DES MOINES, Iowa
After decades as the crossroads of prairie populists and checkbook conservatives, Iowa has suddenly become solidly Republican like many of its Midwestern neighbors.
It was one of four states — along with Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire — that flipped to complete GOP control in the November election, but Iowa’s rush of new legislation has been the most intense.
In an all-night session last week, Iowa lawmakers approved a bill similar to one enacted in Wisconsin six years ago that strips most public sector unions of longheld collective bargaining rights, including health insurance.
Jeff Orvis, a veteran northern Iowa high school teacher, said he sees the measure leaving permanent damage to Iowa’s century-old reputation for quality schools, enshrined on the state’s 2004 commemorative quarter: “Foundation in education.”
“Now, I don’t even see how Iowa is going to attract good teachers,” said Jeff Orvis, a union representative from northern Iowa. “That’s my biggest worry.”
Among other items, Republicans also are pressing to eliminate state money for all Planned Parenthood services, outlaw the use of fetal tissue for medical research, subject doctors who perform abortions to lawsuits by women at any time in the future, scrap minimum wage increases in Iowa’s largest counties and block municipalities from enacting sexual orientation discrimination protections.
There’s also talk of a tax cut, despite a $110 million shortfall in the current budget year.
“We’re doing big things for Iowa,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix said. “That means taking some risks.”
Statehouse GOP leaders including Dix say they are merely capitalizing on the election, which also saw Republican Donald Trump carry the state’s electoral votes after Democrat Barack Obama did so twice. Some on either side of the divide see a state with a tradition for social priorities and fiscal discipline reflecting a more lasting imbalance.
Thousands protested at the Capitol in Des Moines last week. And Senate Democrats held an all-night debate Wednesday night, after every member of the minority spoke to oppose it, while only two Republicans stood to promote it. Republicans stymied each of Democrats’ dozens of attempts to amend the bill.
Democrats’ frustration spilled over after one member noticed a Republican House member wearing headphones plugged into his phone during the debate.
“What could possibly be more important right now?” Abbie Finkenauer of Dubuque shouted. “Get off your phone and pay attention.”
Shannon Wurzer, a Republican teacher from northeast Iowa, said she was shocked when she saw the party she supports refusing to consider any of the amendments.
“They weren’t giving an inch. It didn’t seem like the Republicans were even listening,” she said. “It was all their way. And that’s not what we’re used to in Iowa.”
Betty Andrews of Des Moines was texting a friend whose late parents had been union stewards in Cedar Rapids. “They’d be rolling over in their graves,” she said. “This isn’t the Iowa they knew.”
Dix rejected that Iowa has shifted in a lasting way beyond its half-century tradition for political balance. Instead, he says Republicans are seizing upon voter sentiment, which coincides with 20 years of pent-up Republican policy changes.
To act cautiously in light of November’s heavy Republican legislative victories could hurt the GOP’s chances of holding its majority, so it’s all or nothing, Dix said. “That’s what our mandate is, and to me it’s not one that’s very patient.”
Republican Ron Corbett, House speaker the last time his party controlled the Iowa Capitol, said Republicans showed more willingness to work with Democrats back then.
That’s also in part because rural Democrats were more powerful, he said. Today, the rural-urban divide in the Iowa Legislature more closely resembles that nationwide, with Republicans dominating rural areas and Democrats the urban districts.
Exacting a penalty on the opposition “could always come back to haunt you,” Corbett said.
Despite the election results, Iowa voters remain more cautious than Republicans are suggesting, former longtime Democratic Senate Leader Mike Gronstal said.
“Republicans have mistaken the election for a mandate to do everything they’ve talked about for 20 years,” said Gronstal, who held together a thin Democratic majority for more than a decade, until his defeat in November. “We have a model for how that’s worked. It’s Kansas.”
After Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in Kansas in 2011, huge GOP legislative majorities enacted a raft of social legislation and deep tax cuts. Though Brownback proclaimed Kansas as a model for the rest of the nation, it has struggled to balance its budget and has found itself repeatedly in court over its policies. And on Feb. 17, the GOP-controlled Senate approved a bill that would raise $1 billion by rolling back key pieces of Brownback’s agenda.
Though the policy changes are coming quickly in Iowa, there have been signs of a political shift in recent years before Gronstal’s loss and Senate Republicans’ triumph.
In 2014, Republican Joni Ernst won the U.S. Senate seat held by liberal Democrat Tom Harkin, who for 30 years had been the balance to seven-term GOP Sen. Charles Grassley.
That followed decades of largely split-party government, with plenty of fighting, but also compromise.
Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, with Democratic Senate and Republican House in 2012, proclaimed, “You don’t always get everything you want.”
A Democratic predecessor Tom Vilsack, whose eight years as governor never included Democratic control of the Legislature, signed compromise legislation including universal preschool access and increased funding for renewable energy research.
“Compromise didn’t use to be such a dirty word,” said state Sen. Janet Petersen, a Des Moines Democrat whose 16 years in the Legislature have been marked predominantly by mixed-party control. “This is dangerous for our state.”