20 Iowa House races to watch tonight

Thanks to Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process, we have an unusually large number of competitive state legislative districts. In any given general election, depending on candidate recruitment, between one dozen and two dozen of the 100 Iowa House districts could be up for grabs. Democrats and Republicans spend big money on a much smaller number of districts; this year, only seven Iowa House races involved a large amount of television advertising. But the parties and candidates invest in direct mail and/or radio commercials in many more places than that.

Republicans go into election day favored to hold their Iowa House majority, which now stands at 53 seats to 47. Carolyn Fiddler has pegged seven “districts to watch” at her Statehouse Action blog, and in September, the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble discussed five districts he viewed as “key to Iowa House chamber control.” I see the playing field as much larger.

Follow me after the jump to review 20 Iowa House seats that will determine control of the chamber for the next two years.

Caveat: most years, there’s at least one shocking result in an Iowa House district neither party had their eye on. I’m thinking about Tami Weincek defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent in Waterloo in 2006, Kent Sorenson defeating a Democratic incumbent in Warren County in 2008, three Democratic state representatives who had run unopposed in 2008 losing in 2010, and Democrat Daniel Lundby taking out the seemingly safe Republican Nick Wagner in the Linn County suburbs in 2012. Wagner had run unopposed in the previous election.

So, while I don’t expect any of the “favored” seats discussed below to change hands, I would not rule out a surprise or two. That would be excellent news for the stealth challenger’s party.

First things first: while all 100 House seats are on the ballot, only 51 Iowa House races include a candidate from each major party. Democrats did not nominate a candidate in 21 of the 53 Republican-held districts. Republicans failed to field candidates in 28 of the 47 Democratic-held districts.

At the end of this post I’ve listed all 49 nominees who face no major-party opponent. A handful of them have minor-party rivals with no chance of winning. The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office published the full list of candidates here.

IOWA HOUSE SEATS REPUBLICANS MUST DEFEND

Republicans start with 21 Iowa House candidates facing no Democratic opponent (scroll to the end of this post for the list). They should hold another 22 seats without too much trouble. These are primarily districts where the GOP has a large voter registration advantage and Mitt Romney outpolled Barack Obama in 2012. In some of these districts, Obama won slightly more votes than Romney; I marked those with an asterisk. I still consider the incumbents strongly favored, having been re-elected in 2012. As Bleeding Heartland discussed here,

Historically, lots of Iowa House members have been re-elected even when voters in their districts preferred the other party’s candidate for president. So it would be a mistake to assume that every Democrat in a Romney district or every Republican in an Obama district is vulnerable in 2014. Iowa House districts are small, containing roughly 30,000 residents. A hard-working incumbent can knock on just about every likely voter’s door during an election cycle, making direct personal contact with a large percentage of their constituents.

Iowa House districts Republicans are likely to hold (22)

House district 2 (Megan Hess)

House district 3 (Dan Huseman)

House district 16: (Mary Ann Hanusa)*

House district 17 (Matt Windschitl)

House district 18 (Steven Holt)

House district 20 (Clel Baudler)

House district 21 (Jack Drake)

House district 27 (Joel Fry)

House district 28 (Greg Heartsill)

House district 38 (Kevin Koester)*

House district 42 (Peter Cownie)*

House district 43 (Chris Hagenow)*

House district 47 (Chip Baltimore)*

House district 48 (Rob Bacon)

House district 49 (Dave Deyoe)

House district 50 (Pat Grassley)

House district 60 (Walt Rogers)*

House district 73 (Bobby Kaufmann)*

House district 75 (Dawn Pettengill)

House district 76 (Dave Maxwell)*

House district 78 (Jarad Klein)

House district 80 (Larry Sheets)

*Obama narrowly carried Iowa House district in 2012

Side note about Chris Hagenow: He barely survived his 2012 race against Susan Judkins, winning by just 23 votes. However, he bounced back from a very close race in 2008 to win re-election easily in 2010 against a different opponent. Democrats have not invested a lot in Kim Robinson’s race in House district 43 this year, nor have Republicans spent a substantial amount on direct mail or advertising promoting Hagenow. That’s why I consider Hagenow safe for now–though he should be a top Democratic target in 2016.

Twenty-one uncontested seats plus 22 likely holds makes 43 Iowa House seats safely in GOP hands. That leaves ten Republican-held House seats that are most at risk of switching tonight. Democrats are targeting most of those races and would need to win at least four of them to gain an Iowa House majority.

