MASON CITY – Should political party operatives in Des Moines determine general election nominees using their bulging bank accounts before primaries are even held?
Linda Upmeyer, Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, seems to think such shenanigans are wrong, as do other North Iowa Republican players.
NIT has learned that Republicans in Cerro Gordo, Butler and Franklin counties are are questioning what they claim are the heavy-handed actions of some Des Moines-based GOP operatives, which, these activists tell NIT, will cost their party its best chance ever to oust longtime liberal state Senator Amanda Ragan. Republicans complained to NIT that clandestine decisions made by Capitol City honchos sidelined a prospective nominee who many say would have retired Ragan.
The intra-party feud began in early February, when GOP activists and donors complained that the campaign of the only declared Republican, Shannon Latham, wasn’t getting off the ground. Things worsened days later, when Republicans in Des Moines warned that anyone who jumped into the race would face an onslaught of GOP cash, the purpose of which would protect Latham’s candidacy. Senator Ragan has benefitted from relatively unknown, underfunded Republican opponents in her last five elections, NIT is told by local Republicans. They’re irked that, in their opinion, this year’s GOP nominee will be easy pickings for Ragan.
NorthIowaToday.com interviewed a number of political activists – Democrats and Republicans – who live in Senate district #27, which encompasses the three counties. Given the toxicity of today’s political environment, some of those interviewed spoke only on condition of anonymity. NorthIowatoday.com’s longstanding policy is to always protect its sources, so the confidentiality they imposed will be honored.
It wasn’t hard to make this case, GOP insiders told NIT, that Mrs. Latham’s campaign is struggling, and has been from the time she announced her candidacy in November of 2017. The Latham for Iowa Senate committee still lacks a full-time campaign manager, a Finance director, an Organization coordinator, or even one full-time staffer to handle media, fundraising, scheduling, PR, and other essential components to a successful candidacy. The GOP political operative assigned to her campaign by the Des Moines shot-callers, Eddie Failor, also provides assistance to at least five other candidates, according to knowledgeable GOP sources who contacted NorthIowaToday.com. These Republicans told NIT that Latham won’t campaign full-time, which, political professionals say, is mandatory when running against any incumbent.
Republicans also complain about Latham’s apparent lack of ability to raise funds on her own, or to invest much of her own money in her candidacy. According to documents filed online with the Iowa Ethics Commission, Ms. Latham has raised $32,799, of which just $6,000 is her money. Also, north Iowa GOP activists claim, most of her fundraising was coordinated by the same Des Moines-based Republicans who “railroaded” their choice for the party’s nomination. All of these Republicans also claim that man they favored would likely have defeated Senator Ragan, and several Democrats agree with that.
LATHAM: RELYING ON PROMINENT FAMILY NAME?
North Iowa Republicans seeking Legislative seats, and many who seek lower offices, almost always raise substantially more funds than Latham has thus far. In 2014, Republican Casey Callanan – seeking to represent one-third of the residents of Cerro Gordo county on the Board of Supervisors – had already raised nearly $36,000 three months before the June Primary. None of his money came from Political Action Committees; all emanated from individual donors.
Given that the 59,000 Iowans Latham seeks to represent in District #27 equals four times the number of constituents in Mr. Callanan’s district, it wasn’t unreasonable, Republicans claim, for her to have raised at least $144,000 on her own, for her campaign, before March 1st.
In Amanda Ragan’s five victories for the Iowa Senate, she has consistently outraised and outspent her opponents. The same is true of state Representative Sharon Steckman, a Democrat, and Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, another Republican. Normally, incumbents substantially outraise and outspend their opponents. However, it was thought that Latham – who, along with her husband, owns Latham Hi-Tech Seed co., inc., in Alexander – would generously help to self-finance her campaign. This has so far not proved to be the case, and it has GOP donors extremely upset.
NOTE: NIT reached out to the Latham campaign with questions prior to the publication of this story and received no response. Additionally, NIT reached out to Eddie Failor, who did not respond.
CERRO GORDO COUNTY: LATHAM’S “ACHILLES HEEL”?
