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Iowa Republicans seek to seize Senate control

Published: Monday, Aug. 11, 2014 10:50 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — Just two more seats in the state Senate could give Iowa Republicans complete legislative control for the first time in nearly 20 years, kicking off a new era for conservative policies like tax cuts or abortion restrictions.

But capturing those seats could be a challenge for the GOP in the November election, given that there are limited competitive races and Democrats have staved off similar attempts in the past. Currently Democrats hold a 26-24 majority in the Senate chamber.

Republicans have a solid majority in the state House, with 53 seats to the Democratic 47. That chamber is viewed as likely to remain in GOP hands, though Democrats are making a push to take the majority.

Senate Republican leaders said they were optimistic about their chances this fall, when half the seats in the 50-member senate are up.

“I’m encouraged by our candidates,” said Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix, of Shell Rock. “I think we have top shelf people who want good government and want to make sure we’re not spending more than we’re taking in.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, of Council Bluffs, said he expected Democrats would maintain the majority.

“Generally speaking if people found their way to the statehouse once, they can do it again,” Gronstal said.

In recent years, lawmakers have found ways to work together in Iowa, one of just three states with a politically divided legislature. During the 2013 legislative session, they found bipartisan agreement on a major tax cut, new education spending and an expansion of Medicaid.

Dealing with a divided government isn’t unusual in Iowa. The state has had one Democratic and one Republican U.S. senator for nearly 29 years and the four House seats are evenly split. The state’s redistricting process — in which a team of non-partisan analysts draw the congressional and legislative boundaries — helps ensure the districts reflect the electorate, unlike in other states where legislators can shift boundaries for partisan advantage.

“You cannot separate the Iowa form of redistricting from Iowa’s permanent status as a battleground for both legislative chambers. That’s the nature of Iowa,” said Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Of the 25 state Senate seats that are up this fall, less than 10 are viewed as competitive, making the path to a GOP majority relatively narrow. That includes several seats where the electorate is closely divided between the parties, and some that are open due to retirements. Factors like turnout and enthusiasm based on other races will likely play a role.

Years without a presidential election are typically viewed as favorable for Republicans. In 2010, Republicans won a huge majority in the Iowa House, though they didn’t take the Senate. In 2012, the control of the chambers didn’t change, but Democrats narrowed the Republican’s House majority.

Should the GOP take over the full legislature, they would push some of the more conservative policies that have failed in recent years. Dix said economic legislation would be a priority, focusing on limiting government spending. But Republicans would also likely pursue social policies, like further restrictions on abortion and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in the state.

Still, Storey noted that single party control can present different problems, because all members of a party are not necessarily in lock-step on the issues.

“You’ll find divisions between urban and rural or the governor and the legislature,” said Storey. “One party control means a whole new set of challenges.

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