What to expect when Iowa’s Attorney General and Treasurer leaves office after four decades

Changes are coming to the offices of the Iowa Attorney General and Treasurer as voters chose to choose challengers who have pledged to work towards the goals of the GOP versus Democratic incumbents who argued their tenure brought impartial success have.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, both the nation’s longest-serving officials in their positions, were defeated in this year’s election. Each has served 40 years. Miller was first elected in 1979 but left office for four years after running unsuccessfully for governor. Fitzgerald has served continuously since 1983.

Her opponents, Republican Attorney General-designate Brenna Bird and Treasurer-designate Roby Smith, will take office in 2023.

Both candidates fought in line with state GOP leadership and said they would oppose President Joe Biden’s administration. On the campaign trail, Bird vowed to sue Biden while in office and said at the Iowa State Fair her message to the president was, “I’ll see you in court.”

The Attorney General’s office serves as the legal representative for Iowa on behalf of the Iowa legislature and state agencies. During the campaign, Miller highlighted his lawsuit wins on issues such as consumer protection and the opioid crisis, saying his opponent placed too much emphasis on partisan politics.

Geoff Burgan, communications director for the Democratic Attorneys General Association, said Iowans may see a more partisan approach to the attorney general’s duties with Bird in office. During the election, Gov. Kim Reynolds urged her supporters to support Bird as well, saying she wanted “my own attorney general” in office.

Burgan said Iowans will see a “night and day difference” in Miller’s approach to office, and Bird’s approach will be more aggressively partisan.

“No attorney general is the governor’s personal counsel, no matter the state,” Burgan said. “The governors retain their own legal counsel. … A state’s attorney general should look out for the people of the state and their interests first and foremost.”

But during the campaign, Bird argued that Miller was biased: She pointed out that the AG’s office does not defend the state’s “fetal heartbeat” law and is joining lawsuits against Trump, but not against President Joe Biden.

In a statement congratulating Bird on her victory, officials with the Republican Attorney General Association said Bird will focus during her tenure on assisting law enforcement in Iowa and preventing state and federal abuses.

“Bird will make immediate contributions to the ongoing legal efforts of Republican AGs seeking to stop the Biden administration from violating the Constitution and perverting the rule of law,” RAGA Executive Director Peter Bisbee said in a statement.

The Republican Treasurer-elect also referenced Biden in his campaign message. He said one of his goals in office will be to protect the financial privacy of Iowans, and went on to say his campaign website that the Biden administration is “using unconstitutional measures to sniff out ordinary Americans.”

The Iowa State Treasurer oversees retirement investments for state employees and also serves as Iowa’s banker. Fitzgerald also launched the 529 College Savings Plan, the state’s discontinued wealth restoration program, the Great Iowa Treasure Hunt, and the Iable program, a savings program for Iowa with disabilities, during his tenure. Smith has not said he plans to end the bureau’s work on those programs, although he criticized Fitzgerald’s management of the 529 plan during a debate.

While Smith didn’t say he plans to make changes to the Treasurer’s office programs, he did say he would do more to support Republican measures in office, like registration to support tax cuts like those passed in this year’s legislative session. Fitzgerald said he did not sign up to support tax cuts because the treasurer’s role is to manage state funds, not decide tax policy.

Smith did not respond to a request for comment from the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Fitzgerald said his office is preparing to help Smith transition into leadership. While there is no guarantee the Treasurer-elect will continue his strategies for running programs like the 529 savings plan, he said those programs are unlikely to be discontinued under new leadership.

“There’s a lot of changes they could make,” Fitzgerald said. “But I would be shocked if he closed them. It’s just so popular, people love it… so there would be an outcry, but he could make significant changes.”

In the Great Iowa Treasure Hunt, Iowa could see major changes, the treasurer said. Fitzgerald’s predecessors didn’t bother to collect unclaimed money from entities like banks or insurance companies, he said.

“Well, maybe he’ll go back to that kind of hands-off policy, and you know that’s what companies want, ‘Don’t ask us to hand over unclaimed money,'” Fitzgerald said. But I don’t know what he’s going to do. They’re great programs, I think people love them and they’re surprised to get the money back.”

While Democrats fended off a “red wave” elsewhere in the country, Iowa Republicans scored significant victories in the midterms. With Fitzgerald and Miller defeated, accountant Rob Sand could be the only Democrat to hold a nationally elected office next year. Sand’s Republican opponent, Todd Halbur, has called for a recount in the tight race.

Iowa has a decades-long history of incumbents returning to office. Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad remains the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history. US Senator Chuck Grassley will be the longest-serving US Senator in the new Congress. Miller and Fitzgerald have served almost as long as Grassley.

Chris Larimer, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, said statewide GOP victories don’t necessarily reflect that tenure is less important to voters.

“I think the power of incumbents is still quite present,” he said. “…Having those two races go the way they did suggests the Republicans did well, and those results kind of reflect what you’d expect in a midterm election.”

The Republican victories in Iowa in this year’s election are typical of a midterm election: the party often does better than the president in the midterms. What makes Iowa’s midterm elections unusual this year is that Republicans gained more ground here than in elections outside of Iowa.

Larimer said voter demographics would provide more clarity, but Democrats did well in some other states due to support from young voters and independents. If these groups didn’t turn out at the same level in Iowa, that could be why Iowa’s results look different than other parts of the country, he said.

“If that hyperpolarization, that bipartisanship, is driving them off the polls, maybe that’s why these two Democrats got caught up in it,” Larimer said.