Ten Iowa legislative incumbents who raised surprisingly little for their re-election campaigns

Since the latest deadline for state legislative candidates to report to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board passed on May 19, I’ve been going through the forms filed by incumbents or challengers in potentially competitive races.

Some of the contribution totals were much lower than I expected to see.

Follow me after the jump for ten Iowa House or Senate incumbents who haven’t been focused on fundraising, even though they could face tough re-election campaigns.

Before I get to the list, three caveats.

One: These numbers don’t necessarily reflect how much these incumbents will be able to spend defending their seats.

Technically, Iowa law does not allow transfers from one candidate’s campaign fund to another’s. In practice, such transfers happen routinely as legislative leaders give money to entities linked to state or county parties, which either distribute the money to other campaigns or spend the money on advertising or direct mail to promote a certain candidate (reported as in-kind contributions).

In other words, leadership will bail out some of these low-fundraising incumbents, if it appears they are in danger of losing. Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer has no challenger this year and is sitting on $506,651.09 cash on hand, as of May 14. She can spend virtually all of that money trying to hold marginal seats for Republicans. House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow raised $33,570.00 during the latest reporting period and has $168,276.05 cash on hand, though he will need a large chunk of change to defend his own seat. Hagenow won by just 23 votes during the last presidential year, after push-polls and tv ads attacked his opponent. He faces a hard-working challenger in Jennifer Konfrst.

Iowa House Minority Leader Mark Smith reported $166,695.77 cash on hand in his latest disclosure. Lacking a GOP opponent in his own district, Smith could use some of that money to support vulnerable incumbents in his caucus. I’m sure he would prefer to spend most of it on offense. Democrats need a net gain of eight seats to reclaim the House majority.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal raised $100,015.13 during the latest reporting period and had $526,792.04 cash on hand as of May 14. Most of the money will probably be spent on other races, though Republicans are threatening to target Gronstal in Senate district 8.

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix did not have to file a May 19 report, because he is not up for re-election this year. In January, he reported having $519,786.09 on hand. Senate Republicans have been hiring staff and are promising an aggressive push to win a majority in the upper chamber, but will have the cash to defend their own incumbents if the need arises.

Two: Do not read this post as a review of the ten Iowa legislative seats which are most at risk of changing hands.

Some of this year’s best pickup opportunities for Democrats are in open seats, such as House district 51, House district 58, House district 55, and House district 95. I didn’t include any retiring incumbents in this post, because I would not expect a lawmaker who isn’t seeking re-election to raise money.

By the same token, many incumbents who have targets on their backs responded by raising a substantial amount during 2015 and the first four months of this year. That includes Democratic state senators Chris Brase in Senate district 46, Mary Jo Wilhelm in Senate district 26, Jeff Danielson in Senate district 30, Majority Leader Gronstal in Senate district 8, and Liz Mathis in Senate district 34.

Three: This list does not represent the ten Iowa state lawmakers who have raised the least since January.

A strange and enduring feature of Iowa politics is the number of entrenched legislative incumbents who raise almost no money. Instead of being rainmakers for their caucuses, many lawmakers in safe seats make little effort. For instance, Jerry Behn is the longest currently-serving Iowa Senate Republican and a former minority leader, but he raised only $4,057.78 during the latest reporting period. A few months ago, Bleeding Heartland noted that first-time candidate Nate Boulton had raised more money in four months than the retiring Democratic senator in his district had raised in seven years.

If you look at all of the latest candidate disclosure forms, you will find other House or Senate members who collected less in campaign contributions than some who are listed here.

My goal was to flag some noteworthy numbers from incumbents who can’t count on coasting to another term.

Here are ten, listed alphabetically.

Mike Breitbach, first-term Republican representing Iowa Senate district 28

Of the twelve GOP state senators who are up for re-election this year (because they represent even-numbered districts), Breitbach is obviously the top Democratic target. He’s a first-termer who won his 2012 race by just seventeen votes. Although registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in Senate district 28, which covers the northeast corner of the state, no-party voters are a plurality of the electorate. Barack Obama carried this district with 53.66 percent of the vote in the last presidential election.

Inexplicably, Breitbach raised $2,840.00 between January and early May, of which $1,000 came from PACs and $500 came from fellow GOP State Senator Julian Garrett. After spending $8,530.07 during the reporting period ($5,000 to the Iowa GOP’s Senate Majority Fund and $2,904.00 to Victory Enterprises for advertising), Breitbach had only $4,946.47 has on hand as of May 14.

