The redistricting process and several Republican retirements have created many pickup opportunities for Iowa House Democrats. The devastating 2010 election left them nowhere to go but up in the lower chamber, where Republicans currently enjoy a 60 to 40 majority. Relatively few sitting House Democrats represent vulnerable districts.
Speaking to activists at the Polk County Democratic convention on March 10, I heard lots of optimism about the House races. After the jump I've posted some early thoughts on the seats up for grabs.
Of the 40 current Iowa House Democrats, two opted to retire from the legislature. Kurt Swaim and Andrew Wenthe were paired with fellow Democratic incumbents Curt Hanson and Roger Thomas, respectively. Two other Democratic representatives, Janet Petersen and Nate Willems, decided to run for the Iowa Senate rather than seek re-election to the House.
That leaves 36 Iowa House Democrats seeking re-election. Of those, 15 do not have a Republican opponent and are therefore virtually assured of winning another term: Rick Olson, Kevin McCarthy, Brian Quirk, Sharon Steckman, Deborah Berry, Tyler Olson, Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Todd Taylor, Dave Jacoby, Jerry Kearns, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, Cindy Winckler, Mary Wolfe, and Chuck Isenhart.
I must point out that at this stage in 2010, State Representatives John Beard and Tom Schueller didn't have Republican opponents either, yet both ended up losing in November. I don't expect any of the currently unchallenged House Democrats to meet the same fate.
Another 14 Democratic incumbents have Republican competition but shouldn't have any trouble winning re-election in their strongly Democratic districts: Helen Miller, Pat Murphy, Jim Lykam, Dennis Cohoon, Mary Gaskill, Mark Smith, Anesa Kajtazovic, Lisa Heddens, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, Jo Oldson, Ako Abdul-Samad, Bruce Hunter, Ruth Ann Gaines, and Dan Kelley. Disclaimer: several Democrats thought to be "safe" lost in 2010, and more could fall if 2012 turns out to be another horrible year for Democrats generally.
The last seven Democratic House incumbents face potentially difficult re-election battles, either because of the partisan lean of their district, because they are relatively new to politics, or because they have drawn a particularly strong opponent.
John Wittneben in the new district 7. He won an open seat by a few dozen votes in 2010, and his new district no longer has a strong Democratic voter registration advantage. Two Republicans filed to challenge him: Mark Frakes and Tedd Gassman.
Dan Muhlbauer is another first-term Democrat, having won an open-seat race against an unbelievably weak Republican candidate. Muhlbauer's new district is a tiny bit more Democratic, but if Republican candidate Barney Bornhoft has the faintest clue, he should be a stronger opponent than the man Muhlbauer beat in 2010.
Chris Hall also won an open seat in 2010. He is the only House Democrat who will face a sitting House Republican in the general election. First-term GOP State Representative Jeremy Taylor decided to run here after the new map placed his house outside of his current district. He proved himself to be a strong campaigner by almost beating a Democratic incumbent in 2008 and winning an open seat in 2010.
Roger Thomas has more experience in the House, but the new district 55 has a GOP voter registration advantage, unlike the seat where Thomas was previously elected. Three Republicans filed to challenge him: Michael Klimesh, Marshall Nessa, and Dustin Noble.
Bob Kressig has won re-election by narrow margins several times. The winner of the GOP primary between James Kenyon and Howard Lyon will face Kressig in the new district 59.
Curt Hanson won a 2009 special election and his 2010 re-election in a Republican-leaning district, so he stands a decent chance of overcoming the voter registration disadvantage in the new district 82. Two Republicans have filed for this seat: James Johnson and Jeff Shipley.
Phyllis Thede knocked off a GOP incumbent in 2008 and survived the 2010 wave in a Democratic-leaning seat. Her new district 93 is more evenly divided in terms of voter registration. The good news is that she doesn't appear to have drawn a particularly strong candidate in Mark Nelson.
Depending on how many of those seven incumbents hang on, Democrats will have between 29 and 36 current House members returning in 2013.
One Democratic pick-up is a lock: Republicans aren't fielding a candidate in the new House district 57, where Steve Lukan is retiring. Nancy Dunkel is the only Democrat on the ballot.
The new House district 36 should be an easy hold for the winner of the Democratic primary between Marti Anderson, Cara Kennedy-Ode, and William Rock. Janet Petersen left this district open when she decided to run for Senate district 19.
That leaves House Democrats with 31 to 38 seats--a long way from the 51 they need to win back the majority.
The optimism I heard at the convention stems from the many strong candidates Democrats are fielding in Republican-held districts.
In general, it's easier for a political party to pick up an open seat than to defeat an incumbent from the other side. The following 13 districts with no incumbent seem potentially winnable for Democrats:
* district 14, left empty under the redistricting plan. Democrats have a voter registration advantage here; their unsuccessful 2010 candidate David Dawson will face Republican Greg Grupp.
