Iowa Democrats are in a deep hole, controlling only 20 of the 50 seats in the state Senate and 41 of 100 in the House. On the plus side, strong candidate recruitment and a wave of Republican retirements are giving Democrats plenty of opportunities to pick up House seats. (The 2018 Iowa Senate map is less promising.)
Raising money can be challenging for leaders of a minority party, who don't call the shots on legislation. Furthermore, Iowa Republicans have a natural advantage, since the policies they promote are often tailored to suit wealthy individuals or corporate interest groups. While money doesn't always determine campaign outcomes, quite a few Democratic lawmakers and challengers lost in 2016 after being massively outspent on television commercials and direct mail (see here, here, and here for examples).
Yet the latest campaign financial disclosures reveal little sense of urgency among Democratic incumbents who could do much more to help others win competitive districts this November.
HOW IOWA LEGISLATIVE CAMPAIGN SPENDING WORKS
A strange feature of Iowa politics is that few long-serving legislators are "rain-makers" for their respective parties. Fundraising isn't the most enjoyable part of the job, surely. But what's worse than watching helplessly as all of your good ideas die in committee, while the other party enacts one harmful bill after another?
In the most hard-fought Iowa House or Senate races, direct spending from candidates' accounts makes up a small portion of total expenditures. Legislative leaders typically donate most of what they raise to the Iowa Democratic Party or Republican Party of Iowa. The state parties then make in-kind expenditures to cover radio and television advertising or direct mail in targeted districts. The most costly House races involve six-figure expenditures by each party, as will be shown below.
How much Democrats and Republicans currently have in the accounts used for state legislative races is not clear, because the parties are not required to report at that level of detail. As of December 31, the Iowa GOP had $6,388.80 cash on hand for all its accounts, and the Iowa Democratic Party had $659,670.22, with $171,000 in loans outstanding. But House Speaker Linda Upmeyer had $341,396.13 cash on hand, and House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow reported $131,338.99 in his campaign account, far eclipsing the $113,266.99 cash on hand for House Minority leader Mark Smith.
Iowa's last three special legislative elections indicate that a large swing toward Democrats could be shaping up, enough to put many House or Senate seats in play. But Democrats won't be able to capitalize on that trend if Republicans can spend tens or hundreds of thousands more dollars on the hottest races, as happened in many House districts during the 2016 cycle.
Ask any development professional: a truism of fundraising is that many donors give because someone they know, like, and respect asked them to support a cause. A letter or phone call from Minority Leader Smith to strong Democrats in Iowa City will never be as effective as a personal appeal from State Representatives Vicki Lensing or Mary Mascher to their own friends and neighbors. A lawmaker can tell a longtime ally, I need your help so that next year, I can be chair instead of ranking member of such-and-such committee. It's easier for donors to say no to a pitch from some politician they've never met, who lives in another town.
INCUMBENTS WHO COULD BE RAISING MUCH MORE
For this post, I didn't simply look for the House Democrats who raised the least money in 2017. Several subjective factors and assumptions influenced my analysis.
• Entrenched office-holders have more established political networks and therefore more capacity to raise money than Democrats serving their first or second terms (though relative newcomer Liz Bennett out-raised most of the incumbents mentioned below).
• Democrats occupying safe seats have a larger pool of constituents who support their political agenda and could be motivated to help elect like-minded candidates.
• Lawmakers representing relatively wealthy districts or parts of metro areas with prosperous neighborhoods have more potential to tap their community for political contributions.
• Donations from individuals are the best sign of whether a legislator is making some effort to raise money. Incumbents don't need to ask for checks from political action committees that routinely donate to dozens of lawmakers in both parties.
• I looked at disclosures from past election cycles for clues on whether lack of fundraising is a long-term pattern for each incumbent, in order to weed out cases where some health problem or short-term personal issue may have hampered a lawmaker's fundraising ability during 2017.
On to the list, in alphabetical order:
Marti Anderson represents heavily Democratic neighborhoods including Beaverdale on the northwest side of Des Moines. She raised $9,602 during 2017, mostly from individuals ($1,650 came from PACs). That's more than many other Democratic lawmakers brought in last year, and it exceeds the $5,765 Anderson raised during 2013 and the $3,590 she reported for 2015 (more than half from PACs) combined.
However, disclosures from Anderson's first campaign in 2012 indicate that she has the capacity to raise much more. That year, she faced Cara Kennedy-Ode in a highly competitive primary for an open seat, after Janet Petersen decided to run for the Iowa Senate instead of for re-election in House district 36. Anderson raised $19,734 during 2011, all in individual donations under $1,000. As the primary drew closer, she raised $22,459 between January and early May 2012, all from individuals in amounts under $1,000. She raised another $1,190 between mid-May and the first week of June 2012.
