Prospects for increasing diversity in the Iowa legislature (post-filing edition)

Now that the deadline to compete in the Democratic or Republican primaries has passed, the field of candidates is set in most of the 100 Iowa House districts and 25 Iowa Senate districts that will be on the ballot this fall.

It’s time for a first look at chances to increase diversity in the state legislature for the next two years. The proportion of white lawmakers is unlikely to change, while the proportion of women could move in either direction.


No African-Americans have served in the Iowa Senate for decades. That won’t change anytime soon, because no Democratic or Republican candidate for the Iowa Senate in 2016 is black.

Five African-Americans currently serve in the Iowa House: Democratic State Representatives Ako Abdul-Samad, Deborah Berry, Ruth Ann Gaines, Helen Miller, and Phyllis Thede. Abdul-Samad and Gaines have neither primary challengers nor Republican opponents. A late-filing GOP candidate would have virtually no chance in House districts 32 (Gaines) or 35 (Abdul-Samad); both districts have more than three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

Berry is retiring in House district 62; the only candidate to file there is Ras Smith, who is also black.

Miller has an opponent in House district 9, but she has been elected seven times already from her Fort Dodge area district, twice in GOP landslide years. The voter registration numbers give Democrats an advantage, and higher presidential-year turnout should help her.

Thede is the most vulnerable in this group. Since she was first elected to the Iowa House in 2008, Republicans have targeted her district. Democrats outnumber Republicans in House district 93, but not by a huge margin. Thede’s current opponent Kurt Whalen comes from a prominent Republican family in Scott County. On the other hand, President Barack Obama carried this district with more than 56 percent of the vote in 2012, and Bruce Braley outpolled Joni Ernst here in the 2014 U.S. Senate race. Unless Scott County Democrats run a poor GOTV program, Thede should be favored for re-election.

Only one other African-American candidate filed for the primary ballot this year: Republican Diane Waddy Romero in House district 45. She is a long-shot, partly because her GOP primary rival Sondra Childs-Smith seems to have better Story County Republican connections. Even if Romero wins the nomination, she will likely lose to State Representative Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, because Democrats have more registered voters in this district and strong performance at the top of the ticket in the last two general election. UPDATE: A Bleeding Heartland reader informed me that Romero was disqualified from the ballot. Childs-Smith is the sole remaining GOP candidate in this race.

Iowa voters have never elected a Latino candidate to the state legislature. I am not aware of any Republican Latino candidates on the ballot this year. Sara Huddleston is the Democratic challenger to State Representative Gary Worthan in House district 11. Although the Storm Lake area has a large Latino population, that district is a steep hill for any Democrat to climb.

Perla Alarcon-Flory is the Democratic candidate in House district 6, an open seat covering the south side of Sioux City. Republicans have a healthy voter registration edge here, and Mitt Romney carried the district with more than 54 percent of the vote in 2012, even as Obama won Woodbury County. On the other hand, Alarcon-Flory is a strong candidate, having already won a seat on the school board.

No Asian-Americans have served in the Iowa legislature since State Senator Swati Dandekar stepped down in 2011. To my knowledge, no Asian-American candidates are seeking Iowa House seats this year. The only Asian-American running for the Iowa Senate is Miyoko Hikiji, the Democratic challenger to State Senator Brad Zaun in Senate district 20. That seat in the northwestern suburbs of Des Moines leans Republican by the voter registration numbers, and Romney won nearly 53 percent of the vote here while losing the state by 5 points in 2012. Hikiji hopes her background, including wartime military service in Iraq, will help her attract most independents and some crossover Republican voters.

No Jews currently serve in the state legislature, nor am I aware of any Jewish candidates in either party this year.

Abdul-Samad is the only Muslim now serving at the statehouse. Having no primary challenger or Republican opponent, he is nearly certain to be re-elected.


Iowa’s general assembly has fewer women as a percentage of lawmakers than do 29 other state legislatures. Following the 2014 election, the number of women in the Iowa House rose from 25 to 27, but the number of women in the Iowa Senate dropped from ten to seven because men replaced three retiring female GOP senators.

The group 50/50 in 2020, a bipartisan initiative to achieve political equity in Iowa, has been working since 2010 to increase the number of women candidates at all levels of government. However, a first look at this year’s candidate list suggests that the 2017 Iowa legislature may have even fewer women lawmakers than are serving today.

Prospects for women House incumbents to be re-elected

One of the six Republican women now serving in the Iowa House is retiring: Linda Miller. Republican Gary Mohr is the only candidate on the ballot in House district 94. Even if a Democratic candidate were nominated later by special convention, this district leans Republican in voter registration and went to Romney by nearly a 9-point margin in 2012.

