First look at the Iowa fallout from the worst election in my lifetime

I expected to be writing a different post today, about Iowa being out of step with other swing states and ending up on the “wrong” side of a national landslide. Everyone saw it coming, even people inside the Republican National Committee and Donald Trump’s “inner circle.” Instead, Trump outperformed his polling numbers across the board, winning many states Barack Obama carried twice. On the strength of white voters, he picked up states that hadn’t voted for a Republican president since Ronald Reagan. Along the way, he won Iowa by a larger margin than any presidential candidate has done since 1984.

The national and global consequences of a Trump presidency are too numerous to list here. For a start, we’re headed for a recession, worsened when the Republican-controlled Congress enacts the Kansas formula of tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else. Millions of Americans will lose their health care. Some will die prematurely as a result, while others will will “only” become uninsurable and one medical problem away from financial ruin. Congress will dismantle safety net programs, block grant Medicaid and Medicare, and maybe hand Social Security over to Wall Street. All government efforts to combat climate change will cease, replaced by policies that increase greenhouse gas emissions. If the Environmental Protection Agency survives, it will lose any ability to enforce pollution regulations. Other federal agencies won’t enforce anti-discrimination laws or labor standards. A conservative Supreme Court will spend a generation expanding corporate power and rolling back civil rights and reproductive rights. A narcissist drawn to revenge fantasies will have the power to sic the Justice Department and FBI on his enemies. A man with no impulse control or foreign policy experience will be commander in chief, and his possible connections to the Russian government are still unknown.

The Iowa results were far worse than the worst-case scenarios Democrats imagined.

Trump winning by more than 9 points (51.2 percent to 41.7 percent at this writing) is bad enough: a 15-point swing from the 2012 presidential election results in the state. Senator Chuck Grassley winning big was expected, even if not by the 25-point margin he received.

Democrats had hoped to pick up two Congressional seats in Iowa. They didn’t come close, with Representative Rod Blum defeating Monica Vernon in what should be a Democratic-leaning first district by 53.8 percent to 46.0 percent.

In the third district, where Democrats should be competitive, Representative David Young defeated Jim Mowrer by 53.4 percent to 39.7 percent–a larger margin than his victory over Staci Appel in the 2014 midterm election.

Representative Dave Loebsack held the second Congressional district for Democrats, but by less than 8 points against Christopher Peters. If Republicans had put real money into that race, they might have taken Loebsack down.

As expected, Representative Steve King coasted by more than 20 points in the heavily Republican fourth district. Finding a Democrat willing to put their name on the ballot in IA-04 may be difficult in the future. Incidentally, King’s opponent Kim Weaver may run for Iowa Democratic Party chair.

Democrats were facing a difficult Iowa Senate map, with most of the battleground districts in white working-class areas. By early November, many Democratic insiders were expecting to lose at least two or three of the seats where Republicans were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars against incumbents. I thought Democrats might lose four to six seats, including Rich Taylor’s district in southeast Iowa, which wasn’t on the GOP target list.

First-term Senator Taylor is clinging to a small lead with one precinct not reporting results. But in the the biggest shocker of the night, longtime Democratic incumbent Tom Courtney lost the district next door by more than 1,400 votes. Republicans hadn’t put big money behind Thomas Greene, their candidate in Senate district 44 (covering the Burlington area).

Democrats were unable to hold any of the targeted Senate races or even keep the elections close:

Majority Leader Mike Gronstal’s 34-year career in the state legislature came to an end by nearly a 2,000-vote margin. Unofficial results show Dan Dawson won 54.0 percent of the vote, Gronstal 45.8 percent.

Two-term Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm lost Senate district 26 to Waylon Brown by more than 7,500 votes, 62.3 percent to 37.6 percent.

Three-term Senator Brian Schoenjahn lost Senate district 32 to Craig Johnson by more than 5,000 votes, 59.1 percent to 40.7 percent.

Two-term Senator Steve Sodders lost Senate district 36 to Jeff Edler by more than 1,000 votes, 52.3 percent to 47.5 percent.

First-term Senator Chris Brase, long considered the most vulnerable Democrat in the state legislature, lost by about 4,000 votes, 56.8 percent to 43.0 percent.

If Taylor holds his lead, Democrats will be down to 19 Senate seats, probably 20 after the December special election to replace the late Joe Seng in Senate district 45 (part of Davenport).

UPDATE: Despite a “glitch” on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website showing one precinct not reporting, all of the votes are in from Senate district 42, and Taylor leads by 13,381 votes to 13,224. That’s too large a margin to be erased by any recount or late-arriving absentee ballots. So Democrats lost six Senate seats.

Two Democrats whom Republicans and some interest groups had gone after earlier in the campaign were easily re-elected. Senator Jeff Danielson won a fourth term in Senate district 30 by nearly a 6,000 vote margin, 58.7 percent to 41.2 percent over Bonnie Sadler. His district includes the University of Northern Iowa, and college-educated voters were much less inclined to support Trump for president.

Senator Liz Mathis won a second term in Senate district 34 (Cedar Rapids suburbs) by more than 4,000 votes, 55.9 percent to 44.1 percent over Rene Gadelha.

But there is no path back to an Iowa Senate majority without being able to hold some districts including smaller cities and rural areas.

At best, Democrats have two Iowa Senate pickup opportunities in 2018, but given what just happened in the Sioux City and Ottumwa areas, I wouldn’t put good odds on winning either of those districts.

In the Iowa House, Democrats lost ground despite a record number of Republican retirements in what should be winnable districts in the eastern half of the state.

