for himself on non-partisan issues, he might have a chance, Hagle said.
Thornton, of the county Republicans, said Tuesday’s outcome was a reason for optimism in future elections.
But Carberry, of the county Democrats, said his party will be motivated in 2014, when the partial term Etheredge is filling will be up for election along with the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin.
Etheredge “is going to be a half-term board of supervisor,” Carberry said. “Let’s call this a wake-up call for the Johnson County Democrats and the state Democrats.”