Iowa Senate overview: Democrats favored to hold chamber

Democrats appear to be in a strong position to hold their Iowa Senate majority, based on a first review of the landscape since the filing period for major-party candidates ended yesterday.  

Currently Democrats hold 26 Iowa Senate seats, Republicans 24.  Of the 25 even-numbered Senate districts, which will not be on the ballot this year, Democrats hold twelve seats and Republicans thirteen.

The full list of major-party state legislative candidates is here (pdf).

Of the 25 odd-numbered Senate districts that will be on the ballot this year, only eleven have at least one candidate from both parties. Here are the eight Democratic-held seats uncontested by Republicans:

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 31 (Bill Dotzler)

Senate district 33 (Rob Hogg)

Senate district 35 (Wally Horn, heavily favored to win his primary against Lance Lefebure)

Senate district 37 (Bob Dvorsky)

Senate district 43 (Joe Bolkcom)

Senate district 45 (Joe Seng, heavily favored to win his primary against Mark Riley)

Here are the six Republican-held seats uncontested by Democrats:

Senate district 1 (David Johnson)

Senate district 3 (Bill Anderson)

Senate district 9 (open because of Nancy Boettger’s retirement, State Representative Jason Schultz is the only GOP candidate)

Senate district 11 (open because of Hubert Houser’s retirement, Art Shipley and Tom Hill are seeking the GOP nomination)

Senate district 19 (Jack Whitver favored to beat primary challenger Brett Nelson)

Senate district 25 (Bill Dix)


Democrats start with 20 seats guaranteed: twelve Senate incumbents who won’t be up for re-election until 2016, and eight districts with no Republican candidate. They need six more wins to maintain their majority. To put it another way, Republicans need to win at least two of the following six Senate districts currently held by Democrats. Right now my money is on Democrats winning all of these races or, at most, losing one out of the six.

Senate district 5 (Daryl Beall)

Republicans have no choice but to target this seat, which covers most of Webster County, including Fort Dodge, and all of Pocahontas, Calhoun, and Humboldt counties (map). Mitt Romney outpolled President Barack Obama in Senate district 5 by about 52.0 percent to 46.7 percent. In addition, Beall is one of only two Senate Democrats facing re-election this year in a district where the GOP has a voter registration advantage, but it’s not a significant edge. As of March 2014, Senate district 5 contained 12,224 registered Democrats, 12,940 Republicans, and 17,092 no-party voters.

I like Beall’s chances against Fort Dodge-based financial adviser Tim Kraayenbrink, for reasons discussed here and here. Beall is a three-term incumbent who survived the 2010 Republican landslide. He is accessible to constituents and has been showing up at numerous public events in his district for years. As chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he’s not personally associated with any highly controversial bills. Kraayenbrink may be capable, but we Iowans like to re-elect our incumbents. Side note: I think it’s good news for Beall that former GOP State Senator Mike Sexton took the easier path of running in the open Iowa House district 10, rather than seeking to represent Senate district 5.

Senate district 15 (open because of Dennis Black’s retirement)

Republicans have no choice but to target this district, because it’s usually easier to win an open seat than to defeat an entrenched incumbent. Corporate executive Crystal Bruntz and former Mitchelville Mayor Jeremy Filbert are seeking the GOP nomination here; the winner will face former Newton Mayor Chaz Allen. The district covers most of Jasper County and parts of eastern Polk County (map and latest voter registration totals here). Allen will be favored in the general election. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Senate district 15 by more than 2,000. He has strong contacts in the business community and even supported Terry Branstad against Governor Chet Culver in 2010.

Senate district 23 (Herman Quirmbach)

Republicans have made a lot of noise about targeting this district. Their candidate, Jeremy Davis, served a term on the Ames City Council, starting in 2010. Quirmbach faces a primary challenge from Cynthia Paschen, who announced her campaign earlier this year (full bio here). She has no major policy disagreements with the incumbent; he chairs the Senate Education Committee, and she plans to focus on education if elected. Paschen is running as a person more steeped in “civility” and “coalition building” than Quirmbach, known to have a prickly personality. In January, Paschen commented, “I usually can appreciate the way Herman votes, but sometimes he’s not the easiest to get along with. I feel like I can bring some passion working across the aisle, some different sensibility to the office.”

The case Paschen will make during the primary campaign dovetails with what Republicans have been saying about Quirmbach ever since he humiliated first-term Senator Amy Sinclair during a floor debate in March 2013 (click through to listen to the audio). Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Quirmbach later apologized to Sinclair, but six months later, she sounded extremely motivated to help defeat Quirmbach in 2014.