In addition to her problems with fundraising and getting organized, Republicans say that beating Ragan requires an opponent with a strong “reach” into Mason City and Clear Lake. Ms. Latham lacks this, Conservatives claim, and they may be right. By not stepping aside, they say, she prevented an eminently electable, wealthy Republican from entering the race when there still was time to replace her as the nominee.
Insiders tell NIT that to stand a chance of beating Ragan, any Republican must win at least 40 percent of the votes in Mason City and carry Clear Lake with at least 55 percent. In 2014, Ragan won 74 percent of the Mason City vote and 57 percent in Clear Lake. According to a respected political source who spoke with NIT, “there’s no chance whatsoever of Mrs. Latham exceeding 35 percent of the votes in Mason City, and she won’t win Clear Lake.”
In 2014, Ragan defeated Republican Shawn Dietz by 12,898 votes to 10,012. Had 1,445 votes flipped, Dietz would have won. When all of the campaign spending, including PAC money and coordinated advertising expenditures, party contributions, Labor-directed advertising and AFSCME’s Get-Out-The-Vote efforts are taken into account, Ragan outspent Dietz by more than 10 to one.
DID POWERFUL DES MOINES REPUBLICANS SIDELINE STEVE MINERT?
Reliable sources contacted by NIT say that Republican Stephen A. Minert wanted to enter the race in mid February, which Minert confirmed. But he and his supporters learned that if he did, these GOP operatives in Des Moines, who desperately wanted a female candidate, threatened to spend funds from the Senate Majority Fund (a Republican PAC) to lift Latham’s fledgling campaign over the finish line. Minert, who co-owns Harley-Davidson dealerships in Mason City and Charles City, lives in Clear Lake.
Mr. Minert is also a generous philanthropist who pilots his own planes and has a private hangar at the Mason City airport. He was willing to fund his candidacy with $150,000. These funds would have been from Minert himself and his supporters. Political observers say that as a Clear Lake resident who works in Mason City, Minert personifies the kind of opponent that Ragan feared, and for good reasons.
Minert is the chairman of the Cerro Gordo county Compensation Board, which sets the salaries and benefits of every elected official in the county. He was appointed to the Comp Board in 2015 by two Democrats and a Republican, which supporters tell NIT proves his bipartisan appeal. Upon learning that the GOP’s Senate Majority Fund PAC would use its money to protect Mrs. Latham, Minert reluctantly declined to run. Mr. Minert had also planned to campaign on a full-time basis after the June 5 Primary.
Mr. Minert told NIT that, “Last Fall, a Republican campaign operative [Eddie Failor] drove up from Des Moines to discuss my prospective candidacy. This guy spent the better part of an entire day with me. Then, in February, he said that if I ran, funds raised by GOP state Senators would be used against me in the Primary. In June, in my office, he said that the Republican Majority Fund will spend $500,000 this Fall to defeat Senator Ragan.”
In a follow-up conversation with Mr. Minert, he didn’t seem disappointed, bitter, or angry. However, his awareness of what can occur behind the scenes is unappealing to him.
“The threat came from Senator Bill Dix and his staffer, a kid named Eddy Failor,” a close associate of the Cerro Gordo county Republican Central Committee told NIT. “We were offended, and still are. It’s not fair for party professionals to take sides in a Primary. Republican money shouldn’t be used to favor one candidate over another.” Another GOP activist said, “shame on Latham for letting the folks down in Des Moines bully Stevie out of this race.”
IS LATHAM SENATOR RAGAN’S ‘ESCAPE HATCH’?
NIT also spoke to Democrats, one of whom had served in county office in Cerro Gordo county for decades. Speaking anonymously, this Democrat said, “Shannon Latham is Amanda’s ‘escape hatch’. She’s every Democrat’s dream opponent. Every Democrat I spoke to, and this includes Amanda, herself, feared Minert. He’d have appealed to blue-collar workers, Union members, working class voters and Independents, who normally vote Democratic. It’s also worth mentioning that Steve’s got a strong base in Mason City and he’d have won Clear Lake outright. Against Steve, Amanda would’ve lost too many voters in Cerro Gordo county to have pulled it out.”
