What to expect as Iowa’s attorney general, treasurer leave office after four decades

By: - November 17, 2022 4:06 pm

Democratic incumbents Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald and Attorney General Tom Miller will leave their positions in 2023 after Republican challengers won in the general election. (Photos courtesy Iowans for Fitzgerald, Iowa Attorney General’s Office and Katie Akin)

Change is coming to Iowa’s attorney general and treasurer’s offices as voters chose to elect challengers who promised to work toward GOP goals over the Democratic incumbents who argued their tenure brought nonpartisan successes.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, both the nation’s longest-serving officials in their positions, were defeated in this year’s elections. Each has served 40 years. Miller was first elected in 1979 but left office for four years after running unsuccessfully for governor. Fitzgerald has served continuously since 1983.

Their opponents, Republican attorney general-elect Brenna Bird and treasurer-elect Roby Smith, will begin serving in 2023. 

Both candidates campaigned in alignment with the state GOP leadership and said they would take action against President Joe Biden’s administration. On the campaign trail, Bird promised to sue Biden while in office, saying at the Iowa State Fair her message for the president was “I’ll see you in court.”

The attorney general’s office serves as the legal representative for Iowa, on behalf of both the Iowa Legislature and state agencies. While campaigning, Miller highlighted his lawsuit wins on issues like consumer protection and the opioid crisis, saying his opponent put too much emphasis on partisan politics.

Geoff Burgan, communications director for the Democratic Attorneys General Association, said Iowans may see a more partisan approach to the attorney general’s duties with Bird in office. During the election, Gov. Kim Reynolds called for her supporters to also back Bird, saying she wanted “my own attorney general” in office.

Burgan said Iowans will see a “night and day” difference from  Miller’s approach to office, and that Bird’s approach will be more aggressively partisan.

“No attorney general is the personal lawyer for the governor, no matter what state it is,” Burgan said. “Governors retain their own legal counsel. … The attorney general of any state should be first and foremost watching out for the people of the state and their interests.”

But on the campaign trail, Bird argued Miller was partisan: She pointed to the AG’s office not defending the state’s “fetal heartbeat” bill and joining lawsuits against Trump, but not against President Joe Biden.

In a statement congratulating Bird on her victory, officials with the Republican Attorney General Association said Bird will focus on helping Iowa law enforcement and preventing state and federal overreach during her time in office.

“Bird will make instant contributions to the ongoing legal efforts by Republican AGs trying to stop the Biden Administration from violating the Constitution and bastardizing the rule of law,” RAGA Executive Director Peter Bisbee said in a statement.

The Republican treasurer-elect also invoked Biden in his campaign messaging. He said one of his goals in office will be to protect Iowans’ financial privacy, saying on his campaign website that the Biden administration is using “unconstitutional measures to snoop on everyday Americans.”

Iowa’s state treasurer oversees pension investments for state employees, in addition to acting as Iowa’s banker. Fitzgerald also started the 529 college savings plan, the state’s abandoned asset recovery program the “Great Iowa Treasure Hunt,” and the IAble program, a savings program for Iowans with disabilities, while in office. Smith has not said he plans to stop the office’s work on those programs, though he criticized Fitzgerald’s management of the 529 plan during a debate.

While Smith did not say he plans to make changes to the treasurer’s office programs, he said he would do more to support Republican measures in office, such as registering in support of tax cuts like those passed in this year’s legislative session. Fitzgerald said he did not register in support of tax cuts because  the role of the treasurer’s office was to manage the state’s funds, not decide tax policies.

Smith did not respond to a request for comment from the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Fitzgerald said his office was preparing to help Smith transition into leadership. While there are no guarantees that the treasurer-elect will continue his strategies for running programs like the 529 savings plan, he said it was unlikely that these programs will stop under new leadership.

“There’s a lot of changes they could make,” Fitzgerald said. “But I’d be shocked if he shut them down. It’s just so popular, people love it … so there’d be an outcry there, but he could make significant changes.”

The “Great Iowa Treasure Hunt” is where Iowans may see bigger changes, the treasurer said. Fitzgerald’s predecessor did not go out of their way to collect unclaimed money from businesses like banks or insurance companies, he said.

“Well, maybe he’ll go back to that type of hands-off policy, and you know, that’s what businesses would like, ‘Don’t ask us to turn over any unclaimed money,’” Fitzgerald said. But I don’t know what he’ll do. They’re great programs, I think people love them and they’re surprised to get that money back.”

While Democrats staved off a “red wave” in other parts of the country, Iowa Republicans made significant wins in the midterms. With Fitzgerald and Miller defeated, Auditor Rob Sand may be the only Democrat to hold a statewide elected office next year. Sand’s Republican opponent, Todd Halbur, has called for a recount in the tight race.

Iowa has a history of returning incumbents to office for multiple decades. Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad remains the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley will be the longest-serving U.S. senator in the new Congress. Miller and Fitzgerald have served nearly as long as Grassley has.

Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said the GOP statewide wins do not necessarily reflect that incumbency matters less to voters.

“I think the power of incumbency is still quite present,” he said. “… That those two races went the way they did suggests just that Republicans did well, and those results sort of reflect what you would expect in a midterm election.”

Republicans’ wins in Iowa in this year’s election are typical for a midterm election: Often, the party opposite the president does better in the midterms. What makes Iowa’s midterm elections unusual this year is that Republicans gained more ground here than in elections outside of Iowa. 

Larimer said voter demographic data will provide more clarity, but Democrats did well in some other states because of support from young voters and independents. If those groups did not turn out at the same levels in Iowa, he said, that could be why Iowa’s results look different from other parts of the country.

“If that hyperpolarization, that hyperpartisanship is driving them away from the polls, maybe that’s the reason those two Democrats got caught up in it,” Larimer 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.