Republican-held Iowa House districts to watch (10)



House district 7 (Tedd Gassman)

Gassman almost made the “favored” list, because Republicans outnumber Democrats in his district, and Romney won just under 52 percent of the vote here in 2012. Neither Carolyn Fiddler nor Jason Noble flagged this race. But Gassman has said some strange things and has co-sponsored some way out there legislation. Moreover, he won by fewer than 50 votes in 2012. Democrats have a good, hard-working candidate in Dave Grussing; he could pull off an upset. House district 7 covers Emmet and Winnebago counties plus half of Kossuth County on Iowa’s northern border. Democracy for America is backing Grussing as one of the candidates who could help build a Democratic Iowa House majority.

House district 15 (open)

This district covers Carter Lake and the western half of Council Bluffs. Two-term incumbent Mark Brandenburg retired from the Iowa House to seek a Pottawattamie County office. Democrat Charlie McConkey faces Republican John Blue. McConkey has lived most of his life in the district and has been campaigning hard at the doors. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee put this seat on its “2014 Races to Watch” list, and Democracy for America is supporting McConkey too. Neither candidate has run television commercials here, presumably because the Omaha market is so expensive. Obama beat Romney by more than 1,700 votes in House district 15, though of course midterm election turnout won’t match presidential year turnout. Democrats have a slight voter registration edge, but no-party voters represent a plurality of the district’s residents.

House district 39 (Jake Highfill)

Arguably, this should be a safe hold for the GOP. Republicans have a healthy voter registration advantage in this district, which covers Grimes, Johnston, and other parts of northwest Polk County. Romney beat Obama here as well. This race is on my watch list because first-term incumbent Highfill lacks stature. He won less than 50 percent of the vote in this year’s GOP primary, but survived because two rivals split the vote against him. In contrast, Democratic challenger Tom Leffler has been elected to the Johnston City Council five times and is a retired executive from Pioneer. Leffler may be a longshot but he is a strong candidate, and I hope he will run again in 2016 if he is not successful today.

House district 51 (Josh Byrnes)

Although Republicans have a slight voter registration edge in this district covering Worth, Mitchell, and Howard counties, plus part of Winneshiek in northeast Iowa. Because Byrnes was re-elected easily here in 2012, when Obama won more than 55 percent of the vote in his district, I had him pegged as a likely hold this year. I figured he was most at risk in the Republican primary, given his positions on marriage equality, Medicaid expansion, and the gasoline tax. But in a St. Patrick’s Day miracle, no Republican filed to challenge Byrnes in the primary. Fiddler flagged House district 51 as a Democratic pickup opportunity because challenger Laura Hubka has been competitive in fundraising. She’s also knocked on thousands of doors. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee put this seat on its “2014 Races to Watch” list.

House district 58 (Brian Moore)

A onetime Democratic candidate recruited to run as a Republican, Moore pulled off a stunning upset in 2010. On paper, he appeared vulnerable going into the 2012 election; Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in this district covering Jackson County, part of Jones County, and a couple of townships in Dubuque County. But Moore won re-election despite a big margin for Obama in House district 58. Moore has cast a few strategic votes in the legislature, most famously siding with House Democrats on Medicaid expansion. His challenger is Kim Huckstadt, a former teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent in Maquoketa, the largest city in the district. Moore is more likely to win than lose today, but strong turnout by Democrats could put this seat in play.

House district 63 (Sandy Salmon)

Salmon won an open-seat race here by just 115 votes in 2012. Obama narrowly carried the district, which covers Bremer County and some rural areas in Black Hawk County. Republicans have a voter registration advantage here, and last year I considered House district 63 a fairly easy hold for the GOP. It’s not on Fiddler’s or Noble’s watch list either. However, Salmon has taken extreme positions similar to Gassman’s, and Democrats have invested in radio ads and staff for challenger Teresa Meyer’s campaign. Republicans have responded with mail and advertising promoting Salmon and attacking Meyer, so their internal polling must have them a bit worried about this seat. The midterm electorate could save Salmon, but she could be a target again in 2016.

House district 72 (Dean Fisher)

This district covering Tama County and parts of Marshall and Black Hawk counties was a missed opportunity for Democrats in 2012. The seat was open because of a longtime Republican lawmaker’s retirement. For some reason, the Democratic party didn’t invest in its candidate, and as a result, Dean Fisher won the race by just 216 votes. Obama carried House district 72 by a narrow margin. Fiddler noted last month that Democratic challenger Ben Westphal had more cash on hand than Fisher going into the home stretch. Republicans have a voter registration advantage. Neither party has spent money on tv ads here, which makes me suspect internal polling put Fisher in good shape.