Challenging an incumbent in a primary is always a long-shot proposition, so I assume Quirmbach will be the Democratic nominee. Regardless of the outcome in June, I see the Democratic candidate beating Davis in the general as long as he or she doesn’t run a lazy campaign. The latest voter registration totals show 14,402 Democrats, 11,060 Republicans, and 17,852 no-party voters in Senate district 23. That’s a heavy lift for any Republican, especially in a university town. True, Ames is not nearly as liberal as Iowa City. Nevertheless, Iowa State University dominates the local culture and economy, and Senate Democrats are on record supporting more state support for higher education. A poster like the one State Senator Jeff Danielson used in his 2012 re-election campaign could highlight the difference between Iowa House Republican and Senate Democratic proposals for funding Iowa State University.

Another big problem for Jeremy Davis: his day job is running U.S. Representative Steve King’s Ames office. King didn’t carry Story County in his 2012 re-election, and he sure as heck didn’t carry the Ames precincts that make up Iowa Senate district 23. If you work for him, you have no business making a huge deal out of someone else’s offensive or obnoxious remarks. King has scored political points by belittling people for many years.

Senate district 27 (Amanda Ragan)

On paper, this seat covering most of Cerro Gordo and Butler counties and all of Franklin County is the Republicans’ best pickup opportunity. Ragan is the Senate Democrat representing the most GOP-leaning district in terms of voter registration. As of March 2014, Senate district 27 contained 11,901 registered Democrats, 13,351 Republicans, and 17,919 no-party voters. But it would be an exaggeration to call this a GOP-leaning district. President Barack Obama carried this district with just under 53 percent of the vote against Mitt Romney.

As in 2010, Republicans failed to recruit a top-tier challenger against Ragan. Over the past year, several prominent Republicans with good connections in the Mason City area were rumored to be considering this race. None of them filed petitions. It’s not tempting to run against a three-term incumbent who has done well with no-party voters, runs the Community Kitchen of North Iowa, and can take credit for the final compromise over expanding health insurance for low-income Iowans.

Two Republicans will seek the nomination in Senate district 27. Bleeding Heartland posted background on former Butler County Sheriff Timothy Junker here. Shawn Dietz announced his candidacy in January. After losing his job in the “Great Recession,” he served a term as mayor of Hampton in Franklin County and decided not to seek re-election. He is now program director at the radio station KLMJ.

The obvious path to beating Ragan was to hold down her margin in the Mason City area and clean up in the Republican-leaning parts of the district that are new to her since the 2011 redistricting. I don’t see Junker or Dietz being able to accomplish that task. Ragan survived the 2010 landslide, and from where I’m sitting she is well-positioned to win a fourth term this November. That said, she should take nothing for granted and should campaign like she’s ten points behind.  

Senate district 29 (Tod Bowman)

First-term Senator Tod Bowman of Maquoketa (Jackson County) barely won an open seat in what should have been an easy Democratic hold in 2010. But that district was quite different, including most of Clinton County.

After a fellow Democratic senator opted to retire rather than seek re-election in 2012, Bowman was able to hold over in the new Senate district 29, which covers all of Jackson County, part of Jones County, and most of Dubuque County outside the city of Dubuque (click here to view a map).

Two flawed candidates are seeking the GOP nomination here. Jim Heavens was mayor of Dyersville (Dubuque County) for three terms but just lost a re-election bid in November. Controversy over the “Field of Dreams” project was the main factor in his loss. In my experience, people have long memories when it comes to local land use disputes.

The other Republican seeking to run against Bowman is tea party activist James Budde. He ran an amateurish campaign in Iowa’s first Congressional district in 2010, withdrawing more than a month before the primary but too late to have his name removed from the ballot.

I assume Heavens will be the GOP nominee. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal expects Republicans to make a play for this district, but the latest voter registration numbers indicate that Senate district 29 contains 15,529 registered Democrats, 10,877 Republicans, and 18,617 no-party voters. Bowman has a long history of community involvement in the Maquoketa area. If he runs a reasonably active campaign, he should hold this seat.

Senate district 49 (Rita Hart)

Senate district 49 was Iowa’s only odd-numbered Senate seat on the ballot in 2012, because redistricting left the seat with no incumbent. The district includes Clinton County and parts of northern Scott County (click here to view a map). Rita Hart (background here) won a competitive Democratic primary and then beat Republican Andrew Naeve by nearly 3,000 votes in the general. Naeve was the same candidate who almost beat Bowman for an open Senate seat in the 2010 midterms.

This year Hart’s opponent will be Clinton County Supervisor Brian Schmidt. I’m surprised he didn’t draw a more conservative primary rival after voicing strong support for a gasoline tax increase and “Common Core” standards in education in an interview with the DeWitt Observer newspaper. Having experience winning a county election should help Schmidt in his Senate campaign. Whether Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix will spend heavily to try to elect a moderate Republican is a different question. Senate district 49 contains nearly 4,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, a tough margin to overcome even in a midterm year.

Republicans pulled off some upsets in the 2010 Iowa legislative races, so the Senate majority clearly isn’t out of reach for them, especially if 2014 turns out to be another GOP wave. Winning two of the six seats just profiled won’t cement the majority, though. They also have to hold several competitive seats.