The fact that Minert was willing to contribute $150,000 of his own and supporters’ money to his campaign to get it off the ground and campaign full-time has Republican donors even more displeased. Latham, conversely, has written checks totaling $6,000 to her campaign committee. Another Republican told NIT, “Minert was gonna campaign full-time from June until election day. Shannon won’t do that.”
APPARENTLY, GOP CHAIR WOULD HAVE FAVORED MINERT OVER LATHAM
NIT contacted Barb Hovland, who is the chair of the Cerro Gordo county Republican Central committee, to weigh in on this matter. In a text message conversation, NIT asked Mrs. Hovland if it “would be accurate to write that you would favor the strongest possible GOP candidate” to run against Ragan. Mrs. Hovland’s response was, “Yes.”
Considering that every Republican and each Democrat NIT interviewed said Minert would have been Amanda Ragan’s strongest opponent, it seems apparent that Hovland also favored Minert over Latham as the GOP nominee.
On Wednesday, July 18, NorthIowaToday.com contacted Todd Blodgett, whose family has been synonymous with north Iowa GOP politics for over 50 years, for his view. “Shannon would make a superb state Senator,” Mr. Blodgett said. “She’d vote the right way, and her private sector know-how is sorely needed in our state government. She’s not a career politician, and voters are tired of professional politicians.” When asked about the concerns his fellow Republicans are expressing about Mrs. Latham, Blodgett said, “have a nice day”, and hung up.
A SELF-FUNDED PROSPECT VS. A SUBSIDIZED ONE?
What truly irks Republicans is that Minert wasn’t offered any financial help from the Des Moines-based GOP operatives who promised to float Latham’s campaign. The $150,000 in start-up funds for Minert’s campaign committee would have been his. By contrast, Latham benefitted from an explicit threat made by GOP functionaries to protect her candidacy with money from the Senate Majority Fund, against Minert, who is universally viewed as highly electable.
A Mason City Republican told NIT that there’s much more to this story. “I know, from talking to Barb Hovland,” this Republican said, “that Stevie, and the Blodgetts, and lots of other Republicans here are really [expletive] [expletive] over this heavy-handed meddling by Failor and Bill Dix. “But God put Dix in his place. He made sure he’d get caught smooching that lady in that bar. Stevie would’ve beat Amanda, and Shannon can’t.”
NOTE to Readers: state Senator Bill Dix abruptly resigned from his office in March, after videotape surfaced of him apparently kissing a female lobbyist in a Des Moines tavern. His successor, Sen. Jack Whitver, stepped into the campaign chief role formerly filled by Dix.
Edward Failor works full-time as an organizer for the Des Moines-based Senate Majority Fund. As earlier reported by NIT, Minert confirmed that Failor was in North Iowa last Fall to spend time with Minert, who was then seriously considering seeking the District #27 seat. In late November, however, Minert announced he wouldn’t be running, citing concerns over the health of a close family member. But by January, those concerns had been allayed, and Republicans implored Minert to enter the race.
SPEAKER LINDA UPMEYER OPPOSES STACKING THE DECK IN PRIMARIES
Republicans had speculated that Linda Upmeyer may have played a role in determining who the GOP nominee would be, as early as last Fall. Mrs. Upmeyer, whose House district includes Clear Lake, also lives in Senate district #27.
But what could motivate Upmeyer to knowingly recruit and support a candidate who is regarded as weak by GOP voters in the county which comprises nearly two-thirds of ALL voters in district #27? According to yet another local GOP insider, the reason is that “these people want candidates they can control. If they get elected, they’ll be under the control of the same people who ran their campaign. Shannon has no money to speak of, or, so she says. But Steve is a multimillionaire; he runs dealerships and he’s used to calling the shots. That’s your answer.”
Speaker Upmeyer returned a call to the NIT newsroom, and adamantly denied any involvement whatsoever in this campaign.
“My policy is not to get in primary races for the House. We never get involved. We do offer advice. I would be disappointed if this happened. I just want the district’s voters to decide.”
DOES LATHAM SHARE THESE FEARS?
On April 6, Shannon Latham attended NIACC’s annual awards luncheon, where Steve Minert was honored as NIACC’s Outstanding Alumnus of 2018, where Minert addressed 240 attendees.
