116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Three political advocacy organizations spent a combined total of more than $636,000 on Republican statehouse primary campaigns in this past week’s elections in Iowa, state campaign finance records show.
And those groups — Americans for Prosperity, the American Federation for Children and The Family Leader — got plenty of bang for their buck: The candidates the groups supported won 14 of the 17 statehouse primary campaigns that the groups invested in, and a 15th candidate leads in a campaign that was decided by a mere two votes after the preliminary count.
That batch of victorious Republican primary candidates who were bolstered by the groups’ money includes non-incumbent challengers who ousted three sitting Iowa House Republicans: Reps. Dustin Hite of New Sharon, Jon Thorup of Knoxville and Dennis Bush of Cherokee.
That spending went toward digital campaign ads, mailed campaign ads and door-knocking efforts, according to state campaign finance records.
Several key issues were at play in those races, according to the campaign materials that the advocacy groups produced: taxpayer funding for private school tuition, a ban on transgender girls in girls athletics and limits on requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines.
The one consistent factor across all the campaigns was the money spent by those three groups. They were the dominant players in legislative races in the primary election, far and away outspending any other groups.
All told, Americans for Prosperity spent nearly $300,000 on the Republican legislative primaries, the American Federation for Children spent nearly $257,000 and The Family Leader spent more than $80,000, according to state records.
“Obviously we love the fact that we won the races that we were in,” said Drew Klein, the state director for Americans for Prosperity. “What we took away from that is that when we actually show up and have the conversation with voters on the issues that we care about, we see positive efforts.”
Two Republican primary campaigns drew six-figure spending from the advocacy groups. In both cases, a non-incumbent challenger defeated a sitting Iowa House member.
The most spending was in House District 5. The new Northwest Iowa district includes all of Osceola and O’Brien counties, and parts of Cherokee and Buena Vista counties.
The campaign featured incumbent Bush, from Cherokee, and challenger Zach Dieken from Granville.
Roughly $113,800 was spent on the race to support Dieken, the vast majority of it by the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
Americans for Prosperity is a conservative, free-market advocacy group with its roots in the network of organizations founded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
The group endorsed Dieken at the beginning of the legislative session in mid-January. In a news release, the group said Dieken “is a supporter of parental choice in education.”
Bush was among the roughly two dozen House Republicans who said they did not support Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal for a program that would shift taxpayer funding for public schools to private school tuition assistance for up to 10,000 students.
In her quest to gain support for her proposal, Reynolds took the exceptionally rare step of endorsing multiple challengers to incumbent House Republicans in the primary, including Dieken.
Dieken won the primary election comfortably, with 55.8 percent of the vote to Bush’s 24.2 percent.
The governor’s so-called school choice bill also was at the heart of the Republican primary with the second-highest spending.
The campaign in House District 88, which includes all of Keokuk County and parts of Mahaska and Jefferson counties, featured incumbent Hite, of New Sharon, who for the past two years was chair of the House’s education committee. He was challenged by Helena Hayes, also of New Sharon.
The American Federation for Children and The Family Leader poured $101,300 into the campaign, either in support of Hayes or opposing Hite.
Campaign literature from The Family Leader, an Iowa Christian conservative organization, pledged that Hayes “unlike her opponent” would work to remove “pornographic materials” from schools.
Statehouse Republicans during this year’s legislative session discussed ways to address concerns raised by some conservative parents about classroom curriculum and school library books they deemed to be obscene. Many of the books that drew parents’ ire included brief, isolated passages that described sexual acts or masturbation, but were not the books’ main content. Some Republicans in the Senate proposed creating a way for parents to sue and jail educators over those materials.
Ultimately, no such legislation was approved during the session.
Another piece of campaign literature in the District 88 campaign criticized Hite for his failure to support Reynolds’ school choice bill and his failure to support a so-called bathroom bill, which is legislation that prohibit transgender individuals from using restrooms designated for the gender with which they identify.
And yet another campaign mailer criticizes Hite for failing to support a bill that would have banned all employers from requiring any vaccine. That bill did not make it out of committee in either the Iowa House or Senate this past session.
The Family Leader spent more than $37,000 on the race. The American Federation for Children spent more than $64,000.
