DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa’s only independent lawmaker plans to run for re-election in a rural, conservative district as a “no-party” candidate and if he wins, he’d be the first state senator unaffiliated with the two major political parties to do so in more than 90 years.
David Johnson, a lifelong Republican, is betting that principle trumps party and that his deep roots in northwest Iowa and long legislative history will win him enough voters to fend off a Republican challenger.
Johnson, 66, of Ocheyedan, served in the Iowa House from 1999 to 2002 and has been in the Senate since 2003.
He rejected the Republican Party midway through his fourth term in the Senate in June 2016 after Donald Trump made comments perceived as racist regarding a federal judge of Mexican heritage. Johnson said at the time he could no longer support a party that “buckles under the racial bias of a bigot.”
He was quickly blasted by party county leaders who claimed he deserted his district and that they would work to defeat him next year.
He had already been contemplating breaking from the party but making Trump the GOP standard-bearer was the last straw.
“It has been on a number of different levels a hostile work environment, I believe, to be in the Senate Republican caucus. It’s been hostile to new ideas,” Johnson said. “Then Trump came along and that was the end of that. That was the final brick in the wall.”
Johnson left the GOP just as the party ascended to power in Iowa. Republicans for the first time in 20 years took majority control of both the House and Senate after the November 2016 election while a Republican continued to occupy the governor’s office.
Johnson said he asked to meet with Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix after last year’s election to discuss committee appointments and was ignored.
Caleb Hunter, a spokesman for Dix, said Johnson’s choice to leave the Republican Party places him among the minority and any committee assignments must come from the Democrats’ minority leader.
Senate Democrats gave up one voting seat during this year’s session so Johnson could serve on the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, and Minority Leader Janet Petersen said Johnson will keep that seat in 2018.
“Senate Republican leaders should give Sen. David Johnson positions on committees because he represents 60,000 Iowans, just like the other 49 senators,” she said in a statement.
Johnson said his research shows the last lawmaker to be elected to the Senate as an independent was William Schmedika of Hardin County in 1923, and he had full committee voting privileges.
“My constituents are entitled to the same,” he said.
Republicans once given the reins of state government last year quickly plowed ahead with controversial legislation, including significant broadening of gun rights and dealing serious blows to public employee unions. They also cut benefits for workers compensation injuries and prevented cities and counties from boosting the minimum wage higher than the state’s $7.25 an hour level. Johnson, who holds many conservative views including opposition to abortion rights, voted against these measures.
His repudiation of the GOP for tethering itself to Trump, whose national approval hovers beneath 40 percent, hurts Johnson among strict partisans but statehouse elections are often won by candidates who successfully mobilize friends, family and neighbors to vote for them, said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University.
“He’s taking a stand based upon what he takes to be principal. That will irritate party loyalists for whom party is more important than principal but that will impress people for whom principal is more important than party,” Goldford said.
Johnson easily defeated Democratic opponents in 2002 and 2006 and ran unopposed in 2010 and 2014.
The 1st District he represents covers five rural counties dotted with crop and livestock farms. State voter rolls show of 41,859 active voters, 20,877 are registered Republican, 13,376 are no party, 7,465 are Democrats and 118 are Libertarian.
“If he doesn’t have a party backing him and at least one person is going to run as a Republican that may be enough to swing the election if Johnson doesn’t have any kind of party support and he’s sort of out there on his own,” said Timothy Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor.
Johnson is rooted in conservatism having been born one of 10 children in a northwest Iowa Catholic family. His father, Donald E. Johnson, unsuccessfully ran in the 1968 Republican primary for governor and the next year was appointed by President Richard Nixon to head the Veterans Administration for five years. He went on to serve in federal government positions through much of the 1980s and early 1990s.
David Johnson has worked as a diary herdsman and once owned a small-town Iowa newspaper. He serves on the Herbert Hoover Presidential Foundation Board of Trustees.
Voters who have encouraged him to run again say they appreciate his honesty, he said.
“I feel a lot more comfortable as an independent, quite frankly, because I can follow my conscience. I write my own talking points and always have. I don’t follow the Republican talking points. I don’t think they’re convincing.”