| Des Moines Register
What will the Iowa Legislature focus on in 2021?
Iowa’s legislators discuss some of the topics they plan to address in the 2021 session.
Des Moines Register, Des Moines Register
Iowa voters are likely to see constitutional amendments involving hot-button issues on their ballots in 2022 and 2024 — and Republicans say the measures create an opportunity to drive up engagement and turnout during two high-stakes elections.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has advanced measures this year that would enshrine in the state Constitution protections for firearms owners and limit them for people seeking abortions.
The firearms measure is set to appear on the ballot in 2022, sharing space with high-profile elections for governor, all four congressional districts and Chuck Grassley’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Gun rights are a key issue for the Republican Party’s core base of voters, and the ballot measure will appear before voters at a time when Democrats control the White House and Congress, potentially stoking Republican fears about new limits on access to guns.
“It can really become a rallying call for drawing attention and energizing Republicans,” said Republican strategist David Kochel, who has worked on behalf of Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst.
“In an off-year election, you’re looking for anything that gives you a turnout advantage,” he said. “Particularly after the huge turnout we saw in 2020, there will be a drop-off. So you’re trying to create an advantage in the electorate that’s going to show up on Election Day or vote early. And it’s a pretty effective tool.”
Kochel said a high-interest ballot measure could increase partisan turnout by about 3% — a relatively small number that could still have a dramatic effect on the outcome of a race. Reynolds defeated Democrat Fred Hubbell in 2018 by roughly 3 percentage points.
Republicans will be looking for ways to retain the voters who turned out in droves to support Republican President Donald Trump’s re-election bid in 2020.
“Whatever issues you can find to galvanize, motivate and energize those voters is a good idea,” Kochel said.
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said Reynolds and the Republican Legislature are relying on “divisive issues” to “fire up the extremes of the Republican base.”
“There’s no doubt that these are politically motivated amendments, and we have to be prepared to make sure that Iowans know exactly what’s at stake if these amendments pass,” he said. “And that’s going to require serious organizing and communication.”
Though Iowa has not had any recent ballot measures driving voter interest and turnout, a 2010 campaign to oust state Supreme Court justices who voted to legalize same-sex marriage drew national attention. That year, conservative groups spent big to raise the profile of the usually quiet judicial retention elections and successfully removed three judges from the bench.
First up, in 2022: Groups already mobilizing over gun rights amendment
The interest groups supporting both measures say they intend to mount strong advocacy campaigns to rally their supporters, run advertisements and push for the amendments’ passage.
Iowa is one of only six states that does not enshrine the right to keep and bear arms in its state constitution.
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” the proposed amendment reads. “The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”
Richard Rogers, a lobbyist for the Iowa Firearms Coalition, which is associated with the National Rifle Association and has pushed for the amendment, acknowledged that the effort to replicate the federal Constitution’s 2nd Amendment rights in the Iowa Constitution can feel redundant to some people. But he argued the additional “backstop” is necessary to ensure those protections at a state level.
“People that are interested in our group and our activities often haven’t understood why we feel this is important,” he said. “And it’s incumbent upon us to explain it not just to our followers, but to the larger electorate why it’s important.”
Erica Fletcher, a volunteer leader with Moms Demand Action in Iowa, which seeks to protect people against gun violence, said her group is already mobilizing to oppose the change ahead of the 2022 election. She said the language goes beyond adding Second Amendment protections into the Iowa Constitution and is actually “a pretty extreme and far-reaching change.”
Fletcher and many others who oppose the change have focused on the concept of “strict scrutiny” — a legal term that would require any restrictions on gun rights to be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest. They worry that language could open the door for courts to reverse existing gun restrictions, such as required background checks.
The challenge will be in communicating that nuance to enough voters, she said.
“I think as long as we can connect the dots for people that this strict scrutiny language does these things that are very unpopular, then we’ll be on the winning side,” she said.
Fletcher said Moms Demand Action has already begun calling its cadre of volunteers to identify a captain for each of Iowa’s 99 counties. That person will lead the organizing efforts in their local communities.
As the Senate approved the amendment, Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, acknowledged it would bring out heavy campaign spending.
“I can promise you that there will be a lot of money spent for passing this constitutional (amendment) in November, leading up to November 2022 and against,” he said in January. “Millions of dollars probably.”
Expected in 2024: Battle will shift to abortion rights
The abortion amendment is expected to draw similar interest.
It has cleared the House and is expected to clear the Senate. The same language must be approved by the Legislature again in 2023 or 2024 before it could be put to a statewide vote in 2024.
“To defend and protect unborn children, we the people of the state of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion,” it reads.
The proposal is in response to a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling that found Iowans do have a fundamental right to the procedure. Iowa law currently bans most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Republicans, who control the House, Senate and governor’s office, have also passed other laws to restrict abortions in Iowa in recent years.
Chuck Hurley, a lobbyist for the Christian conservative organization the Family Leader, said many of his group’s members see this as “the civil rights issue of our time” and will mobilize accordingly.
“There will be no doubt, thousands and thousands of Iowans that will be extremely motivated and engaged,” he said.
To reach beyond those who already want to put an end to abortions, Hurley said, the group will likely discuss the “judicial overreach” that has resulted in greater protections for Iowans seeking abortion.
“I do think that will be probably a major theme,” he said. “And for some civic-minded people who aren’t necessarily ardently pro-life or ardently pro-abortion, that could be the deciding factor.”
A 2020 Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed that 54% of Iowans opposed changing the state constitution to specify that it does not recognize a right to abortion or require public funding of it. A third of Iowans, 33%, supported the change and another 12% were unsure.
Wilburn said the Iowa Democratic Party would work to push back against both proposed amendments and make appeals across the aisle.
“We need to be ready to work with our partners and allies to ensure that Iowans know the facts before they vote on the amendments,” he said. “I don’t think we can allow the amendments to be defined on partisan lines, because (for) independents and even Republicans, there’s serious implications here for community safety and access to health care.”