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Can You Separate Federal Issues from State Elections?

Many state candidates are asked less about their stance on issues affecting the state and more about federal matters they can do little about.

Cliff Jette
Randy Formanek is what you might call a persuadable voter. He’s decided to stick with President Obama this year despite not being “100 percent about this Obamacare.” He also believes the president has not done enough to secure the border. Still, Obama deserves a second term, in his opinion, if only because Republicans have been unwilling to work with him. “Obama’s my man,” he says.

But Formanek also says he’s going to vote for a Republican in his state Senate district in Iowa. You see, Jane Jech, the Republican seeking the seat, has come to his home in the small town of Chelsea and asked him personally for his support, just after visiting with his dad right around the corner.

“She seems like a nice lady,” Formanek says, standing on his porch in Bud Light pajama pants. “I don’t know who she’s running against. Why should I vote for someone I don’t know when I know this nice lady?”

It’s people like Formanek that keep people like Jech going door to door nearly every night of the week. Jech lost a state House race by just 300 votes two years ago. She believes she can win over enough new supporters this time to take a Senate seat -- in part because redistricting means that a lot of voters, like Formanek, don’t know the incumbent Democrat, Steve Sodders. Turning up at people’s doors -- and small-town parades and ice cream socials and hog roasts -- gives voters a sense that you’ll listen to them once in office, Jech says. “There is no doubt that it makes a difference. If they go into the booth and they don’t know you, they’ll vote the way they normally do.”

The way people normally vote these days is by party. The electorate is highly polarized, particularly in a presidential year. This dynamic may be especially important in a state like Iowa, which is considered a swing state in the presidential contest and as a result has already seen tens of millions of dollars worth of TV ads attacking Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Jech knows that most voters will be paying far less attention to her state Senate contest. “The presidential will definitely have an effect,” she says. But, she adds, “When you go out and meet people individually, that’s what makes a difference.”

That’s become a defining tension in state legislative contests. Most legislators will tell you that they run independent campaigns, getting to know their constituents as neighbors by knocking on half the doors in their district. Long before running for the legislature, they have established themselves as leaders in their communities, as local elected officials or activists. They believe they have established their own identities and are able to make their own appeals to voters. “Iowa politics is a contact sport,” says Shelley Parbs, a Democratic candidate running for Senate in a three-county district between Des Moines and Iowa City. “People want to see their candidates.”

Still, legislative candidates are also swimming either with or against strong tides. When legislative candidates make their rounds, many find themselves asked less often about their stances on issues affecting the state than about their partisan identification. Often, the issues at the top of voters’ minds are federal matters they can do little to nothing about. “It is difficult for a local candidate to explain that what goes on in Washington is not what goes on in Iowa,” says Democratic state Sen. Jeff Danielson.

For all their protestations about politics being local and knowing their own districts, every couple of years legislators of one party or the other seem to get tossed out en masse. “We need to win the top of the ticket to win the bottom of the ticket,” says Matt McCoy, another Iowa Democratic senator. “We’re totally tied together. That’s why we’re embracing the president.”

The stakes in Iowa are high. Republicans took control of the state House two years ago and also regained the governorship. But they fell a couple of seats short in the Senate -- half the seats in the chamber come up for election every two years -- so GOP leaders are pinning their hopes on candidates like Jech, who are going door to door.

Similarly, Mike Gronstal, the leader of the Iowa Senate Democrats and himself a top target for Republicans this November, believes that despite the money that’s coming into the most contested races, it’s still all about standing on people’s front porches and talking directly to them. He dismisses the idea that his race and those of his colleagues are at the mercy of the national contest, noting that Democrats lost chambers in Iowa in each of the years Bill Clinton was elected president and gained Senate seats in 2004 when George W. Bush was re-elected. “It’s not really about whether we’re going to ride anybody’s coattails,” he says. “I’ve lived here all my life; I’ve raised my family here. My constituents see me going through the grocery store with coupons in my hand just like they do.”

