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CEDAR RAPIDS | Conventional wisdom is that 2014 will be a Republican year at the ballot box, but Iowa Democratic legislative leaders and a national campaign committee say the Iowa House presents one of the party’s best opportunities to “flip” the chamber to Democratic control.

“No doubt about it, Democrats are poised to make gains this cycle, Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said this week.

That’s because Iowa Democrats are “playing offense,” said House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown. He sees the stars aligning for his caucus to flip the chamber, currently controlled by Republicans 53-47.

Not only have Democrats recruited more House candidates than the GOP – 77 to 69, but Smith said Democrats have recruited candidates “who fit the districts.”

Unexpected Republican retirements and a “vulnerable freshman class dominated by tea party members who have taken extreme positions” add to his optimism.

And thanks to Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process, Smith said Democrats have more competitive seats in Iowa than in many other states.

That’s enough to convince Sargeant and the DLCC to include the Iowa House in its Flip Chart 2014 “Emerging Majorities” categories of the legislative chambers where Democrats have the greatest opportunity to cut into Republican majorities.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, disagrees, but like Smith is optimistic his caucus will gain seats in the House.

“There’s an overwhelming sense when you talk to the average voter of a frustration with government in general, especially with Washington,” Paulsen said.

At the same time, the speaker said he’s received more “thank yous” from voters for legislative accomplishments during the current two-year General Assembly than in previous years. They include the largest tax cut in Iowa history and reforms in health, mental health and education.

“As Iowans look to Des Moines, they were generally pleased with what we were able to accomplish,” he said. So Paulsen is hard-pressed to understand why voters who elected a Republican majority would flip the House.

“Republicans have overplayed their hand,” explained Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, the DLCC board chairman said. “They’ve focused more on Wall Street than Main Street and that’s hurt the middle class.”

One of the biggest reasons for voters to change their minds about the Republicans they elected, Smith said, is that now they have not only campaigned on extreme positions, but they’ve voted to enact them.

“If we didn’t have divided government with the Democratic control of the Senate we would have had much of that extreme agenda implemented into law that is very inconsistent with our state and the values of our state,” Smith said.

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Paulsen thinks the Democrats may be overreaching in their analysis.

“Mike Gronstal can say whatever he wants on July 1,” Paulsen said, but he’s been in voter forums where the majority leader “has basically said the same thing I’m saying -- Iowans are generally pleased” with the Legislature.

He points to the GOP’s recruitment of “extremely talented candidates” who will stand on their own.

Paulsen also points to a political environment that is favorable to Republicans. The state’s economy is in good shape and unemployment is low relative to other states. He also sees a lot of energy and enthusiasm among Republicans. The GOP’s 3rd District nominating convention drew more participants than Democrats state convention, he said.

“I think that reflects the energy in Republican Party,” Paulsen said.

Given the various factors at play, Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University, tends to agree with the conventional wisdom that in a mid-term election when the economy is good and voter frustration with President Obama and health care reform is high, Republicans should do well.

Peterson thinks the GOP’s hold on the House is “pretty safe” and predicted there is a better chance of Republicans picking up the two seats they need to flip Democratic control of the Senate than of Democrats taking the House.

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