NIACC’s Andrea Mujica and others said Mr. Minert’s speech was very well-received by 240 attendees.
NIT attempted a dialogue with Shannon Latham and our outreach was not responded to.
THE BLODGETT CONNECTION
Every Republican we spoke with said that the plan was for Mr. Blodgett to have managed Minert’s campaign. Mr. Minert confirmed this, and Blodgett – while not very forthcoming – did not deny it. Two Democrats told NIT the same thing, and everyone agrees, that Blodgett would’ve put, and kept, Ragan on the defensive for the entire time.
The record bears this out, as every candidate Blodgett has ever assisted – including Democrats like the late Alex Kuhn, City Councilman Paul Adams, Mason city School Board member Jodi Draper, former Supervisors Cerro Gordo Jay Urdahl and Phil Dougherty, and others – has won.
“Todd ran his dad’s campaigns for the Legislature back in the 1990s, and he ran Casey Callanan’s race for county Supervisor in 2014,” a Thornton Democrat told us on July 14. “Todd strategized and raised money for Democrats he supported, and whenever he was involved, regardless of party, his people won. Every single time, every single race. Blodgett’s dad, Gary, and Casey Callanan each wiped out two other Republicans in their Primary. They then went on to win in the fall. Todd’s work for Casey was so effective that NO ONE even considered challenging him this year. Callanan’s home free, largely thanks to Todd. Had Steve Minert been the nominee, with Todd Blodgett running the show, [Ragan] wouldn’t have had a clue about how to respond.”
“Todd always hits hard and he never lets up”, a Swaledale Democrat said. “His all-out attacks on Democrats like Joe LaPointe, Mike Dunn, Doug Nelson, and others, and even on some Republicans like Chris Watts, who Todd worked against in 2012, sealed their fate. Blodgett’s a political hit man, who will smile at you while he slits your throat. All that matters to him is winning. Once Blodgett gets someone in his sights, he brings ‘em down. Every time. I’ve felt his sting, and Todd’s candidates just don’t lose.”
According to articles published by The Washington Post, NEWSDAY, The New York Times, USA Today, The Huffington Post, the Associated Press, Wikipedia, The Des Moines Register, and numerous other sources, Mr. Blodgett learned his skills from the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, and from President Ronald Reagan, both of whom he was personally close to and worked for, for many years.
REPUBLICANS FEAR A RAGAN LANDSLIDE
A Clear Lake Republican who knows Linda Upmeyer, Shannon Latham, Steve Minert, and Todd Blodgett told NIT that Blodgett offered an amusing perspective on this race. According to her, Blodgett, when told that political operatives in Des Moines wanted Latham to run, Blodgett purportedly replied, ‘Yes, they are Democrats.’” While wrapping up this campaign analysis, NorthIowaToday.com again contacted Mr. Blodgett on July 20 to inquire about this claim. “I don’t deny having said that,” Blodgett told NIT. “But I’m disappointed that someone shared what I thought was a private conversation.” When asked to elaborate, Blodgett said, “no comment.”
As word spread that NIT was working on this story, Caleb Hunter, who is the Press Secretary to the Iowa Senate Republicans, reached out via email and phone to NIT to weigh in on the matter. Mr. Hunter confirmed that the information that NIT has gathered is correct. Hunter then revealed that the Senate Majority Fund had “already began to work with Shannon Latham’s campaign and had already invested time and money with Shannon” prior issuing the alleged threat to Minert in early February.
Mr. Hunter then suggested that NIT contact former Senator Bill Dix (and gave NIT Dix’s cell phone number) for further comment. Reached by phone, Dix told NIT on July 25, “After learning that Minert was not going to run, we had made a commitment to Latham and we were not going to go back on that.”
Armed with these revelations, NIT again contacted Mr. Minert to ask him his motivation for seeking office. Minert said, “I’m genuinely concerned about North Central Iowa, and I want to help North Iowans. My son starts college next month, and my daughter graduated college in 2016. She moved away, because of the lack of good job opportunities here. This CAN be fixed, but professional politicians have yet to do it.”