At the same time, Gronstal concedes that the presidential race will have a big effect, if only in terms of mechanics. It’s the state party, in coordination with the national campaign, that runs the effort to get people to vote by absentee ballot, which can account for as much as 40 percent of the total turnout in a state Senate race. Much of the political engagement in Iowa is an outgrowth from the presidential caucuses, which, as Gronstal notes, brings new crops of volunteers to the parties every four years. One reason that Democrats believe that Shelley Parbs has a chance to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Tim Kapucian is that, due to redistricting, he now represents Grinnell College. “The Grinnell College Democrats are fired up, and I believe they’ll work hard for Obama,” Parbs says, “and that will help local Democrats too.”

Having supported Obama in the first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses four years ago, Iowa voters may have especially strong feelings about him. (Republicans believe those will be feelings of buyer’s remorse.) But Iowa is not at all unique in having its politics shaped by the presidential race this year. In other swing states where chambers are in play, such as Colorado and Nevada, the presidential contest is going to have a strong gravitational pull that will affect the outcomes of many local races. In some cases, legislative candidates are having to run either toward or far away from their party’s presidential nominees. There are places where Republicans are doing their best to distance themselves from Romney -- including his political home state of Massachusetts. On the other hand, there are also lots of places where Democrats are trying to put as much distance as they can between themselves and Obama. Arkansas has the last legislature in the country that Republicans have never won, but the GOP likes its chances this year. Obama, who lost the state by 19 points in 2008, may do even worse this time around. “I believe President Obama has hurt the Democrats in Arkansas significantly,” says Tim Griffin, a GOP congressman from the state. “What President Obama did was strip away the idea that there was somehow a difference between national Democrats that tended to be portrayed as liberal and Arkansas Democrats who were somehow different.”

Lots of Democratic state candidates are finding themselves under attack this year as Obama enablers. Ed Martin, the Republican candidate for attorney general in Missouri, derides incumbent Democrat Chris Koster as “Obama’s lawyer.” In fact, launching Obama-fueled attacks has been a tactic used this year even against Republicans -- most notably in Kansas, where during the primary season conservatives routed moderate Republicans who controlled the Senate by linking them to Obama and his health-care plan. “This is a huge, nationalized-type movement,” says Leticia Van de Putte, a Democratic state senator in Texas. “I am sad to see particularly conservative legislators defeated by a strong ‘throw the bums out’ attitude that is really directed toward Washington, D.C.”

But it happens all the time. When voters think about politics, they think about the politicians they see on television, says William Schneider, a public policy professor at George Mason University. As a result, “very, very few people know who their state legislator is,” he says. “When most people think about the way things are going, when they think about the government, they think about who the president is.”

That makes the presidency “the keystone to American politics,” Schneider says -- an effect that extends even to higher-profile races like the governorship. Most states moved their gubernatorial elections away from the presidential campaign year in order to isolate them from the national tide. “There is simply no question that the primary motivation was to reduce presidential coattails on the election for governor and to increase the voters’ attention on state rather than national issues,” says Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

In many ways, that move has backfired. In midterm elections, without the ability to vote for or against the president, many voters take their feelings out on his party in state contests. There’s no doubt that a candidate for governor can establish his or her own identity and run against the general partisan trend in voting in any given year. “[But] it is easier to link president and governor -- and Congress and state legislatures,” Sabato says, “because almost all Democrats are liberal and almost all Republicans are conservative, at least on critical social, tax and spending issues.”

Iowa was only one of three states to switch its vote from 2000 to 2004, before Obama won it handily in 2008. This year, it’s once again a tossup. “Iowa today is all about the presidential race, so legislators do have trouble punching through some of that,” says David Yepsen, who runs a public policy institute in Illinois, but was a longtime political reporter with The Des Moines Register. “That said, Iowa’s small enough that a legislator can get known by a lot of people.”

It’s no trick in Iowa to find people who support Obama, or even have a hard time saying the words “President Romney,” especially along the Interstate 80 corridor connecting Des Moines and Iowa City. Conversely, there are plenty of people who can’t wait to get rid of the incumbent. Cedar Falls resident Lynn Leitz hasn’t voted since the days of Ronald Reagan, but says he’s casting a vote this fall to turn out Obama, who “has done nothing but cripple this country.”