Two GOP women state representatives have no Democratic opponents: Megan Jones (House district 2) and Speaker Linda Upmeyer (House district 54).

Mary Ann Hanusa (House district 16), Sandy Salmon (House district 63), and Dawn Pettengill (House district 75) all have at least one Democratic challenger but will be favored to win re-election because of the political make-up of their districts.

Three of the 21 Democratic women in the Iowa House are retiring: Deborah Berry (House district 62, mentioned above), Nancy Dunkel (House district 57), and Sally Stutsman (House district 77). Dunkel will be replaced by either Democrat Tom Stecher or Republican Shannon Lundgren; the swing district could go either way. Both Democrats running for Stutsman’s seat and one of the two Republicans are women. Since House district 77 leans Democratic, it’s likely a woman will win here in November.

Eight Democratic women have no primary opponent and no Republican challenger yet: Ruth Ann Gaines (House district 32), Lisa Heddens (House district 46), Timi Brown-Powers (House district 61), Kirsten Running-Marquardt (House district 69), Vicki Lensing (House district 85), Mary Mascher (House district 86), Cindy Winckler (House district 90), and Abby Finkenauer (House district 99).

Mary Wolfe is favored to win re-election in House district 98, which has a strong Democratic lean. Even if Jeannine Eldrenkamp defeated Wolfe, it would not be a net loss for gender diversity. Ditto for Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, whose GOP challengers in House district 45 are both women, and for Sharon Steckman, facing Republican Barbara Hovland in House district 53.

Two Democratic women have male primary challengers but no Republican opponents: Jo Oldson (House district 41) and Mary Gaskill (House district 81). If they get through their primaries, they will almost certainly return to the statehouse next year, even if a GOP candidate is nominated over the summer.

Two Republicans, Lowell Engle and Kristi Hager, filed to run against Patti Ruff in House district 56. The outcome of the GOP primary will determine whether there is any chance of that district going to a man for the next legislative session. House district 56 is a classic swing seat, which has a GOP voter registration advantage but went to Obama in the 2012 election.

Marti Anderson (House district 36) has two male GOP opponents, but I can’t see her losing to either in a district where Obama won more than 65 percent of the vote against Romney. By the same token, I’m not worried about Liz Bennett, facing a male challenger in House district 65, where Obama won more than 66 percent in 2012.

Helen Miller (House district 9) and Phyllis Thede (House district 93) are facing male challengers too. As discussed above, both will be favored to win re-election.

To sum up: most of the women seeking re-election to the Iowa House have good chances to win another term. But two of the retiring female lawmakers are guaranteed to be replaced by men, two more seats being vacated by women could go to men, and two women could lose to male primary challengers.

Prospects for women challenging House incumbents

Iowans like to re-elect their incumbents. Barring a major scandal or a landscape changed substantially by redistricting, bet on incumbents to win most state legislative races.

As discussed above, five Republican women are running against female Democratic incumbents: Diane Waddy Romero and Sondra Childs-Smith (House district 45), Barbara Hovland (House district 53), Kristi Hager (House district 56), and Jeannine Eldrenkamp (House district 98). In addition, Stacie Stokes is challenging Democratic State Representative Todd Prichard in House district 52. That will be a tough race for her, given Obama’s big win here in 2012 and the Democratic advantage in voter registrations. UPDATE: Romero was disqualified from the primary ballot in House district 45.

Far more Democratic than Republican women are running for the Iowa House, as has been true for many election cycles. Women challenging male GOP incumbents this year include Sara Huddleston (House district 11, mentioned above), Jan Creasman (House district 17), Andrea Phillips (House district 37), Heather Matson (House district 38), Maridith Morris (House district 39), Claire Celsi (House district 42), Jennifer Konfrst (House district 43), Sherrie Taha (House district 48), and Carrie Duncan (House district 84).

Six more Democratic women have to beat male candidates in contested primaries for the chance to take on GOP incumbents: Lois DeWaard (House district 28), Deb Duncan (House district 47), Teresa Meyer (House district 63), Molly Donahue (House district 68), Paula Denison (House district 75), and Jessica Brackett (House district 91).

Most of these challengers face long odds, but anything can happen, especially if Donald Trump becomes the GOP presidential nominee and tanks the whole Republican ticket with women voters.

Prospects for women running in open House seats

Women are seeking three House seats where men are retiring.