The American Federation for Children is a national school choice advocacy organization with roots in the DeVos family, which includes Betsy DeVos, the former U.S. education secretary under former President Donald Trump.
Buoyed by that six-figure financial backing, Hayes ousted Hite, 57.4 percent to 42.5 percent.
Reynolds also endorsed Hayes late in the campaign.
Hayes is among the six Republican candidates that The Family Leader endorsed and supported; all six won.
“We chose to endorse in six key contests where the choice was clear and where we could confidently back a pro-family, pro-life, pro-parental choice in education candidate,” said Drew Zahn, director of communications for The Family Leader. “What’s more, Iowa’s voters clearly sent the message they support candidates with a strong, pro-family platform.”
Another high-spending campaign featured two incumbents who were drawn together by decennial redistricting. Reps. Lee Hein, of Monticello, and Steven Bradley, of Cascade, were pit against each other in the new House District 66, which includes all of Jones and most of Jackson County.
Americans for Prosperity and The Family Leader spent a combined $95,000 on the District 66 campaign, both in support of Bradley. Americans for Prosperity did the heavy lifting, spending $73,000 on the campaign.
Abortion was a critical issue in this campaign; Hein in the past voted against legislation that would have banned abortions after a fetus’ heartbeat could be detected. He cited an experience his daughter went with in her pregnancy that would have been impacted by such a law.
With those groups helping him, Bradley defeated Hein, 55.4 percent to 44.6 percent.
“I think that just goes to prove that the model that we’re pursuing works: Showing up and talking directly to the citizens of Iowa is always going to bear better results than just investing heavily in big media,” Klein said. “Going big on TV or radio or whatever else just doesn’t compare to the real conversations that we’re having with Iowans.”
Only two House Republican primary candidates fended off an outside-funded opponent.
Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, of Northwood, won re-election in the new House District 60 despite the American Federation for Children spending nearly $50,000 to oppose her and support her challenger, Deb Hild, of Clear Lake.
Bloomingdale also is among the House Republicans who did not support Reynolds’ school choice plan.
There was no incumbent in the new House District 25, where Hans Wilz, of Ottumwa, defeated Corwin Williams, also of Ottumwa, despite the American Federation for Children spending nearly $9,000 to support Williams.
In every other race where the three groups spent money, the candidate they supported won.
That could change depending the ultimate outcome in Senate District 42, where Colman Silbernagel, of Vinton — upon whom the American Federation for Children spent more than $25,000 — won an open-seat campaign by a mere two votes over Charlie McClintock, of Alburnett, according to the preliminary count.
An official canvass of the results will be completed in the coming weeks. And either way, that result seems destined for a recount, given the narrow outcome.
Another $46,000 was spent by Americans for Prosperity and the American Federation for Children on House District 37, where challenger Barb Kniff McCulla, of Pella, who was also endorsed by Reynolds, ousted Thorup, of Knoxville, 70.2 percent to 29.7 percent.
The Family Leader and the American Federation for Children spent more than $36,000 on the House District 53 campaign between two incumbents, helping Rep. Dean Fisher, of Montour, another Reynolds endorsee, defeat Rep. David Maxwell, of Gibson.
And in House District 4, Americans for Prosperity with just a little help from The Family Leader helped incumbent Rep. Skyler Wheeler, of Orange City, survive a challenge from Kendal Zylstra, of Larchwood.
Some state-based political action committees, or PACs, and one high-dollar donor tried unsuccessfully to come to the aid of those endangered incumbent House Republicans late in the campaign.
Between May 15 and June 3:
• The Associated General Contractors of Iowa PAC donated $3,000 each to Hite and Bush.
• The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation PAC donated $3,000 to Hite and $1,000 each to Thorup and Bush.
• The Iowa Law PAC donated $2,000 each to Hite and Thorup.
• And individual donor Nick Rowley donated $5,000 each to Hite and Thorup. Rowley is a lawyer who grew up in Iowa, still has a home here and has developed a national profile.
Those donations proved to be too little or too late.
Many of the Republican primary winners will face Democratic opponents in Iowa’s general election on Nov. 8.
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