If Democrats controlled the House, eight-term incumbent Lisa Heddens could be chairing the Health and Human Services Appropriations subcommittee, instead of watching Republicans gut essential services and defund Planned Parenthood. Heddens raised $6,455 in 2017, almost all from PACs. Six people gave her a grand total of $405. Granted, Heddens was unopposed in 2016 and will never need a large war chest to get re-elected in this safe seat covering part of Ames. Still, among the thousands of House district 46 residents with a connection to Iowa State University, how hard would it be to find donors ready to help the Democratic ticket? Republican lawmakers have been underfunding higher education for years.
I wavered on whether to include Bruce Hunter, because House district 34 is far from the wealthiest area of Des Moines. On the other hand, these downtown and south side neighborhoods are home to huge numbers of Democrats. Many young professionals and empty nesters living in downtown apartments or converted buildings have the means to support political campaigns. Hunter raised just $4,875 during 2017, of which $2,700 came from PACs. He has served in the legislature since 2003.
Compared to some lawmakers, Dave Jacoby raised a respectable amount: $9,396.12 during 2017. But look more closely: PACs donated more than $8,000, probably because Jacoby is the ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. All of last year, this eight-term incumbent received less than $800 in contributions from individuals.
Now consider how many well-off liberals live in House district 74, covering part of Johnson County. The per capita income of Coralville (the district's population center) is substantially higher than the state average. The percentage of adult residents with a bachelor's degree or higher level of education is double the state average. Jacoby doesn't need to raise much for his own races; he was unchallenged in 2016. But he's a classic example of a Democrat who should be a rainmaker for the party.
Bob Kressig, another eight-term incumbent, raised $7,053 during 2017, of which $4,750 came from PACs. House district 59 covers much of Cedar Falls and the University of Northern Iowa campus. It should not be hard to find angry constituents eager to help Democrats take back the legislature. Like other state universities, UNI has operated under extremely tight budgets. In addition, its faculty union got shafted in 2017 when the Iowa Board of Regents stalled on a new contract until GOP lawmakers had eviscerated collective bargaining rights.
Kressig hasn't been a top Republican target for the last few cycles and won by a huge margin in 2016, so presumably he doesn't feel pressure to fundraise. Back in the day, when he had closer re-election races, he showed that he can do a lot more on that front. He raised $26,835.50 in 2007, mostly from individuals (a little more than $10,000 came from PACs that year).
In her seventeenth year as a legislator, Vicki Lensing raised $7,212.21, mostly in small individual donations. The largest gift by far was $500 from Fred and Charlotte Hubbell; Lensing has endorsed Hubbell in the Democratic primary for governor. She also brought in $2,000 from PACs last year. House district 85 covers part of Iowa City, the state's most Democratic-voting community and a town with a fairly high standard of living and a large number of college graduates. An entrenched politician here should be able to raise lots of money from progressives and people whose livelihoods depend on sufficient funding for the University of Iowa.
Mary Mascher represents House district 86 next door, covering other Iowa City neighborhoods and University Heights. She's one of the longest-serving current lawmakers, having been elected for the first time in 1994. She raised $10,180.40 last year, $3,250 from PACs and the rest from mostly small donors. Mascher's largest individual donors were herself and Charlotte Hubbell; both gave $500. (She is another Fred Hubbell endorser in the governor's race.) As with Lensing, one would think Mascher could scare up more donations to support winning back the House for Democrats.
Brian Meyer raised $6,900 during 2017, of which $5,300 came from PACs. House district 33 on the southeast side of Des Moines isn't the most prosperous section of the capital city, but Meyer has the networks to bring in much more money. Before being elected to the legislature in 2013, he was a top staffer for then House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Jo Oldson has been elected to the House eight times and represents some of the wealthiest Des Moines precincts on the west and south sides. Yet she raised only $500 from individuals during 2017. The rest of her $6,900 in contributions came from PACs. Facing a Democratic primary challenge in House district 41 from Eddie Mauro during the last election cycle, Oldson received $13,725 in contributions during the off-year, but only $885 came from individual donors. Between January and early May 2016, she turned on the juice, bringing in $23,031, more than half from individuals and $10,500 from PACs. Another $6,505 came in during the final weeks before the primary, roughly half from PACs. While Oldson can be a highly motivated fundraiser if her job is on the line, she showed no interest last year in tapping her donor pool to contribute to House Democrats.
Rick Olson raised $2,165.12 during all of 2017, of which $1,425 came from PACs. Four individuals gave a total of $400 at one fundraiser, and Olson brought in $240.12 from unitemized gifts through ActBlue. A seven-term incumbent should be able to raise more, even though House district 31 on the east side of Des Moines isn't a high-income area.