House district 91 (open)

This race is an obvious Democratic target for several reasons. It’s the Republican-held Iowa House seat where Obama got the highest share of the vote (57.6 percent) in 2012. Two-term incumbent Mark Lofgren retired to run for Congress, where he lost the GOP primary. A Democrat held this seat based in Muscatine for three terms before Lofgren defeated him in 2010. Neither party has a significant voter registration advantage. Although Fiddler called House district 91 a “must-win” for Democrats, and Noble also tagged it as a key district, Democrats don’t seem very hopeful about winning this seat. Or at least they haven’t put much money behind John Dabeet, the 2012 candidate here who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination this year. If Dabeet falls short again against GOP nominee Gary Carlson, Democrats should recruit someone else in Muscatine to take back this seat in 2016.

House district 95 (Quentin Stanerson)

This is the only Republican-held Iowa House district where Democrats have spent money on television advertising, all in support of challenger Kristi Keast. With very little backing from the party, Keast lost to Stanerson by just 200 votes in 2012. Meanwhile, Obama carried the district that covers small towns and rural areas in Linn County, along with parts of Buchanan County. Republicans have spent at least $132,500 on tv ads supporting Stanerson or attacking Keast. Democracy for America has gotten involved in this race, as have some organized labor groups.

House district 97 (open)

For reasons I don’t understand, Democrats do not appear to be targeting this district, covering most of Clinton County outside the city of Clinton and parts of northern Scott County. Longtime GOP incumbent Steve Olson retired this year. Obama carried the district narrowly in 2012, and Republicans have only a slight voter registration advantage. Both Fiddler and Noble saw House district 97 as a race to watch. Moreover, Republicans have spent more than $77,000 on tv ads supporting their candidate Norlin Mommsen or attacking Democratic nominee Jay Saxon. I assume that means their internal polls raised red flags. If Mommsen wins by a small margin, Democrats will feel frustrated that this seat was left on the table.

IOWA HOUSE SEATS DEMOCRATS MUST DEFEND

Democrats start with 28 Iowa House candidates facing no Republican opponent (scroll to the end of this post for the list). They should hold another nine seats without too much trouble. These are mostly areas where Democrats have a large voter registration advantage and Obama outpolled Romney by quite a bit in 2012. Romney won slightly more votes than Obama in one district, which I marked with an asterisk. Note: Republicans targeted the seats held by Hall and Kressig in the last two elections and put some money behind Smith’s opponent in 2012, but this year they have not invested much in any of those races.

If one or more of these candidates fall, it will be a sign of a very bad night for Iowa Democrats.

Iowa House districts Democrats are likely to hold (9)

House district 13 (Chris Hall)

House district 29 (Dan Kelley)

House district 34 (Bruce Hunter)

House district 57 (Nancy Dunkel)*

House district 59 (Bob Kressig)

House district 61 (Timi Brown-Powers)

House district 64 (Bruce Bearinger)

House district 71 (Mark Smith)

House district 99 (Abby Finkenauer)

Democratic-held Iowa House districts to watch (10)

Democrats must keep losses in this group to a minimum to have any hope of winning back the Iowa House majority. A wave election wiping out several of these incumbents would make it much more difficult to win control of the chamber back in the presidential election cycle.

House district 12 (Dan Muhlbauer)

House district 12 covers Carroll and Audubon counties, plus part of Crawford County in western Iowa. Once upon a time, before many Catholic voters drifted to the GOP over abortion rights, the Carroll area was solidly Democratic. Crawford County Supervisor Dan Muhlbauer won the previous version of this district amid the 2010 Republican landslide, in part because his opponent that year was the worst candidate ever. Muhlbauer was easily re-elected in 2012, even though Romney did better here than in any other Iowa House district held by a Democrat. This year, the GOP has spent more than $150,000 on tv ads targeting him or promoting his opponent, Brian Best. Muhlbauer’s numerous votes with Republicans in the legislature could bring enough crossover votes from constituents who support Governor Terry Branstad and State Senator Joni Ernst. But he’s still one of the most endangered Democratic incumbents.

House district 26 (Scott Ourth)

Although neither Fiddler nor Noble named this as a race to watch, I expected a full-court Republican press against Ourth, who won by a narrow margin in 2012 in a district Obama barely carried. Covering most of Warren County, House district 26 is among the state’s most balanced between Democrats, Republicans, and no-party voters. I have neither heard nor seen any radio or television ads against Ourth or promoting his opponent, James Butler. Perhaps Butler’s baggage made Republicans balk at pushing his candidacy, or perhaps their internal polling showed Ourth in a strong position. The incumbent has been running radio ads touting endorsements from a wide range of groups, from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation to unions representing police officers and firefighters. Democracy for America picked Ourth among the seven Iowa House candidates they are actively supporting.