* district 26, where Republican Glen Massie opted not to seek re-election. Massie's 2010 Democratic opponent, Scott Ourth, faces the winner of the GOP primary between Ruth Randleman and Steve McCoy.
* district 28, where Republican Rich Arnold is retiring. Democrat Megan Day Suhr will face the winner of the GOP primary between Len Gosselink and Greg Heartsill (my money's on Heartsill to be the general election candidate).
* district 30, where Republican Kim Pearson opted not to seek re-election. Altoona City Council member Joe Riding is the Democratic candidate; Republicans have a primary between Jim Carley and Carol Miller.
* district 40, where Republican House Appropriations Committee Chair Scott Raecker opted not to seek re-election. Urbandale City Council member John Forbes is the Democratic candidate; he'll face business owner and veteran Mike Brown.
* district 63, left empty under the redistricting plan. Former Democratic State Senator Bill Heckroth faces Sandy Salmon here.
* district 64, where Republican Dan Rasmussen retired. Two candidates from Oelwein are on the ballot: Democratic City Council member Bruce Bearinger and Republican business owner Jim Givant. The party registration numbers lean Democratic.
* district 72, where Republican Lance Horbach retired. The voter registration numbers lean to the GOP. Dean Fisher is the only Republican on the ballot here; a Democratic primary looms between Christina Blackcloud-Garcia and Nathan Wrage.
* district 73, where House Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Kaufmann is retiring. His son, Bobby Kaufmann, is the only Republican on the ballot. He'll have name recognition going for him, but clearly he won't be nearly as tough an opponent as his father would be. Democrats have a primary here between David Johnson and Dick Schwab.
* district 76, left empty after redistricting. Grinnell City Council member Rachel Bly will face the winner of a Republican primary between David Maxwell and Larry Wilson (my money's on Wilson, a Poweshiek County supervisor).
* district 77, left empty after redistricting. The voter registration numbers give the advantage to Democrat Sally Stutsman over Republican Steve Sherman.
* district 80, left empty after redistricting. Joe Judge, the son of former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, is the Democratic candidate here. His GOP opponent will be Larry Sheets.
* district 95, where Democrat Nate Willems is running for the Senate instead of for a third term in the House. Two teachers will face off here: Republican Quentin Stanerson and Democrat Kristin Keast.
Obviously, Democrats aren't going to sweep all of those House races, but even winning half of them would represent a major step forward.
There are at least 12 districts Democrats can credibly play for despite the fact that Republican incumbents are seeking re-election. (I'm not saying lightning couldn't strike in some other Republican-held district, but the other Democratic challengers will face long odds given the partisan lean.)
* district 15, covering Carter Lake and the western part of Council Bluffs; first-term GOP Representative Mark Brandenburg moved into this district. The Democratic candidate is George Yaple.
* district 38, where Ankeny Republican Kevin Koester, who was elected from a solidly Republican district, has to seek re-election in an evenly divided seat. John Phoenix is the Democratic candidate here (Koester also has a primary challenger).
* district 43, where Republican Chris Hagenow will be favored but Democrat Susan Judkins has a strong resume.
* district 47, where Democrat Donovan Olson is seeking a rematch with Chip Baltimore, who defeated him by a narrow margin in 2010.
* district 56, where Patti Ruff is running against first-term Republican Bob Hager.
* district 58, where former State Representative Tom Schueller is seeking a rematch with surprise 2010 winner Brian Moore.
* district 60, now represented by first-term Republican Walt Rogers. Bob Greenwood is the Democratic challenger in this Waterloo/Cedar Falls district.
* district 66, where Democrat Art Staed is challenging the Republican who beat him in 2008, Renee Schulte. The voter registration numbers lean Democratic, but Schulte has proved herself to be a strong campaigner.
* district 68, where Daniel Lundby, the son of the late Republican State Senator Mary Lundby, will be a big underdog against two-term Republican Nick Wagner.
* district 88, where House Ways and Means Committee Chair Tom Sands will be heavily favored against Democrat Sara Sedlacek.
* district 91, where 2010 winner Mark Lofgren is up against Democrat John Dabeet.
* district 92, where 2010 GOP winner Ross Paustian (an unsuccessful House candidate in 2008) is up against former State Senator Frank Wood.
Again, Democrats are not going to sweep these races, but having so many GOP-held seats in play will be helpful. Every dollar House Republican leaders spend defending their own incumbents is a dollar they can't spend targeting the vulnerable House Democrats.
It's also worth noting that eleven sitting House Republicans face primary challengers. As a result, many Republicans in safe seats will have to spend money on their own re-election campaigns, rather than in districts Democrats are targeting.
I don't see the House changing hands in 2013, but with good campaigning and GOTV, Democrats should be able to climb most of the way out of their 60-40 hole.
Any comments about the Iowa House races are welcome in this thread.