His challenger Jan Heikes managed to raise $13,694.23, all from individuals, since launching her campaign a few months ago. Her cash on hand total of $11,918.09 was more than double that of an incumbent who must have known Democrats would focus on his seat.

Dean Fisher, two-term Republican representing Iowa House district 72

Dean Fisher won his first race by only 216 votes in a seat Democrats foolishly did not target in 2012. Obama carried House district 72 by a narrow margin over Mitt Romney. Fisher benefits from a slight GOP advantage in registered voters here, but an even larger group of his constituents are affiliated with neither party.

Potential vulnerabilities for Fisher include telling a mother whose son suffers from seizures that she should “move to Colorado” if she wants access to medical cannabis. In addition, he did nothing to stop Governor Terry Branstad from shutting down the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo (Tama County) in 2014. A group of Democratic lawmakers filed suit to keep a major employer in Fisher’s district open. Their lawsuit ultimately failed in the Iowa Supreme Court because Iowa House Republicans, with no visible protest from Fisher, did not continue to appropriate funds for the juvenile home.

Fisher’s latest filing shows just $470.00 raised from individuals since January. He started the year with $5,746.77 cash on hand, so even after being extremely frugal (spent only $16.00 at the Toledo Lions Club during the reporting period), Fisher had only $6,200.77 in his campaign fund as of May 14.

Two Democrats are running in House district 72. Fisher’s 2012 opponent Nathan Wrage reported $5,935.82 cash on hand, nearly as much as the incumbent. The other candidate on the Democratic primary ballot, John Anderson, has not filed a campaign finance disclosure form.

Kevin Koester, four-term Republican representing Iowa House district 38

Kevin Koester took in only two contributions during the reporting period: $500 from the Manufactured Housing PAC (which donates to dozens of incumbents), and $250 from the Polk County Republican Womens Club, also a PAC. The second donation arrived during the legislative session, when state lawmakers are not supposed to raise any campaign funds. As of May 14, Koester had $11,710.12 on hand.

Koester does show up to events around the parts of Ankeny and Des Moines he represents. I expected him to work a little harder on fundraising, because House district 38 is fairly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats, and no-party voters. Obama and Romney nearly tied here in 2012.

All signs point to Democrats making a play for this seat. Heather Matson was one of the first Iowa legislative challengers to launch a campaign in 2015 and raised more than $33,000 last year, which is a lot of money for a first-time candidate. Former First Lady Christie Vilsack headlined a fundraiser for Matson in March. The latest disclosure showed Matson brought in $20,056.00 since January and had $46,451.58 cash on hand.

Zach Nunn, first-term Republican representing Iowa House district 30

You can’t get more “rising star” than being made vice chair of two committees during your first year as a state legislator and being promoted to an assistant majority leader position the following year. House Republicans clearly expect big things from Nunn and have tasked him with floor-managing some high-profile legislation.

For those reasons, I figured many PACs and high-dollar Republican donors would chip in to support Nunn’s first re-election campaign. House district 30 has only a slight GOP registration advantage. Romney outpolled Obama here, but not by much. Yet Nunn reported raising just $5,070.00 since January. More than $2,000 came from PACs. A $10,000 loan from himself helped boost his cash on hand total to $34,082.35.

In November Nunn will face Joe Riding, the Democratic lawmaker he defeated in 2014. Riding got in the race shortly before the March filing deadline and didn’t report any fundraising–just $4,581.93 cash on hand, from funds left over from previous race. As a former Altoona City Council member, Riding should be able to raise quite a bit more before the July campaign disclosure forms are due.

Scott Ourth, two-term Democrat representing Iowa House district 26

Ourth’s latest disclosure showed $1,530.00 in contributions, of which $950 came from PACs. He had $11,463.31 cash on hand in January, and after spending $4,243.21 had $8,750.10 cash on hand as of May 14.

Many of the 43 House Democrats have even less money to spend. Still, I was surprised because Ourth has been among the strong fundraisers in the caucus. At this point in the 2012 campaign, he had $31,951.84 cash on hand, very high for a non-incumbent. Going into his first re-election race in 2014, Ourth raised $18,642.00 during this reporting period and had $33,705.55 on hand. During Ourth’s first Iowa House campaign (an unsuccessful bid in 2010), he raised $7,390.00 during the same period and had $38,104.43 cash on hand in May.

