Republicans left Iowa House seats uncontested in nearly every battleground Iowa Senate district

The filing period for general-election candidates closed on August 15. You can view the full candidate list for federal and state offices on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website. John Deeth briefly reviews all 100 House races here. Next month, I’ll be posting on the most competitive Iowa House races.

For today, I’m interested in what appears to be a pattern of Republicans letting Iowa House seats go in battleground Iowa Senate districts. I suspect a strategy is in play to depress GOTV in the more Democratic halves of these districts.  

Background

Every Senate district encompasses two Iowa House districts. In many cases, the two halves differ greatly in partisan make-up.

Democrats went into the 2010 midterms with 56 of the 100 Iowa House seats, but the Republican wave reduced their ranks to just 40 state representatives. Several of the losses were shocking. The 2012 elections cut the GOP Iowa House majority to 53-47, but every state legislative incumbent remembers how different the 2010 election was from presidential election two years before. For that reason, Democratic incumbents with challengers will be motivated to take nothing for granted this year.

In contrast, an incumbent without a challenger can afford to take time off during the summer, knock on fewer doors, make fewer phone calls, and raise less money. The legislator will probably still show up for county fairs and local parades, but without the urgent need to have supporters handing out cowboy cards, recruiting volunteers, or getting voters to sign absentee ballot request forms.

In March, Bleeding Heartland noted that 58 Iowa House seats lacked any candidate from one of the major parties. Over the summer, Democrats and Republicans held special nominating conventions in some districts where no one in that party had filed to run in time for the primary. That brought the number of uncontested Iowa House seats down from 58 to 48 out of 100 districts. (Independent or third-party candidates are running in a few of those seats but are unlikely to have a major impact.)

Arguably, we should expect many incumbents not to attract opponents, given how hard it can be to recruit candidates for long-shot races. But the number of Iowa House seats without candidates from both major parties is substantially higher than the 30 seats that one or the other party let go in 2010.

Moreover, the pattern of uncontested Iowa House seats looks very different this year from the last midterm election.

In 27 Democratic-held Iowa House seats, no GOP candidate is running this year, whereas Republicans left only six House Democrats without a challenger in 2010.

The Democratic Party failed to field any candidate in 27 Republican-held House districts this year, little change from 2010, when Democrats let 24 House seats go.

Key uncontested Iowa House seats

Why did Republicans not bother to recruit candidates in more safe or leaning Democratic seats? Maybe they feel comfortable in the Iowa House majority, as opposed to 2010, when they were hungry to get at least one of the legislative chambers back.

I suspect another dynamic is in play too. Look at the handful of races that will determine whether Democrats hold their Iowa Senate majority.

The most vulnerable Democratic-held seats are Senate district 5 (Daryl Beall) and Senate district 27 (Amanda Ragan). Republicans are also investing in a few other races, notably Senate district 23 (Herman Quirmbach) and Senate district 49 (Rita Hart).

Democratic State Representative Helen Miller has no opponent in House district 9, covering the Fort Dodge area. That’s the Democratic side of Senate district 5. Miller had a GOP opponent in 2010, even though her district was just as hopeless for Republicans then as it is now. Beall needs to run up the score in Fort Dodge to fend off a challenge from Tim Kraayenbrink, because the other half of his district is largely new to him since redistricting in 2011.

Democratic State Representative Sharon Steckman has no opponent in House district 53, covering the Mason City area. That’s the Democratic side of Senate district 27, and Ragan needs to build a big margin on Shawn Dietz in Mason City. Like Miller, Steckman had a GOP opponent in 2010.

Senate District 23 mostly covers Ames. Neither of the two Iowa House Democrats representing Ames districts has a Republican opponent this year. Both Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (House district 45) and Lisa Heddens (House district 46) had GOP challengers in 2010.

Democratic State Representative Mary Wolfe has no opponent in House district 98, covering parts of Clinton County, including the city of Clinton. That’s the Democratic side of Senate district 49, where Hart has to seek re-election after just two years in office because of redistricting. She’ll need to do well in the Clinton area against Brian Schmidt. By the way, Wolfe had a GOP opponent in 2010 too.

Moving to the three most vulnerable Republican-held Iowa Senate seats, the same pattern emerges. First-term GOP State Senator Rick Bertrand is seeking re-election in Senate district 7. Democratic State Representative David Dawson has no opponent in House district 14, covering the west side of Sioux City. This seat leans Democratic but is by no means unwinnable for Republicans. Jeremy Taylor beat Dawson in the previous version of the district in 2010. In the other half of Senate district 7, State Representative Chris Hall has only token opposition in House district 13. Republicans targeted Hall’s district in both 2010 and 2012.

Republicans are also defending the open Senate district 39. State Representative Sally Stutsman represents House district 77, the Democratic side of that Senate district. Lo and behold, she has no GOP opponent either. Democratic Senate candidate Kevin Kinney needs strong turnout in Johnson County precincts that are part of Stutsman’s district.

Finally, first-term GOP State Senator Mark Chelgren is in a fight to retain Senate district 41. The more Democratic half of that district is Iowa House district 81, covering the Ottumwa area. Democratic State Representative Mary Gaskill had a Republican opponent in 2010, but not this year.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s field operation will surely not neglect the metropolitan precincts where House Democrats are running unopposed. On the other hand, in every recent election, at least one Iowa Senate race has been decided by a very small margin, sometimes fewer than than 100 votes, sometimes fewer than 50 votes. How much is it worth to the GOP state Senate candidates not to have any House Democrat pounding the pavement all summer and fall?

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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