Republicans go into this election with nineteen seats guaranteed: thirteen incumbents who are not up for re-election until 2016, and six seats with no Democratic candidate (see above). For a majority, they need at least seven more wins. That means taking two Democratic-held seats and not losing any of the following five districts.

Senate district 7 (Rick Bertrand)

Bleeding Heartland recently discussed Bertrand’s vulnerabilities here. Shorter version: he barely won his first election in 2010, a GOP wave. Democrats outnumber Republicans in his district by more than 3,000. The coordinated campaign produced surprisingly strong Democratic turnout in Sioux City in 2012. President Obama carried Senate district 7 with nearly 57 percent of the vote, a larger margin than in any other Iowa legislative district represented by a Republican.

Democrats Jim France and Maria Rundquist will face off in the primary to take on Bertrand. Neither has held elective office before. Both ran unsuccessfully for city council in Sioux City last year. On balance, I think a competitive primary is a good thing, as it gives both candidates strong incentive to pound the pavement this spring. Meeting thousands of voters on the doorstep will be crucial before the November election. Democratic GOTV was poor in Sioux City in 2010. CORRECTION: A Bleeding Heartland reader who closely followed the Sioux City races that year points out that Democratic turnout was not low compared to previous midterm elections. The problem was much higher participation by Republicans. Scroll to the end of this post for details.

Senate district 13 (Julian Garrett)

It’s not hard to guess why Gronstal isn’t targeting this race. Senate district 13 has a GOP voter registration advantage of nearly 2,000 and an uncontroversial incumbent in Julian Garrett. He won a special election in November to replace Kent Sorenson, who was forced to resign in disgrace. Sorenson was the worst of the worst in the Iowa legislature, and I’m glad he is off the political stage, even though that means Senate district 13 isn’t in play. Democrat Pam Deichmann looks like token opposition for Garrett.

Senate district 39 (open because of Sandy Greiner’s retirement)

I still see this race as a tossup. Republican State Senator Sandy Greiner announced her retirement last summer, giving ambitious constituents from both parties plenty of time to think about this race. The district covers part of Johnson County, most of Washington County, and all of Keokuk County (map here).

Neither party has a clear advantage. As of March 2014, Senate district 39 contained 13,394 registered Democrats, 13,377 Republicans, and 16,615 no-party voters. Both parties will have competitive primaries. Richard Gilmore and Kevin Kinney filed on the Democratic side, while Michael Moore, Royce Phillips, and Bob Anderson are seeking the GOP nomination.

Senate district 41 (Mark Chelgren)

I see Chelgren as the Iowa Senate’s most-endangered incumbent. Senate district 41 contains all of Davis and Van Buren counties, plus the population centers of Wapello and Jefferson counties, Ottumwa and Fairfield (this post contains a map). Chelgren skated below the radar in 2010, beating an incumbent by a handful of votes. Democrats won’t take their eye off the ball again. Senate district 41 went for Barack Obama and Democrats have a voter registration advantage of more than 3,500.

Former Ottumwa schools superintendent Tom Rubel and Wapello County Supervisor Steve Siegel are competing for the nomination here. Chelgren has to hope his two challengers will go hard negative against each other, leaving the winner with a lot of fences to mend. Wapello County has seen some vicious Democratic primaries in the past. Assuming Mariannette Miller-Meeks wins the GOP nomination in Iowa’s second Congressional district, she could run strong in the Ottumwa area, giving a boost to Chelgren in November.

Senate district 47 (Roby Smith)

Senate district 47 covers Bettendorf, some neighborhoods in Davenport, and several small towns in Scott County (this post contains a map). Gronstal has described this seat as being in play, maybe because the district went narrowly for Obama in 2012.

On the other hand, Bettendorf has been sending Republicans to the Iowa Senate for as long as I can remember. Republicans currently outnumber Democrats here by about 1,700. Roby Smith beat a GOP incumbent in the 2010 primary and held on easily in the general election. His Democratic opponent Maria Bribriesco is accomplished, but she has an uphill battle against Smith.

If Republicans lose even one of the Iowa Senate districts they now hold, they must take away at least three Democratic-held seats for a majority in the upper chamber. Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn’t bet on that outcome.

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

UPDATE: A Bleeding Heartland reader highlighted the following facts about the Sioux City race Bertrand narrowly won in 2010.

Woodbury 2002 Dems Vote: 8,556

Woodbury 2006 Dems Vote: 9,851

Woodbury 2010 Dems Vote: 10,610

Statewide Dems Turnout % 2006: 62.2%

Statewide Dems Turnout % 2010: 56.5% (down 5.7%)

Woodbury Dems Turnout % 2006: 46.7%

Woodbury Dems Turnout % 2010: 50.1% (up 3.4%)

The problem was this:

Woodbury GOP Turnout % 2006: 52%

Woodbury GOP Turnout % 2010: 65%

SECOND UPDATE: It’s striking how many uncontested Iowa House districts are located within this year’s competitive Iowa Senate districts.  

About the Author(s)