I don’t see this seat becoming a top target for House Republicans, especially since Ourth survived the 2014 wave election. But the GOP does have a slight voter registration advantage in House district 26, and Obama won only 50.18 percent of the vote here in 2012.

Fortunately for the incumbent, GOP challenger Rebel Snodgrass (yes, that’s his real name) raised only $2,250.00 in contributions and loaned his campaign another $2,039.40 this year. He reported $3,154.86 cash on hand.

Ross Paustian, Republican representing Iowa House district 92 for two non-consecutive terms

Paustian’s report may be the most shocking in the latest batch. House district 92 is the ultimate swing district, having changed parties four times in the last five election cycles. Paustian surely knows his seat will be targeted, since he lost his 2012 re-election campaign here. But his latest report showed just $200 raised: $100 from an individual and $100 from the Dog PAC. (I was curious too: that PAC’s chair is Mary Lahay, who leads a group trying to strengthen oversight of Iowa’s puppy mills.)

If Paustian had raised a ton of money in 2015, I could understand slacking off these past few months, but he started the year with an under-sized war chest of $9,192.53. As of May 14, he had $8,116.28 cash on hand.

Paustian’s Democratic challenger Ken Krumwiede reported $11,360.77 raised and $9,890.54 cash on hand–more than the incumbent. This race is one to watch for sure, as no-party voters outnumber registered Republicans and Democrats, Obama took nearly 54 percent of the vote here in 2012, and House district 92 makes up half of a major battleground for control of the upper chamber, Iowa Senate district 46.

Patti Ruff, two-term Democrat representing Iowa House district 56

Patti Ruff knocked off a Republican incumbent in 2012 and won re-election easily last cycle, even as Joni Ernst outpolled Bruce Braley by double digits in House district 56. So I like her chances against either of her potential GOP challengers.

On the other hand, House district 56 contains more registered Republicans than Democrats and is half of Senate district 28, where the GOP will likely be engaged to protect Breitbach’s Senate seat. So even though Obama won 52 percent of the vote here in 2012, I would encourage Ruff to take nothing for granted. Republicans represented this corner of Iowa for most of the last several decades.

Ruff reported raising $2,523.02, all from individuals, since January. After spending $2,660.90 during the last four months, she had $6,543.97 cash on hand, less than the $6,681.85 she had in her campaign treasury when the year began.

The two candidates seeking the GOP nomination are Kristi Hager, whose husband Bob Hager lost to Ruff in 2012, and Lowell Engle, who lost to Ruff in 2014. At this writing, Engle had not filed a fundraising report, which likely means he has raised almost no money. Hager reported $5,709.00 in contributions and $3,168.40 cash on hand.

Sandy Salmon, two-term Republican representing Iowa House district 63

Sandy Salmon won her first legislative race by by only 115 votes in 2012. She may feel comfortable because she won by a bigger margin in 2014, and Republicans outnumber Democrats among her constituents–though as in many Iowa legislative districts, a plurality of voters are aligned with neither party. A strong challenger could highlight the fact that Salmon has co-sponsored some bills far outside the mainstream, including the most extreme versions of “personhood” legislation, an effort to end no-fault divorce for couples with young children, and a “blatantly unconstitutional” measure to stop county recorders from granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Salmon raised just $147.41 since January. She did better on the fundraising front last year, though, so reported $23,350.21 cash on hand as of May 14.

Three Democrats are seeking the nomination in House district 63. Eric Stromberg had the biggest haul with $13,426.50 in contributions, all from individuals. He reported $8,538.10 cash on hand. Salmon’s 2014 Democratic opponent Teresa Meyer reported $5,014.40 in contributions during the latest period and $7,145.30 cash on hand. Matthew Glen Evans did not file a campaign disclosure report.

Brian Schoenjahn, three-term Democrat representing Iowa Senate district 32

So well-liked among constituents that some in the capitol jokingly call him “St. John,” Brian Schoenjahn will not be Republicans’ top target this year, and Senate district 32 may not even be among the top five Democratic-held seats in play. Obama took 53.66 percent of the vote here in 2012. Then again, Dix will have enough money to spread around to lots of races, and this seat looks potentially competitive on paper, given the voter registration numbers.