Perla Alarcon-Flory is the Democratic candidate in House district 6, mentioned above.

Jane Bloomingdale is the Republican candidate in House district 51, where a small GOP voter registration advantage is countered by a strong Democratic performance at the top of the ticket in recent elections.

Ashley Hinson will be the Republican nominee in House district 67, which former Speaker Kraig Paulsen vacated. Voter registration numbers and Romney’s relatively strong showing here in 2012 give Hinson a good chance to win the open seat, making House district 67 the only likely net gain for women in the state House.

In open seats being vacated by women, Shannon Lundgren will be the Republican nominee in House district 57. Either Amy Nielsen or Abbie Weipert will be the Democratic nominee in House district 77, where Paula Dreeszen is one of two GOP contenders.

Prospects for women Senate incumbents to be re-elected

The only woman among the 24 Republican state senators is Amy Sinclair. At present no Democrat has filed to run against her in Senate district 14. Though recruiting efforts are rumored to continue, Sinclair will be heavily favored to win re-election, even if a late-announcing Democrat emerges.

Two of the six women in the Democratic caucus are not up for re-election this year. Amanda Ragan (Senate district 27) and Rita Hart (Senate district 49) will serve in the upper chamber at least through 2018.

Four Democratic women state senators are on the ballot this year: Janet Petersen (Senate district 18), Liz Mathis (Senate district 34), Mary Jo Wilhelm (Senate district 26), and Pam Jochum (Senate district 50). Petersen has no opponent, and Jochum’s opponent poses no real threat in a district with an overwhelming Democratic registration advantage.

Though Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in Mathis’s district, she has shown strong crossover appeal in her two previous elections, and Obama carried Senate district 34 in 2012. Mathis will be favored against GOP challenger Rene Gadelha.

As the Senate incumbent re-elected by the smallest margin in 2012, representing a district evenly divided on paper, Wilhelm will be a top target for Republicans. However, they did not get their strongest potential candidate for this race. For that reason, and also because Obama carried Senate district 26 by more than 12 points in 2012, I give Wilhelm a slight edge over challenger Waylon Brown.

Prospects for women challenging Senate incumbents

Two Democratic women are challenging male state senators: Miyoko Hikiji (mentioned above) and Jan Heikes, who is running against Mike Breitbach in Senate district 28. Breitbach won his 2012 race for an open seat by just 17 votes out of nearly 30,000 cast, so he will be the top target for Democrats. Although voter registration totals favor the GOP, Obama won more than 53 percent of the vote in Senate district 28 in 2012.

For a party that made a big deal out of Linda Upmeyer becoming the first female House speaker in Iowa history, the GOP has done a remarkably poor job of recruiting women to run for the state Senate. Other than incumbent Sinclair, the only Republican women running for the Iowa Senate this year are Rene Gadelha in Senate district 34 (mentioned above) and Bonnie Sadler in Senate district 30. That district is fairly evenly divided on paper but favored Obama with more than 53 percent of the vote in 2012. Senate district 30 also includes the University of Northern Iowa. Since education funding has become a partisan fault line favoring Democratic candidates, and three-term Senator Jeff Danielson survived being a top-tier target in 2012, I don’t give Sadler a great chance to win this election. That said, Republicans will certainly try to put the seat in play.

LATE UPDATE: Democrat Susan Bangert declared her candidacy in Senate district 4 in April. She’ll face first-term Senator Dennis Guth.

