Another look at the uncontested Iowa House districts

Over at the Smart Politics blog based at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Eric Ostermeier takes a look at the uncontested Iowa House districts today. He leads with this surprising fact: “Iowa Republicans failed to field candidates in a party record 32 State House districts this cycle.” I recommend clicking through to read his whole post, which explores historical trends in Iowa House candidate recruitment for both parties.

Bleeding Heartland previously commented on the uncontested Iowa House races here. After the jump I’ve posted my thoughts on Ostermeier’s analysis.

I was also surprised by some of the seats where no Republican filed to run before the March 14 deadline to appear on the primary ballot. I expect the GOP to call special conventions to nominate late-starting candidates in a few potentially competitive districts, such as those now held by first-term State Representatives John Forbes (HD-40) and Patti Ruff (HD-56). Incidentally, during the 2010 cycle, Republicans failed to find a candidate on time in the previous version of Ruff’s district, which John Beard represented at that time. Republicans nominated Bob Hager to run for that Iowa House seat shortly after the June primary. He eventually defeated Beard and lost to Ruff in 2012.

Ostermeier notes that Democrats may “fail to capitalize” on this year’s weak GOP recruitment, as the party has no candidate running in nearly half of the 53 Republican-held districts. But he concludes,

Moreover, Democrats are still at an advantage by making Republicans defend a much higher percentage of State House seats this cycle (27 of 53 districts, or 50.9 percent) than Republicans are making Democrats defend (15 of 47 districts, 31.9 percent).

I largely agree, with the caveat that not every uncontested seat is equivalent. Finding Republicans to run lost-cause races against, say, State Representative Ruth Ann Gaines (HD-32) or State Representative Bruce Hunter (HD-34) has little upside. Either way, Democrats will not spend financial or organizational resources defending seats in heavily Democratic areas of Polk County. In contrast, finding GOP candidates to run in a few seats I flagged in this post might be helpful, forcing Democrats to divert resources from other House races.

By the same token, Democrats’ failure to recruit a challenger against Republican first-termer Larry Sheets (HD-80) is much “worse” than leaving heavily GOP districts in northwest Iowa uncontested. Sheets defeated Joe Judge by just 110 votes in 2012. That’s clearly a winnable seat for a Democratic candidate.

Ostermeier points to eight other seats Republicans won by relatively narrow margins in 2012. I expect Democrats to go after a few of those seats during the next presidential-year cycle. Taking on a GOP incumbent in a midterm year is much less attractive, especially after what Democratic candidates went through in 2010.

My post on the Iowa House races to watch in 2014 is still in progress. Even if both parties were fielding candidates in all 100 districts, at most two dozen seats would likely be in play. As things stand, campaigns in fifteen to 20 districts will probably determine whether Republicans hold their majority in the lower chamber for another two years.

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

P.S. – Ostermeier points out, “Just slightly up the ballot, Iowa Republicans also did not field candidates in 32 percent of State Senate contests up for grabs this cycle – eight of 25 districts.” That’s true, but perhaps less significant than it appears, since the GOP did not leave any competitive Iowa Senate district on the table.

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