For those reasons, I expected Schoenjahn to raise more than $2,889.21 in contributions since January (all from individuals). He had started 2015 with an under-whelming $3,823.83 in the bank and raised $15,065.00 last year, so had only $16,775.58 cash on hand as of January 1. His latest disclosure showed $18,128.76 cash on hand.

I see Schoenjahn as strongly favored to beat Republican Craig Johnson, who lost the House district 64 race to Bruce Bearinger in 2014. But it’s never a great sign when any challenger has raised more money than a long-serving incumbent. Johnson reported $16,610.00 in contributions and $19,415.73 cash on hand in his latest filing.

Phyllis Thede, four-term Democrat representing Iowa House district 93

Thede has represented a Democratic-trending part of the Quad Cities since 2009. Her latest disclosure form reported a difficult-to-believe $0.09 in contributions since the start of the year. (The nine cents were not a campaign donation–they represent four months of interest earned on a Wells Fargo checking account.) Given how many well-off people live in Davenport or Bettendorf, Thede should be able to raise a decent amount of money with minimal effort.

If Thede had blown the doors off with her fundraising last year, I would understand doing little since January. But she started the year with only $3,280.68 cash on hand, which was down to $1,770.77 as of May 14.

I expect Thede to win a fifth term, having been re-elected by more than 2,000 votes in 2012, when Obama carried 56.63 percent of the vote in her district. But Republicans have targeted her seat in the past and could do so again. The Democratic voter registration advantage is not large.

The good news for Thede is that her GOP challenger Kurt Whalen reported just one $100 contribution from himself on his disclosure. He has been active in Scott County Republican circles for some time and was an alternate delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention. If he is related to other Whalens from the area, he may be planning to self-fund his campaign, but I am not aware of any family relationship.

Any comments about this year’s Iowa House or Senate races are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Three-term Republican State Senator Brad Zaun didn’t make this list, because he is heavily favored in a district that voted for Romney and has a large GOP voter registration edge. (Also, his challenger Miyoko Hikiji currently has more unpaid campaign bills than cash on hand.)

However, I continue to marvel at how an incumbent who represents some of the wealthiest precincts in this state could raise as little money as Zaun has over the course of his Iowa Senate career. Bleeding Heartland covered that unlikely story here. Zaun’s latest report showed $7,135.00 in contributions since January, more from individuals than from PACs. Zaun started the year with a laughable $2,061.61 in the bank and reported $6,747.95 cash on hand in the most recent filing.

By comparison, GOP State Representative Peter Cownie, who represents some demographically similar West Des Moines precincts, reported raising $61,173.00 since January 1 and had $91,653.75 cash on hand as of May 14. Democratic State Senator Liz Mathis, who represents parts of the Cedar Rapids suburbs, took in $55,201.00 in contributions and reported $91,923.34 cash on hand.

P.P.S- I considered including Gary Carlson, the first-term Republican from House district 91, because he reported raising no money at all on his latest filing. But Carlson put in enough effort during 2015 to start this year with $30,373.06 cash on hand, more than several of the others mentioned here. As of May 14 his campaign had $24,816.35 in the bank. Of all 57 Republican-held Iowa House seats, Carlson’s district had the highest vote share for Obama in 2012 (57.61 percent). Neither party has a clear advantage in voter registration numbers.

Two Democrats are seeking the nomination in House district 91. Phil Wiese, who reportedly was recruited by House Democratic leaders, reported $3,079.01 in fundraising and $2,042.92 cash on hand. Jessica Brackett had $441.24 cash on hand after raising $1,260.00 since launching her campaign in March.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.

  • 2 thoughts:

    Kevin Koester may think he doesn’t need to fund raise, or at least not as aggressively as Matson. His big 4×8 signs went up this last week, notably on high-traffic properties owned by Danny Elwell. He’s a notorious glad-hander everywhere and is well-known in his district. Both Matson and Andrea Philips have been often seen at Democratic functions, but need to raise their profiles at Ankeny area activities. Summerfest, the weekend after July 4th, is the local campaign kick-off event.

    A friend of mine working for Make It Work spent 30 minutes with a highly supportive and engaged Brad Zaun just before the Caucuses on legislative lobby day. He was thrilled and described Zaun as thoroughly done with Republican orthodoxy. I don’t know what’s going on there, but Zaun’s obviously not behaving like a normal politician by any means.