Iowa Republican legislative primaries reveal party divisions

By: - June 2, 2022 12:01 pm
Party divides in Republican primaries

Several Republican state legislators will face off against fellow incumbents in the Iowa primary elections June 7, 2022. (Iowa Capital Dispatch photo illustration by Robin Opsahl. Elephant image by OsakaWayne Studios/Getty Images)

Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Montour, held his seat in the Iowa House of Representatives for nine years serving District 72. But starting next year, that seat will no longer exist.

Iowa’s newly redistricted election maps went into effect this year, changing the boundaries of many seats in the state Legislature. While the represented area has changed, many elected officials – including Fisher – are choosing to run for office again in their new home area.

But Fisher is not the only incumbent candidate running for the new District 53. Rep. David Maxwell, R-Gibson, is running for the same position.

“We’re taking a very gentlemanly approach to it,” Fisher said. “We’re friends and we intend to stay friends, and we’re just sticking to the issues.”

Abortion, education issues fuel GOP races

The issues — specifically, abortion and education — are fueling competitive races in the June 8 primary election. Some Republicans will compete with former colleagues for a seat after redistricting, while others are staving off challengers, including a few who have received Gov. Kim Reynolds’ endorsement. The inner-party divides have also brought in higher funding from conservative interest groups.

Fisher was also endorsed by Reynolds in May. She praised his anti-abortion values, and his votes in favor of the “fetal heartbeat” abortion law in 2018 and abortion constitutional amendment in 2020 and 2022. Maxwell voted against these measures while in office.

“We have to vote on the Iowa pro-life amendment in the next General Assembly, so I certainly want to be there to support that,” Fisher said.

There are two other races in Iowa where incumbents will face off against one another: In House District 87 between Reps. Joe Mitchell and Jeff Shipley, and in House District 66 between Reps. Steven Bradley, R-Cascade, and Lee Hein.

Conservative interest groups pour cash into primaries

Rep. Steven Bradley, R-Cascade, said abortion was also a major issue for his primary race. He  and Fisher were endorsed by the Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization, for their votes opposing abortion. Bradley has received over $18,000 during the primary campaign from Family Leader and Americans for Prosperity, another conservative organization.

“I’m very pro-life and I vote pro-life, I’m the only pro-life candidate in this race,” Bradley said. “Especially since the Roe v. Wade leak came out, this has been a big focus for the election.”

Bradley is financially backed in this primary race by anti-abortion groups, receiving over $10,000 in May from Family Leader, campaign finance disclosures show. Americans for Prosperity also provided his campaign with over $12,000 in the past month.

“It’s just totally astronomical the amount of dollars that are being dumped into this race,” Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello, said. “But I think they’re trying to prove a point, I think it’s more about influence at the Capitol than it is who’s the better person in the race.”

Hein voted in favor of anti-abortion measures including blocking Planned Parenthood from public funding, as well as 24- and 72-hour waiting periods for abortions, but voted against the “fetal heartbeat” law. 

Hein said he believes anti-abortion measures are important, but that there are other issues voters care about. Examples include the tax cuts approved during his time as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and his role in passing a bill mandating most gas stations sell fuel with 15% ethanol, which Bradley initially opposed. 

“My opponent would like to make it all about abortion, because as I said, he doesn’t have the experience, or the leadership knowledge in the House,” Hein said. “I think he wants to make it a one issue (race). I think it’s a part, I just think there’s more to talk about.”

Abortion isn’t the only issue dividing Republicans this primary season. During the 2022 legislative session, the governor rallied to pass a measure which would provide 10,000 Iowa students scholarships to attend private schools, financed by taxpayer money. House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hampton, said in May there was not enough party support for the program to pass.

In House District 87, Shipley of Fairfield has used his support both of Reynolds’ scholarship bill and anti-LGBTQ measures as a talking point in campaign mailers. He has criticized Mitchell of Mount Pleasant, for not supporting Reynolds’ measure or pro-conversion therapy legislation while in office.

“Why is Joe Mitchell praising teachers who claim America is racist and confusing students on gender,” a Shipley campaign mailer sent to district residents asks.

Reynolds’ education policy drives some endorsements

Passing the education bill is one policy goal driving Reynolds to endorse candidates challenging incumbent Republicans for the first time. Among them are candidate Zachary Dieken in House District 5, challenging Rep. Dennis Bush, R-Cherokee, and candidate Barb Kniff McCulla, facing off against Rep. Jon Thorup, R-Knoxville. 

These candidates have not just received the governor’s support, but also major funding from conservative groups in their races. The American Federation for Children Action Fund put over $25,000 toward Dieken’s campaign in May, according to campaign finance reports. Kniff McCulla received more than $10,000 from the fund and more than $22,000 from Americans for Prosperity in May.

During the 2022 legislative session, Thorup — the incumbent facing Kniff McCulla — was one of several Republicans who opposed Reynolds’ private school scholarship bill. 

“I have voted for several things that, in my opinion, expand school choice,” Thorup said. “But I think the term ‘school choice’ has gotten very confused, between school choice and educational vouchers.”

Thorup said he has concerns about the governor’s bill in its current form because it could lead to the merging of school districts in rural areas such as his own, as well as the state increasing property taxes to finance this investment down the road.

Reynolds said in her endorsement she believes Kniff McCulla would support a “pro-family and pro-parent agenda” in the Iowa Legislature. Kniff McCulla did not return messages seeking comment.

While Thorup said he was “surprised” by endorsements in this primary race, he has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, and the Iowa Farm Bureau. 

Thorup said while much of the outside focus has been on the education bill, he feels confident in his conservative bonafides. He’s been rated the 4th most conservative member of the Iowa House by the American Conservative Union, has experience as state trooper, and is passionate about Second Amendment and “pro-life” legislation.

“I think if I agree with the governor on nine out of ten issues — that tenth issue, if we disagree on it, that should be okay,” he said.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.