House district 30 (Joe Riding)

First-term incumbent Joe Riding, a former city councilman in Altoona, is one of the top Republican targets. House district 30 covers much of eastern Polk County, where suburban growth near Des Moines has given Republicans a slight edge in voter registration. Romney narrowly carried the district in 2012. This contest will be among the most expensive Iowa House races this year. Each side has spent more than $100,000 on tv ads alone, and I’ve heard radio commercials for and against Riding too. The incumbent has stuck to a positive message in his advertising, while Republicans have split their spending between attacks on Riding and spots promoting challenger Zach Nunn. Several outside groups have gotten involved in the race, including Democracy for America. House district 30 also comprises half of Iowa Senate district 15, a big part of the battle for control over the upper chamber.

House district 40 (John Forbes)

On paper, this seat should have been a top GOP target. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats, and Romney carried this district covering Urbandale in Polk County’s western suburbs. But first-term incumbent John Forbes previously won several terms on the Urbandale City Council and is a local business owner. Not only are many Republicans willing to vote for him, some prominent Republicans in the community have donated to his campaign and/or displayed his signs in their yard. Amazingly, the GOP failed to recruit a candidate for this seat in time for the primary, so they had to nominate Ronda Bern by special convention in June. Aside from some negative direct mail that was identical to pieces sent against many other House Democrats, Republicans haven’t spent a lot of money on this district. If their internal polling showed Forbes vulnerable, they would be running tv and radio ads against him, like they did during the 2012 campaign. Still, a collapse in Democratic turnout akin to 2010 could take out Forbes.

House district 55 (open)

Democrat Rick Edwards faces Republican Darrel Branhagen in an open-seat race where more than $175,000 has been spent on television commercials alone. House district 55 covers parts of Winnishiek, Fayette, and Clayton counties in northeast Iowa. Obama carried the district comfortably in 2012, but retiring Democratic State Representative Roger Thomas was barely re-elected. Republicans outnumber Democrats here, though no-party voters have a plurality.

House district 56 (Patti Ruff)

This seat in Iowa’s far northeast corner (Allamakee County and most of Clayton County) and its previous incarnation changed hands in three consecutive elections. Democrat John Beard won an open-seat race in 2008 but lost to Bob Hager in 2010. Hager lost to Democrat Patti Ruff in 2012. I expected the GOP to target this seat in a midterm election, because even though Obama carried the district against Romney, House district 56 contains roughly 2,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. To my surprise, the GOP failed to field a candidate against Ruff before the primary. Challenger Lowell Engle, nominated by special convention, got a very late start, filing papers just a few days before the mid-August deadline. As far as I can tell, Republicans have not spent a lot of money against Ruff. But I consider her potentially vulnerable if the Democratic coordinated campaign fails to get the vote out.

House district 68 (Daniel Lundby)

This race for a seat in the Cedar Rapids suburbs has generated fairly large spending on tv ads for both sides. Daniel Lundby, whose late mother Mary Lundby was a longtime Republican legislator representing this area, was a surprise winner over GOP incumbent Nick Wagner in 2012. Obama’s coat-tails may have helped a bit too. Lundby’s GOP challenger Ken Rizer got in the race early and has reportedly knocked on thousands of doors over the past year and a half. My impression is that few if any Republican candidates for the state legislature have done as much canvassing this year as Rizer. House district 68 is relatively balanced in terms of voter registrations, and it’s anyone’s guess which side will do better today on GOTV.

House district 82 (Curt Hanson)

Curt Hanson will always have a special place in my heart for winning the first Iowa House election after the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling on marriage equality. Anti-tax groups and social conservatives went all in for Hanson’s opponent. After winning that special election, Hanson beat the same Republican by a larger margin amid the 2010 wave. Then he outperformed Obama in his district in 2012. House district 82 has only a slight GOP registration advantage and covers most of Jefferson County along with all of Davis and Van Buren Counties. Hanson has had support from various outside groups, including labor unions and Democracy for America, in part because House district 82 makes up half of Senate district 41, a top Democratic target. Republicans nominated former Iowa GOP State Central Committee member Jeff Shipley and produced a television commercial promoting his candidacy. But to my knowledge, Republicans never paid to put that spot on the air. I would guess their internal polling showed Hanson on track to win another term.

