Summer was supposed to be easy for Michelle Smith. As the Chair of the Jasper County Democrats, she said summer is traditionally “parade season,” when the local Democratic party is focused on marching in local parades across the county and gearing up for the fall elections.
After Sen. Chaz Allen, D-Newton, dropped out of the race unexpectedly two weeks ago, party organizers are scrambling to find a replacement for the popular incumbent with the election season fast approaching. Now that Allen’s Republican challenger, Tim Shay, has also ended his campaign for Senate District 15, a seat many considered “safe” for the Democrats is seemingly up for grabs.
“This is only supposed to be parade season. We’re not supposed to have to work this hard,” Smith said.
On Thursday, Democrats will hold a special election to find Allen’s replacement. The meeting, which will take place at Colfax-Mingo High School at 6 p.m. Thursday, will determine who will represent the Democratic party this fall. Smith said many local party members are unhappy Allen, who was seen a broad crossover candidate will appeal to both Democrats and moderate Republicans, has dropped his re-election bid.
“I’m not going to say I’m not disappointed but at the end of the day, it’s a personal decision to run or not run. Does it change things? Yes. Does it create a scramble? Yes. But I’m not the one that has to make that decision,” Smith said.
Four candidates have stepped forward to declare their interest, and precinct chairs will have an opportunity to meet with the candidates Thursday night before casting their ballots. The district is comprised of 17 of Jasper County’s 20 precincts, along with 16 precincts in eastern Polk County.
In a phone interview Sunday night, Smith identified the four candidates who’ve stepped forward so far. They are Lori Slings of Altoona, a long time member of the Southeast Polk Board of Education; Taylor Van De Krol, former head of the Jasper County Democratic Party; Eric Schultz, of Newton; and Cindy Pollard, executive organizer for the Jasper County Democratic Party. Even though party members have identified four candidates so far, Smith said it’s possible the nominee could still be an unknown. At this point, the process is still extremely fluid.
Smith called Allen’s departure a “huge blow” for the Democratic party. The two still haven’t spoken since Allen released his statement declining to run this fall.
“In a way it’s like we potentially threw away a seat that had been pretty stable,” Smith said. “Come election night, we should have been able to count that we’re going to retain this.”
Many in the Democratic Party didn’t see Shay as a viable contender to Allen. Most observers felt the incumbent would have a clear path to victory in Jasper County. With Allen, Democrats find themselves starting from scratch late in the race.
“It’s a chess match. They made the move by removing Tim Shay from the race,” Smith said. “In my honest opinion, the Democrats could have put anyone up against Tim Shay and had a decent chance of retaining the seat.”
When reached by phone Sunday night, Allen said he plans to continue serving out the remainder of his term. He’s leaving politics to focus on his role as Executive Director of the Jasper County Economic Development Corporation and has been appointed to the board of directors for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Traffic Incident Management Center in Jasper County. The $11.78 million center, which will be located at the former site of the Jasper County Home outside of Newton, is still in the planning stages.
“That traffic incident management center is going to be big for this county. We’ve gotta get that done,” Allen said.
Allen said his departure from the race will allow him to focus his time on JEDCO. On Sunday, Allen said he’s close to finalizing another multi-million dollar project in the county, although he declined to provide additional details, citing ongoing negotiations.
When asked who he’d like to see take his place in the Senate, Allen declined to name a likely successor. He said he’ll wait and see how the special election plays out.
“I’m going to let the convention decide that. I think that’ll be up to vote (by) the central committee. I’ll let them decide that,” Allen said.
One likely candidate may by Allen’s former listening post partner — Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton. On Sunday, Breckenridge said he’s been encouraged to run for Allen’s vacated Senate seat by several supporters and while he hasn’t ruled out the possibility, he’s leaning towards staying in the house.
Potentially switching gears to make a run for the Senate would be an expensive proposition for Breckenridge, yard signs and T-shirts for his house run have already been printed, and he’s not sure he’s ready to start all over again as a junior senator on the other side of the rotunda at the statehouse.
“There’s a lot to consider in making that decision. I’ve been telling people the doors shut but not locked yet, if that makes sense,” Breckenridge said. “Anything can happen, but right now, there’s just a lot to consider.”
Despite Breckenridge’s denial, Smith said things could still change before Thursday’s special election.
“You just never know who’s going to be nominated on Thursday night,” Smith said. “Well, obviously, I had a conversation. What came about in the conversation, you know it’s a chess match, everybody’s guessing. He could tell me one thing and change his mind tomorrow.”
Breckenridge said he was “shocked” to learn of Allen’s departure. Like Smith, he received a call shortly before Allen’s press release came out. Allen offered few details during that conversation, and Breckenridge said they’ve only spoken on the phone two other times, once to discuss the party’s temporary headquarters building, and a second when Breckenridge called Allen to ask about potential successors. Many party loyalists who’ve spoken to Breckenridge are disappointed by Allen’s decision.
“I think you’ll find a lot of the Democrats are bummed. They thought that they had a strong candidate who’d fight hard for re-election,” Breckenridge said.
The lack of communication between Allen and other party members isn’t unusual. Both Smith and Breckenridge said other than seeing Allen at parades and party functions, they didn’t run in the same social circles.
“Outside of the legislature, Chaz and I didn’t hang out a lot. We had a different group of friends,” Breckenridge said.
No matter who is nominated Thursday night in Colfax, both Smith and Breckenridge said they’re hoping the candidate is ready to dig in for a long battle against the Republicans. Smith said she’s aware that Republican party members will be watching the special election closely before naming their candidate. With so many unknowns, Smith said she’s just learned to adopt a “wait and see” mentality.
“Let’s face it, what I know could change in five minutes,” Smith said.
Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or firstname.lastname@example.org