No Democratic challenger defeated an incumbent, and few of the races were close.

Amy Nielsen easily won an open-seat race for Iowa House district 77 in Johnson County.

But Tom Stecher couldn’t keep the open House district 57 (Dubuque County outside the city of Dubuque) in the Democratic column. The irony is, newly-elected Republican Shannon Lundgren has a much higher unpaid federal tax bill than Majority Leader Chris Hagenow’s challenger ever did. Republicans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trashing Jennifer Konfrst over that issue.

Two-term State Representative Patti Ruff lost House district 56 in the northeast corner of the state by more than 1,000 votes.

A net loss of two House seats means Republicans will have a 59-41 majority in the lower chamber. After the 2012 presidential election, Democrats held 47 House seats.

Again, there is no path to a state House majority without being able to hold some overwhelmingly white districts including smaller towns and rural areas. It may be a decade or longer before Democrats are in a position to win back control of either legislative chamber.

I expect Governor Terry Branstad and Republican lawmakers to slash funding for K-12, higher education and community colleges, in order to pay for tax cuts mainly benefiting the wealthy. State-funded preschool for four-year-olds will probably be on the chopping block too.

Medicaid funding may be cut and social safety net programs like child care assistance scaled back.

Collective bargaining rights for public employees will be decimated.

Iowa will likely enact several laws on the gun lobby’s wish list, including “stand your ground” and open carry. “Constitutional carry” (eliminating all permitting for concealed weapons) may also be on the agenda.

How far will Republicans go in restricting voting rights? They will pass a voter ID law for sure–perhaps also limits on early voting and election-day registration.

New restrictions on reproductive rights, such as a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, are a near-certainty too.

Raising the minimum wage is probably off the table. So is any hope of making medical cannabis more accessible to Iowans suffering from severe illnesses.

Dark days are ahead for Iowa. It will get a lot worse before it gets better.

UPDATE: John Deeth takes a closer look at new voting restrictions likely to come to Iowa.

  • the election

    Not much that can be said. There will be a time for a post-mortem on how to do things better, but Democrats lost across the board, with money and without money, in urban areas and in rural areas It’s amazing that some rural D’s like Todd Prichard held a seat or urban D’s like John Forbes in tough seats held on. The R’s swamped the D’s at every level in this race, and across the country. It wasn’t a lack of good candidates or even money that did the Democrats in, just not our night. Maybe there were voters out there we needed to get to the polls. Why people would show up to vote for Donald Trump, and then vote for Republicans, is beyond me but it happened.

  • Repent At Leisure

    The Iowa voters will come to regret the choices they made yesterday, but I fear they’ll keep right on making them anyway.

  • Don't fool yourself - money mattered

    According to totals for state races I saw yesterday, especially in the close races where TV ads played a role, R’s had much more cash/in-kind totals. (And I was disappointed this morning by the number of protest votes for President that showed up – both for third parties, and write-ins, smh). Of course, I had looked at LSA’s voter registration map (by county) yesterday, and was dismayed at the sea of red/pink as I inspected the numbers, county by county. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/MOW/801290.pdf It doesn’t feel like the same place as when I moved here, about 20 years ago. It still says there are lots of “independents”. but it hasn’t felt that way the past few elections. Maybe it’s just the slow drift I’ve felt, as the moderates left the R’s and shifted rightward.

    I barely heard anything about education this election cycle (of course, my Rep went unchallenged), and now the funding will continue to be starved. My kids are nearly done with school, but there’s still university, which is also underfunded. The budget process will not be kind to most state agencies this session, and most have been asked to do without increases for years now. I used to live in red states before I had kids, and I never liked the politics, but the private sector jobs were good in good years. They were boom and bust cycles, though. I fear what’s happened to state governments in Kansas and Wisconsin, however. Government is not the enemy, nor should it be a piggy bank for the wealthy. It’s going to get tougher to do good things.

    • I agree

      we can’t be competitive in state legislative races if Republicans are consistently outspending our candidates by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

      I will have more to say about this in future posts.

      Our school system and public universities are going to suffer badly in the coming years. Just talk to anyone in Wisconsin or Kansas.

  • I'm glad..

    I was raised with strong values of harmony between all people. It is the core of what I do as an artist/educator. As a 30 year resident of the SF Bay area returning home to Iowa, I’m mortified to my core tonight. Then I read your words:
    I expect Governor Terry Branstad and Republican lawmakers to slash funding for K-12, higher education and community colleges, in order to pay for tax cuts mainly benefiting the wealthy. State-funded preschool for four-year-olds will probably be on the chopping block too.

    Medicaid funding may be cut and social safety net programs like child care assistance scaled back.

    Collective bargaining rights for public employees will be decimated.

    Iowa will likely enact several laws on the gun lobby’s wish list, including “stand your ground” and open carry. “Constitutional carry” (eliminating all permitting for concealed weapons) may also be on the agenda.”

    …and I have to wonder aloud:
    “What has been going on out here for the last 30 years?
    Desmoinesdem has also reported that Iowa is one of the 10 WORST places for African Americans in the country.
    The Governor has privatized and paralyzed the Medicaid system in Iowa. You’ve covered it.

    The conditions you outlined above are going to further devastate real people whose lives have already been blown apart by Branstad’s senseless assault. (What does he have against public employees anyway? This seems pathological somehow?)
    Local control vs. DLC/DNC influence over local primary candidate choices is something I’d like to know more about.

    Hopefully this crisis will provide the opportunity to more of us to fully examine the capillaries where our democracy seems to morph into a reality TV show.

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