Retirement Party: State Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City [Updated]

The onetime Steve King primary rival who rode into office on the Tea Party wave says he doesn’t want to overstay his welcome in the Senate but will likely run for office again someday

Icon: Becris/Noun Project

Update, 8/18: Earlier this week, Rick Bertrand reversed his decision to not seek re-election after Steve Stokes, the GOP nominee for state Senate District 7, dropped out of the race. Bertrand, who previously spoke out in favor of term limits and mentioned that as part of the reason for his decision not to run again, said he reconsidered after prominent Republicans including Gov. Kim Reynolds urged him to enter the race. His Democratic rival is Jackie Smith, a former Woodbury County supervisor.

Original post: Part of a series looking at state lawmakers who have said they don’t plan to run for re-election in 2018.

In June 2016, Rick Bertrand said it was unlikely he would seek a third term to the state Senate this year. He confirmed that Tuesday, telling his hometown newspaper, the Sioux City Journal, that he didn’t believe lawmakers should serve long tenures in office. “This is what legislators should do, jump in, jump out,” he said. “There is a temptation to run again. But it’s time to come home. It should not be a surprise to anyone.”

Bertrand sounded a similar tune in 2016, when the Republican launched a primary challenge against Congressman Steve King, who was seeking election to his eighth term. “I believe in term limits, and that’s from the PTA to the US Congress,” he told veteran Iowa journalist Chuck Offenburger at a Jefferson campaign rally attended by just one person who wasn’t a reporter. “When you stay too long in whatever your office is, you become too comfortable. I’ve come to believe that in both business and politics, new blood is a good thing.”

With Bertrand’s Tuesday announcement, leaving Republicans just three days to find a candidate by Friday’s filing deadline, the new blood in his Senate District 7 may be a Democrat. Among active voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Bertrand’s district by more than 1,700 (PDF). And they’ve got a candidate: Jackie Smith, a former Woodbury County supervisor.

But Bertrand, who runs a construction and development company in Sioux City, isn’t ready to give up politics entirely, he told the Journal. He’s considering a run for the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors himself, or for Sioux City mayor, or he might challenge King again.

Bertrand first considered running for King’s US House seat in 2013, after Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin announced he wouldn’t run for re-election the following year and, for a time, King teased a bid for his Senate seat — one serious enough to catch the attention of Karl Rove, who was leading an effort to prevent Republicans he viewed as unelectable from winning primaries. “When King was talking to people about whether he should run for the Senate or not, I had some of those same people coming to me, saying, ‘You know, if King makes this move, we need you to run for the House seat,” Bertrand told Offenburger in 2016.

Ultimately, King decided to run for re-election instead — and Bertrand decided to run for the seat anyway. He took aim at the congressman’s endorsement of Ted Cruz, the Big Oil-backed opponent of the Renewable Fuel Standard, for president, but otherwise, his challenge wasn’t an ideological one. At the Jefferson campaign event, Bertrand called himself a “pro-life Catholic,” the “guy that stands on the corner and takes the heckling” (he voted for the fetal heartbeat ban passed by the state Senate last month). He also touted his record on tax cuts and said, “I’m the leading guns guy in the Iowa Senate.” Instead, Bertrand focused on King’s 14-year tenure (“It’s time for the 4th District to get a reset button”) and his reputation as the least-effective member of Congress, a man interested more in grabbing headlines with controversial remarks than getting results for northwestern Iowa.

In a primary debate, Bertrand and King exchanged a few jabs but took similar, staunchly conservative stances on several of the issues discussed, including abortion and national security. King even commended Bertrand for a defamation lawsuit he filed during his 2010 state Senate campaign against his Democratic opponent, Rick Mullin, over an ad claiming Bertrand “put profits ahead of children’s health” as a sales rep for a drug company that sold dangerous sleep aids. A jury awarded Bertrand $231,000, but the verdict was later overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Bertrand went on to win the 2010 race, riding the anti-Obama Tea Party wave to a narrow 222-vote victory (PDF). He didn’t fare nearly as well against King, receiving just 35 percent of the vote and losing all of the 4th District’s 39 counties despite having the backing of political operative Nick Ryan and agribusiness magnate Bruce Rastetter, who disapproved of King’s endorsement of Cruz. Still, he called his challenge a success, telling the Journal a week and a half after the primary that the outcome, given that he’d spent under $100,000 and campaigned for just three months, suggested King was vulnerable. “If this refocuses Steve King for the next two years, hey, the process is working,” he said, adding that he might primary him again in 2018.

Challenging King wasn’t the last time Bertrand butted heads with members of his own party. Last July, he called on then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix to resign after a jury awarded former Senate GOP communications director Kirsten Anderson $2.2 million over her lawsuit claiming she had been fired for reporting the rampant sexual harassment in the GOP caucus office (the amount was later reduced to $1.75 million in a settlement). Dix didn’t, but maybe he should have — instead, he was forced into early retirement Monday after being caught on camera making out with a Statehouse lobbyist in a Des Moines dive bar.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.