House district 92 (Frank Wood)

House district 92 includes parts of Davenport and other towns in Scott County. It’s fairly balanced in terms of voter registrations. Democratic incumbent Elesha Gayman retired in 2010 rather than seek re-election to represent the previous version of this seat. Ross Paustian, the Republican Gayman had defeated in 2008, came back to win the open seat. Last cycle, Democrat Frank Wood mounted a comeback of his own to defeat Paustian. (A longtime teacher, coach, and associate principal, Wood had served a term in the Iowa Senate before unexpectedly losing his seat in 2008.) Paustian is running again here, and both he and the Republican Party have paid for tv ads targeting Wood. The incumbent has run a mix of positive and negative ads.

House district 93 (Phyllis Thede)

Republicans don’t seem to be targeting this seat, and it’s not on the watch lists posted by Fiddler or Noble. I am wary because the Democratic voter registration advantage is small in this district covering parts of Davenport and Bettendorf in Scott County. Obama won House district 83 by a comfortable margin in 2012, but this isn’t a presidential election year. If Democratic turnout is poor in the Quad-Cities area today, Thede could be an unexpected casualty.  

Any comments about the Iowa House races are welcome in this thread.

Republican-held Iowa House seats where no Democratic candidate filed (21)

House district 1 (John Wills)

House district 4 (Dwayne Alons)

House district 5 (Chuck Soderberg)

House district 6 (Ron Jorgensen)

House district 10 (Mike Sexton)

House district 11 (Gary Worthan)

House district 19 (Ralph Watts)

House district 22 (Greg Forristall)

House district 23 (Mark Costello)

House district 24 (Cecil Dolecheck)

House district 25 (Stan Gustafson)

House district 37 (John Landon)

House district 44 (Rob Taylor)

House district 48 (Rob Bacon)

House district 54 (Linda Upmeyer)

House district 67 (Kraig Paulsen)

House district 79 (Guy Vander Linden)

House district 84 (Dave Heaton)

House district 88 (Tom Sands)

House district 94 (Linda Miller)

House district 96 (Lee Hein)

Democratic-held Iowa House seats where no Republican candidate filed (28)

House district 9 (Helen Miller)

House district 14 (David Dawson)  

House district 31 (Rick Olson)

House district 32 (Ruth Ann Gaines)

House district 33 (Brian Meyer)

House district 34 (Bruce Hunter)

House district 35 (Ako Abdul-Samad)

House district 36 (Marti Anderson)

House district 41 (Jo Oldson)

House district 45 (Beth Wessel-Kroeschell)

House district 46 (Lisa Heddens)

House district 52 (Todd Prichard)

House district 53 (Sharon Steckman)

House district 62 (Deborah Berry)

House district 65 (Liz Bennett)

House district 66 (Art Staed)

House district 69 (Kirsten Running-Marquardt)

House district 70 (Todd Taylor)

House district 74 (Dave Jacoby)

House district 77 (Sally Stutsman)

House district 81 (Mary Gaskill)

House district 83 (Jerry Kearns)

House district 85 (Vicki Lensing)

House district 86 (Mary Mascher)

House district 87 (Dennis Cohoon)

House district 89 (Jim Lykam)

House district 90 (Cindy Winckler)

House district 98 (Mary Wolfe)

House district 100 (Chuck Isenhart)

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  • District 12, Muhlbauer

    The Iowa Republican Party spent $444,837 against Dan Muhlbauer.

    • I should have made more clear

      that tv ads only comprised a small part of the spending in some of these races.

      In a year like this, any Democrat in a district like that was on borrowed time. They probably could have won while spending a lot less.

  • Which of these folks will step up to run for higher office?

    After Tuesday, I keep wondering who’s next on the bench for various races. It seems like Iowa has some really amazing Democrats in the Iowa House who should be making their way up the chain. It was really exciting to see Tyler Olson run for governor (before things felt apart), and I hope we’ll see more of that.

  • Oh, and Jeff Shipley...

    …was surprising to see on the ballot this year.

    In 2010, he came into my office and asked for a voter registration form, telling me some sort of story about how he was just new to the area and wanted to learn more about the candidates and might be interested in volunteer for the IDP. Something seemed off about him, so I Googled him after he left and figured out he was actually involved with Campaign for Liberty (or some other such group), and was likely just scoping out the opposition without being honest about it.

    A short time later, a Iowa House candidate told me he caught Jeff trying to secretly record him while hounding him for answers about fair share.

    He struck me as pretty childish at that time.

    (And by the way, I turned in his voter registration form because it was the right thing to do — even though I doubted he would have done the same if he were in my shoes.)

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