Five Iowa Senate races to watch in 2014

It’s the time of year for blog posts about notable candidates and upcoming elections. Every politically engaged Iowan knows already that 2014 will be an unusually exciting year. We haven’t seen an open U.S. Senate race since 1974. The last time Iowa’s first Congressional district was open was in 2006. The last time Iowa’s third Congressional district was open was in 2002, but it wasn’t a wide open seat, since incumbent Representative Leonard Boswell moved into Polk County to run. Amazingly, 1940 was the “last time there was a Congressional race in Polk County without an incumbent seeking re-election.” All of Iowa’s statewide elected officials are up for re-election as well this year, and the secretary of state’s position may become open if Matt Schultz decides to go for the Republican nomination in IA-03.

Since Bleeding Heartland readers already know about the big Iowa races to watch, I want to focus today and tomorrow on the elections that are likely to determine control of the Iowa House and Senate in 2015 and 2016.  

Democrats have held a 26 to 24 majority in the Iowa Senate since the 2010 elections. Of the 25 incumbents in even-numbered Senate districts, who won’t face re-election until 2016, twelve are Democrats and thirteen are Republicans.

Only the 25 odd-numbered Iowa Senate districts will be on the ballot in 2014. Of those races, I don’t expect serious competition for the following Democratic-held seats, for reasons explained here.

Senate district 17 (open because Jack Hatch is running for governor; Democratic candidates are Tony Bisignano, Ned Chiodo and Nathan Blake)

Senate district 21 (Matt McCoy)

Senate district 23 (Herman Quirmbach)

Senate district 31 (Bill Dotzler)

Senate district 33 (Rob Hogg)

Senate district 35 (Wally Horn)

Senate district 37 (Bob Dvorsky)

Senate district 43 (Joe Bolkcom)

Senate district 45 (Joe Seng, but I wish some Democrat would challenge him in the primary)

Even if State Senator Matt McCoy decides to run for Congress in IA-03, I don’t think Republicans have a realistic chance of winning his seat in Des Moines and West Des Moines. Their most obvious candidate, State Representative Peter Cownie, seems to be set on a career in the Iowa House, with a view to becoming speaker someday. Central Iowa Republicans have been talking up Ames City Council member Jeremy Davis’ chances of beating Quirmbach in district 23, but I am not buying it for reasons I’ll explain in a future post. Short version, aside from the voter registration edge for Democrats here: Democratic control of the Iowa Senate leads to higher funding levels for state universities, and Davis’ day job is running the Ames office of Representative Steve King.

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, I consider Democrats favored in three other districts that will be on the ballot in 2014: Dennis Black in district 15, Tod Bowman in district 29, and Rita Hart in district 49. An unexpected retirement would make any of those seats more competitive, though.

To recap, twelve Democratic-held Iowa Senate seats won’t be on the ballot in 2014, nine more seats should be easy holds for the majority party, and Democratic incumbents are favored to hold three districts. That adds to up 24 seats, two short of a majority.

Aside from the thirteen GOP state senators who will not be up for re-election in 2014, I expect Republicans to have little trouble holding the following eight districts:

Senate district 1 (David Johnson)

Senate district 3 (Bill Anderson)

Senate district 9 (open because of Nancy Boettger’s retirement, likely to be held by Jason Schultz)

Senate district 11 (Hubert Houser)

Senate district 13 (Julian Garrett won a special election after Kent Sorenson resigned in disgrace)

Senate district 19 (Jack Whitver)

Senate district 25 (Bill Dix)

Senate district 47 (Roby Smith)

If Smith does not seek re-election, Senate district 47 could become competitive. President Barack Obama carried this Quad Cities-area district by a narrow margin in 2012.

Assuming none of the districts where one party is favored change hands, Democrats would hold 24 seats and Republicans 21.

To retain control of the upper chamber, Democrats need to win at least two of the following five key Senate races. Fortunately for them, they have two strong incumbents planning to seek their fourth terms in 2014.

Senate district 5 (Daryl Beall)

Senate district 27 (Amanda Ragan)

First elected to the Iowa Senate in 2002, both Beall and Ragan work hard and are known for showing up at tons of public events in their districts. Both senators not only survived the 2010 Republican wave, but were re-elected by comfortable margins. Redistricting made both of their districts a bit more Republican, though.

Senate district 5 has a slight Republican voter registration advantage, and Mitt Romney defeated Obama here by about 52.0 percent to 46.7 percent. Assuming Beall seeks a fourth term, my money is on him to beat Tim Kraayenbrink, who announced his candidacy in October. The Iowa GOP has no choice but to target this district, whether their nominee is Kraayenbrink or someone else who may declare before the filing deadline in March. It doesn’t take long to collect the 100 signatures needed to run for the Iowa Senate. But I don’t think it will be easy to beat Beall. Controversial bills rarely run through the Veterans Affairs Committee he chairs, and he’s not associated with any hot-button bills that have emerged from other committees on which he serves: Transportation, Education, Agriculture, or Commerce.

