DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — New Democratic House Minority Leader Mark Smith is known for being a soft-spoken presence in the often rambunctious Iowa Capitol, but colleagues say he'll bring a quiet persistence to the daunting task of preparing for the 2014 election cycle.
The Marshalltown lawmaker was recently elected to the leadership post after longtime leader Kevin McCarthy announced he was stepping down to work for the attorney general's office. Smith's top priority in the months ahead will be recruiting candidates and fundraising in hopes of leading the Democrats back to the majority in the House.
It's a big job. All 100 House seats will be up next year. Democrats would need to maintain their 47 seats — including McCarthy's Des Moines district — and pick up at least four more to get back in the majority. Without a presidential race on the top of the ticket next year, getting voters out to the polls could be a challenge.
Still, Smith — who previously served as an assistant minority leader — said he likes his chances.
"Iowans are beginning to understand that House Republicans are out of touch and too focused on an extreme agenda," said Smith, who said he thought Democrats would be competitive in several districts where there are Republican representatives, but more registered Democrats.
Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen toyed with a congressional run next year, but opted to stay in his current role and will lead the GOP efforts. A spokesman for Paulsen did not respond to a request for comment.
Smith, who is serving his seventh term in the House, first became involved in politics as a volunteer for Sen. Tom Harkin's first failed congressional campaign in 1972. After years of volunteering and working with local Democrats, he ran for office in 2000. During his time in office, he has largely focused on health care issues. He cites his work in 2005 to set up the IowaCare program — a limited benefit health program for low income Iowans — as a signature achievement.
He works at a nonprofit substance abuse clinic in Marshalltown.
With the new position, Smith said he'll be reducing his professional schedule to focus on the leadership duties. The leadership job is essentially a full-time position, managing the caucus during the spring legislative session, but also leading the political operation. McCarthy, who served as both speaker and minority leader during his seven years as leader, said the minority role was tougher.
"In the majority you split the political duties (between the majority leader and the speaker," McCarthy said. "When you're the minority leader, you're it."
McCarthy declined to specify how much money the leader needed to raise to be competitive, putting it at "a few million."
Iowa lawmakers are coming off a productive session in which the minority House Democrats played a key role. During the complex negotiations leading up to a budget deal that included education policy changes, an expansion of low-income health care and property tax reductions, the House Democratic votes were needed to pass the human services budget that included the health care expansion. Some conservative Republicans would not vote for the plan because they wanted to block state dollars from reimbursing rare Medicaid funded abortions.
Most expect that next year will be a lighter year from a policy perspective, both because 2013 was so busy and also because members like to wrap up and start campaigning as quickly as possible in an election year.
The Iowa House has flipped back and forth between the parties over the years. Republicans won the House majority in the 2010 election, emerging with a massive 20 seat margin. Democrats regained some ground in 2012, during the presidential election year, winning 47 seats to the 53 Republican seats.
Some said Smith had reason to be optimistic. Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said they felt Iowa was in a strong position to flip the House back to Democratic control.
"We believe the Iowa House will be the top tier pick up opportunity nationally," said Sargeant. "It's a competitive map. Fifty-eight of the 100 state House seats have a Democratic advantage regarding registration and electoral performance."
Whatever happens, Smith said he was getting settled in his new office and planned to stay.
"I don't have an endgame, but I do plan to stay here for a while and I hope to take us back to the majority," he said.