It’s hard to find people anywhere near as worked up about state Senate contests, despite the fact that the entire tax and education agenda of Iowa Republicans hangs in the balance. “I honestly don’t know who’s running to tell you the truth,” says Roger Sturtz, sitting with his wife Jean in front of their house in Urbana, just moments after Parbs and Kapucian passed by in the Urbanarama parade.

Matt Reisetter knows the presidential race is going to have an effect on his fortunes. “You always get drowned out down ticket,” he says. That’s precisely why he’s pounding the pavement, trying to meet as many voters as he can in his state Senate race in Blackhawk County. Reisetter, who is running against Jeff Danielson, believes that soliciting votes door to door can make a difference of several percentage points either way, which would be more than enough to decide a race in a district like his. Reisetter, a Republican, lost a state House race back in 2006, which was a strongly Democratic year, by 106 votes. Danielson, by contrast, won re-election in 2008 by just 22 votes “with the Obama landslide at his back,” as Reisetter puts it.

Although the presidential election will have an impact, Reisetter understands that he’s operating on a different channel. While voters may be doing their best to tune out the noise on TV from all the advertising, he’s offering a personal touch, coming to their homes and asking for just a minute of their attention. Not many people go door to door selling products anymore, but Reisetter is spending the bulk of daylight hours doing just that. The old adage that people in sales are really selling themselves is never more true than for candidates for office. “When people see me coming to their door, they think, ‘What’s this crap?’” Reisetter says. “That’s why I want to leave them in a better mood than when I came.”

To do that, Reisetter roams an older neighborhood in Cedar Falls with an iPad in hand, doing his best not just to learn the names of the people he’s about to meet but trying to remember something about each family. Reisetter is 36 and can rattle off connections with many local people, such as having gone to high school with their children or his brother having been in their class. Still, most people he encounters on a Saturday afternoon are more concerned with finding out whether he’s a Republican or a Democrat than his stance on any particular issue. Danielson, the Democratic incumbent, believes that Reisetter will be vulnerable not because of his partisan affiliation or any association with Romney, but because of his years working for Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent but controversial social conservative in Iowa. “You’re Matt and I’m voting for your opponent,” one man tells Reisetter by way of greeting him when he comes to his door.

For his part, Reisetter bucks the common practice of turning up only at homes of people likely to support a Republican or considered by party databases to be persuadable. Reisetter wants to talk to everybody. His goal is to win people over one by one and by so doing run ahead of his ticket. “The unwritten theme of our campaign is ‘no stone unturned,’” Reisetter says. “You have to have the resources to run ads in a competitive race, but door-knocking is where it’s at.”

He’s not about to give up on Betty Wisby. Wisby, who is 55 years his senior, says she remembers him showing up at her door four years ago as a House candidate and says she was impressed by him. He offers her his standard pitch: Always leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. It’s a motto he learned in the Boy Scouts, and the political lesson he draws from it is that for the next generation’s sake, Iowa needs to spend tax dollars more wisely and maybe spend less of them. “If you can make a personal connection, that’s where most people are,” he says later. “You have these policy wonks coming to the door, that turns people off.”

The earnest nature of his appeal seems to work for Wisby. She also doesn’t mind the time he spends listening to her talk about her long-ago career as a photographer. Still, she tells him, “I don’t vote Republican.”

That rankles Reisetter, if only because Wisby has already described herself to him as an independent. Walking away from her house, he decides he’s going to send her a postcard chiding her for not keeping an open mind. With someone like that, he reasons, he has nothing to lose.

But he gets to make his case in person about an hour later, when he runs into Wisby out taking her daily walk with a neighbor. “How can you call yourself an independent, but you won’t vote for a Republican?” Reisetter asks her.

“I absolutely adore Obama,” Wisby tells him.

“I’m not running against Obama,” Reisetter reminds her. He’s already spent some time reassuring other voters that if they want to vote for both Obama and him, he has no problem with that.

In Wisby’s case, that just might work. “You’re a nice guy, I might flip my vote,” she says.

Reisetter walks away laughing. “I might’ve gotten her vote,” he says. But just to be safe, he’s going to follow up with a postcard anyway.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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