Prospects for women running in open Senate seats

Only one state senator chose to retire this year rather than run for re-election: Democrat Dick Dearden. His daughter Pam Dearden Conner is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in Senate district 16 (the other is Nate Boulton). Depending on who wins that primary–a “friends and neighbors” race rather than an ideological battle–a woman may be added to Senate ranks. No GOP candidate has filed in Senate district 16, nor would it matter if one did so later this year. The district contains more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Tags: 2016 Elections, Abbie Weipert, Abby Finkenauer, Ako Abdul-Samad, Amy Nielsen, Ashley Hinson, Barbara Hovland, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, Bonnie Sadler, Cindy Winckler, Claire Celsi, Dawn Pettengill, Deb Duncan, Deborah Berry, Diane Waddy Romero, Gary Worthan, HD 09, HD 16, HD 41, HD 42, HD 48, HD 51, HD 93, HD-06, HD-06 2016, HD-09 2016, HD-11, HD-11 2016, HD-16 2016, HD-17, HD-17 2016, HD-28, HD-28 2016, HD-32, HD-32 2016, HD-35, HD-35 2016, HD-38, HD-38 2016, HD-39, HD-39 2016, HD-41 2016, HD-42 2016, HD-43, HD-43 2016, HD-45, HD-45 2016, HD-47, HD-47 2016, HD-48 2016, HD-51 2016, HD-53, HD-53 2016, HD-56, HD-56 2016, HD-57, HD-57 2016, HD-62, HD-62 2016, HD-63, HD-63 2016, HD-67, HD-67 2016, HD-68, HD-68 2016, HD-75, HD-75 2016, HD-77, HD-77 2016, HD-81, HD-81 2016, HD-91, HD-91 2016, HD-93 2016, HD-94, HD-94 2016, HD-98, HD-98 2016, Heather Matson, Helen Miller, Iowa House Races, Iowa Senate Races, Jan Creasman, Jan Heikes, Jane Bloomingdale, Jeannine Eldrenkamp, Jennifer Konfrst, Jessica Brackett, Jo Oldson, Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Kristi Hager, Kurt Whalen, Latinos, Lisa Heddens, Liz Mathis, Lois DeWaard, Maridith Morris, Mary Ann Hanusa, Mary Gaskill, Mary Mascher, Mary Wolfe, Megan Jones, Miyoko Hikiji, Molly Donahue, Pam Dearden Conner, Patti Ruff, Paula Denison, Paula Dreeszen, Perla Alarcon-Flory, Phyllis Thede, Race, Ras Smith, Rene Gadelha, Ruth Ann Gaines, Sandy Salmon, Sara Huddleston, SD-04, SD-04 2016, SD-16, SD-16 2016, SD-28, SD-28 2016, SD-30, SD-30 2016, SD-34, SD-34 2016, Shannon Lundgren, Sharon Steckman, Sherrie Taha, State Legislature, Susan Bangert, Swati Dandekar, Teresa Meyer, Timi Brown Powers, Vicki Lensing, Women

About the Author(s)


  • SD 20

    Unfortunately, we don’t have a large population of Asian Americans to run for office in Iowa. SD20 has leaned republican for the past decade and it will very difficult for Cory Elizabeth, AKA Miyoko Hikij to win. Her campaign is now in the hands of party insiders and they will run the campaign the way they are used to. SD 20 requires a strategy that is unconventional and different from the normal approach the democratic party takes. Additionally, Cory is not well funded and that will dictate how much time will be required to be on the campaign trail.

    While Cory’s team appears confident that it can appeal to moderate voters in both parties who may be turned off by Mr. Zaun support of Donald Trump, his extremely conservative social positions, which are a boon for the republican electorate. For instance, Cory is counting that her veteran status will draw some republican to her side. She will talk all day about being a veteran and that will draw some attention and some might even support her agenda. However, having no experience in government, and writing a book on one’s love story during the Iraq war is not a strong qualification for the senate. She has a tough campaign ahead and most likely has no chance winning this seat, since incumbent is popular, well known and most important well-funded.

    • Senate district 20

      is tough for any Democrat under any circumstances, period.

      If Brad Zaun is well-funded, it has nothing to do with his own hard work. A continuing mystery to me is how an incumbent who represents such a wealthy district can raise so little money. His latest filing shows that he raised less than $3,000 last year. You can view the contributions here.

      Miyoko Hikiji actually raised more money than Zaun last year. How is that possible?

      Much more background on Zaun’s incredible lack of fundraising here.

  • Senate District 20

    Comment Miyoko Hikiji got an early start last year because she knows it’s no easy task winning in a Republican leaning district. Brad Zaun, needs to get his message out and have people know where he stands on the issues. While he is well known, he needs to start meeting people face to face so they get to know him personally. She’s making her military service the link to her campaign by using her books slogan “All Iowa Can Be”. She has an uphill battle since she has gone from being a one book writer…to lobbyist to candidate with nothing to show but a well-connected campaign manager. This is Iowa still and it takes more than a pretty face to win an election. It takes money, connections to business, commitment and hard work. Speaking about military service or being a victim narrative is something few care about this genre. She also has not been fully vetted by the party or people and the conduct of due diligence, and even in this era of heightened political awareness, involvement and activism, few voters actually do it. Ignorance of how to vet, and voter apathy are the two most likely reasons. When voters believe that there is no fundamental difference between any set of candidates in a race, many will simply not bother voting, much less vetting. Voter apathy leads to the election of precisely the kind of people we don’t want in office and it becomes a vicious cycle.

    If we don’t vet candidates and a flawed candidate gets the job, we have no one else to blame but ourselves.