Ragan did not draw a top-tier challenger in 2010 and crushed James Mills by more than 4,000 votes. According to the latest numbers available on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website, Senate district 27 has a Republican voter registration edge of about 1,400, greater than any other Democratic-held Senate district that will be on the ballot in 2014. Nevertheless, Ragan has done well with no-party voters in previous re-election bids, and Obama carried this district with just under 53 percent of the vote.

So far, the only declared GOP candidate here is Timothy Junker, a former Butler County sheriff. I expect at least one other Republican to seek the nomination, presumably someone with a stronger base in Mason City. A couple of months ago, some Mason City residents received telephone polls asking whether they would support former Mayor Bill Schickel or Ragan for the Senate seat. Other possible candidates include former Mayor Roger Bang and former State Senator Merlin “build my fence” Bartz, who runs Representative Steve King’s Mason City office. Bartz would have to move from his Worth County farm to run against Ragan, though.

Aside from strong constituent service and goodwill stemming from her work as executive director of the Community Kitchen of North Iowa, Ragan can point to concrete achievements in the Senate. Notably, she worked with Republican Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, who represents half of Senate district 27, to find the compromise alternative to expanding Medicaid in Iowa.

Republicans are defending three of the five key Iowa Senate seats on the ballot in 2014.

Senate district 7 (Rick Bertrand)

Senate district 39 (open due to Sandy Greiner’s retirement)

Senate district 41 (Mark Chelgren)

First-term Senator Rick Bertrand won an open seat by only 222 votes in 2010 and now represents the GOP-held Senate district where Obama won the largest share of the vote: 56.7 percent to just 41.9 percent for Romney. That, plus a Democratic voter registration edge of more than 3,000 put Bertrand high on the target list.

Republicans will invest heavily in defending this seat. Bertrand rose to the position of Senate minority whip in the middle of his first term and was an early supporter of Bill Dix’s efforts to become minority leader. He has a high profile as a bar owner and developer of other downtown Sioux City businesses, although some locals may not appreciate his position on some issues related to a Sioux City casino project. UPDATE: The Des Moines Register reported on January 2 that Whitver will seek the position of minority whip for the 2014 legislative session, because Bertrand “notified his fellow caucus members he will give up the post to focus on his reelection campaign.”

I am not aware of any declared Democratic candidate in Senate district 7. Two-term State Representative Chris Hall told me in November that he is running for re-election to Iowa House district 13 in 2014. One name frequently mentioned in Democratic circles is former State Senator Steve Hansen, who served in the Iowa House for eight years and the Iowa Senate for eight years before retiring in 2002. He now chairs the Iowa Arts Council. Speaking by telephone today, Hansen told me he is “not leaning that way” but “wouldn’t rule out” running in Senate district 7. He added that Democrats will have a very qualified candidate for the seat. The party needs someone with a lot of stature in Sioux City, as Democratic turnout is generally low here compared to other Iowa cities. Duplicating the Obama campaign’s impressive GOTV in Woodbury County will be a tall order.

Senate district 39 looks like a classic tossup race, with no incumbent and no voter registration advantage for either party. Republicans have three announced candidates: Michael Moore, Royce Phillips, and Bob Anderson. So far, the only Democrat running is Richard Gilmore, but others may enter the race before the filing deadline in March. UPDATE: Johnson County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Kinney became the second Democratic candidate here on January 6. Half of Senate district 39 lies in Johnson County, putting it within easy striking distance for volunteers in the Iowa City area.

Chelgren is the most endangered GOP Senate incumbent in my opinion. His victory by ten votes over a Democratic incumbent in 2010 was one of the most shocking Iowa legislative upsets in recent memory. Democrats are highly motivated to take back this district containing Ottumwa and Fairfield, where Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by more than 3,500. Obama carried just under 53 percent of the vote in Senate district 41.

So far, two Democrats have announced plans to run for this seat: Wapello County Supervisor Steve Siegel and community college dean Tom Rubel, a former superintendent of Ottumwa schools. Over in Jefferson County, Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy has not ruled out this race. He was just re-elected to his current office in November.

Any comments about the 2014 Iowa Senate campaigns are welcome in this thread.

LATE JANUARY UPDATE: I am keeping a closer eye on Dennis Black’s race in Senate district 15.

About the Author(s)


  • SD39

    Look for developments on the Democratic side… soon.

    • Gilmore seems like a nice guy

      Gilmore seems like a nice guy but when he spoke at the Johnson County Dem BBQ last fall, he didn’t have much charisma.  

      I could see him doing well as a county supervisor.