Staff Columnist

Democrats burning big money in race they're destined to win

Three candidates in Senate District 37 have already topped $100,000 in total expenditures

(from left) Attendees listen to Democratic candidates for the Iowa Senate District 37 seat Eric Dirth, Imad Youssif, Zach Wahls  and Janice Weiner speak during a forum hosted by the  Johnson County Task Force on Aging at the Coralville Library on Monday, April 9, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
(from left) Attendees listen to Democratic candidates for the Iowa Senate District 37 seat Eric Dirth, Imad Youssif, Zach Wahls and Janice Weiner speak during a forum hosted by the Johnson County Task Force on Aging at the Coralville Library on Monday, April 9, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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A huge amount of cash quickly is flowing into, and out of, two Eastern Iowa campaigns in the state’s hottest primary.

The Democratic contest in Senate District 37 may turn out to be the most expensive legislative primary in Iowa this year. Four Democrats are competing for the chance to succeed retiring state Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, to represent Coralville, part of Iowa City, northeast Johnson County and Cedar County.

The Democrats had raised nearly $150,000 as of mid-May, according to campaign finance reports. It’s a curious position for the party that claims to be wary of money in politics.

Candidate Zach Wahls leads the pack with more than $120,000 in total contributions over the campaign cycle so far, followed by Janice Weiner with about $23,000 and Eric Dirth with about $2,000. Candidate Imad Yousif has not filed a fundraising report.

Weiner, a former U.S. diplomat, said she isn’t concerned with the money gap.

“I think it’s more than enough to be able to do what we need to do in this campaign, which I view really as a local grass roots campaign. … We need to do it on shoe leather and doorknocking. That’s how I’ve been doing it since the beginning,” Weiner told me last week.

Wahls, a policy advocate and recent graduate, said his impressive fundraising haul isn’t attributable to mass solicitations. Instead, money has poured in due to his status as a bit of a political celebrity from his work as an activist, including a viral video from Wahls’ impassioned defense of same-sex marriage at the Statehouse in 2011.

“We were able to raise a significant amount of money very quickly and I wanted to figure out how we can spend this money in a way that will have me spending my time doing most important thing, which is voter contact,” said Wahls, who estimates he will personally knock 2,000 doors by the of the primary campaign.

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Wahls already has spent more than $50,000, according to his finance reports, while Weiner has spent more than $20,000. Wahls has spent heavily on hired staff and one Coralville-based marketing firm, totaling more than $24,000 in the last reporting period, while Weiner spent only about $1,000 on personnel.

The Republicans have not fielded a candidate in Senate District 37, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 5,000. The winner of the Democratic primary is a shoo-in to win the seat in November, and will be heavily favored for re-election in future years.

I can see the appeal both Wahls and Weiner offer. The Iowa Legislature needs more experienced women as well as more young voices, and either candidate would be an adequate legislator.

Nobody can blame campaigns for accepting money donors want to give, but neither does anyone say you have to spend it all. There are many legislative races across the state where Democrats need money more than any of the Senate District 37 campaigns.

I’m not interested in getting Democrats elected, but if I were, I’d be frustrated to see such a pricey battle between partisan teammates. When the dust settles after Tuesday’s primary, the candidates may end up spending $100,000 in a race for a seat their party was destined to win anyway. That’s a poor strategy if the party hopes to take back the Legislature.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

Updated at 3:30 p.m., June 3: Due to an error on campaign finance documents, a previous version of this story incorrectly reported Zach Wahls’ campaign expenditures. The Wahls campaign had spent $53,375 as of May 14.

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