In Johnson County: No GOP voice, by choice

Looking forward to hearing from the Republican candidate in the Johnson County Board of Supervisors special election? I’ve got some bad news for you.

Early voting began this week for the Jan. 19 special election to replace former supervisor Terrence Neuzil, who has moved out of state. Although two candidates appear on the ballot, neither represents the Republican Party.

Democrats met Dec. 16 and held a nominating convention that named Lisa Green-Douglas as their candidate.

Chris Hoffman, a member of the North Liberty City Council, was nominated by petition and is running without party affiliation.

Johnson County Republicans could have fielded a candidate during a December nominating convention of their own. None, however, was held.

Perhaps it is Johnson County’s long-standing history of electing Democrats that has produced such apathy on the right side of the political aisle. Whatever the cause, the lack of a candidate shortchanges voters and narrows the public square. And, as the county’s most recent history shows, special elections may provide an opening for Republicans.

It was a special election three years ago that gave the board of supervisors its first Republican voice in more than 50 years.

That Republican, John Etheredge, narrowly defeated his Democratic Party opponent in the 2013 low-turnout election. Several factors — especially candidate personalities — influenced the outcome of the race, but the absence of a partisan ballot shortcut also helped tip the scales.

In general elections where straight party ticket voting is available, about a third of all Johnson County voters use it. In the 2014 general election, for instance, 35 percent of the nearly 53,000 people casting a ballot did so by marking a single party affiliation box, effectively handing their vote to their preferred political party’s standard-bearer regardless of the specific office or candidate.

While voters of all political stripes use the ballot shortcut, Johnson County Democrats are heavy users. In the 2014 general, about 70 percent of straight party ticket voters were Democrats.

The prevalence at least partially explains why Etheredge, the lone Republican who had earned a laudable reputation as a county official, was replaced with a Democratic candidate during the first general election after he took office. But it doesn’t explain why the local Republican Party, now aware of the opening provided in special elections, decided to punt.

Talk to party loyalists about placing candidates in races with little chance of victory and most will say how important it is not to give the opposing party a free ride. After all, money is finite, and what’s spent to protect a generally safe seat takes away from what can be spent in more competitive districts.

But for the masses, diversity before election day influences and helps balance future public policy decisions.

There’s a case to be made that county offices should not be decided in partisan elections. But, so long as they are, the public needs local political parties to stay involved and help shape the conversation.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on January 9, 2016.