At first glance, Todd Taylor doesn't belong on this list. He raised $12,591 in 2017, which isn't too bad. However, only $2,730 came from individuals, the rest from PACs. In addition, Taylor raised less than half as much last year as he did in the previous off-year. Not that he put much effort in then: almost all of the $26,375.00 he raised in 2015 came from PACs. He collected a whopping four individual donations that year, totaling $425. House district 70 doesn't include the most prosperous Cedar Rapids neighborhoods, but Taylor has served in the legislature since 1995. Don't tell me he can't try harder to raise money. Other Democrats representing Cedar Rapids districts (Art Staed, Liz Bennett, and Kirsten Running-Marquardt) had many more individual donors in 2017, despite their much shorter political careers (see here, here, and here). Incidentally, Taylor is not seeking re-election to the House this year. He'll move up to Senate district 35, where Wally Horn is retiring.
Phyllis Thede has never been a powerhouse fundraiser, despite representing some well-off neighborhoods in Davenport and Bettendorf for five terms. She once reported nine cents in total contributions on a campaign finance disclosure form (interest from a bank account). Republicans haven't targeted House district 93 lately, which may be another reason Thede puts little effort into cultivating donors. She raised $2,650.12 in 2017, of which $1,200 came from PACs.
Beth Wessel-Kroeschell reported $7,888 in total contributions during 2017, mostly from individuals (PACs gave $1,700). She has a larger network of small donors than most of the lawmakers mentioned above, but a seven-term incumbent from a university community has capacity to raise much more. House district 45 covers part of Ames.
Cindy Winckler has represented parts of Davenport in the state House since 2003. The wealthiest areas of the Quad Cities aren't part of House district 90. Even so, a veteran legislator ought to be able to raise more than $2,395.84 during the off-year. Winckler received $600 from PACs, the rest from individuals giving $250 or less.
WHY IT MATTERS
Most of the above candidates are in no danger of losing their own re-election bids this year--or any year--so they could pass on the bulk of their fundraising to the state party for use in competitive districts.
Compared to some states, Iowa is a cheap place to run for office. Nevertheless, winning a state House or Senate seat can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. All campaign finance disclosure forms for Iowa legislative candidates from the last two decades are archived here.
Look at the in-kind spending on the most expensive state House campaigns from 2016. Republicans won every one of these races.
• House district 42 wasn't targeted by Democrats, but challenger Claire Celsi scared Republicans so badly that the state party spent more than $350,000 to bail out four-term incumbent Peter Cownie (see here and here). The Iowa Democratic Party spent only $18,491.30 on Celsi's behalf.
• House district 43 was expected to be close, since Hagenow had won by fewer than two dozen votes during the last presidential election year. The Iowa GOP spent more than $420,000 in-kind to boost the House majority leader's campaign (see here and here). Democrats spent just over $200,000 supporting Jennifer Konfrst (see here and here).
• House district 51 was an open seat due to a Republican retirement. This was one of the few competitive House races where the GOP spent less, about $35,000 on behalf of Jane Bloomingdale (see here and here). Democratic in-kind spending for Tim Hejhal was roughly $110,000 (see here and here).
• Another GOP retirement opened up House district 55. Republicans spent about $210,000 on behalf of Michael Bergan (see here and here). Democrats spent about $237,000 for Patrick Ritter (here and here).
• Two-term Democratic incumbent Patti Ruff lost her re-election bid in House district 56 last cycle. The GOP spent about $128,000 on behalf of challenger Kristi Hager (here and here). Democrats spent about $198,000 to support Ruff (here and here).
• House district 57 was open due to a Democratic retirement. The Iowa GOP spent more than $220,000 on behalf of successful candidate Shannon Lundgren (here and here). Democrats spent about $193,000 for Tom Stecher (here and here).
• Another Republican retirement left House district 58 open. GOP candidate Andy McKean was a well-known county supervisor and former state senator, which is probably why Republicans only spent about $100,000 in kind (here and here). Democratic spending on Jessica Kean's behalf totaled about $147,000 (here and here).
• House district 68 in the suburbs of Cedar Rapids was a top target for both parties. The GOP spent about $310,000 in kind for Ken Rizer (here and here). Democrats spent about $217,000 for Molly Donahue (here and here).
• Republican Ross Paustian had lost his 2012 re-election race, winning House district 92 back in 2014, so the GOP spent more than $260,000 defending this seat last cycle (here and here). Democratic spending for Ken Krumwiede was far below that level, totaling around $54,000 (here and here).
• House district 95 was another open seat due to a GOP retirement. Louis Zumbach benefited from about $400,000 in GOP in-kind spending (here and here). Democrats spent about $101,000 supporting Richard Whitehead (here and here).
Money certainly wasn't the only reason Democratic candidates got swamped in Iowa's 2016 legislative races. Our state's huge swing to Donald Trump gave the GOP presidential nominee a larger margin of victory here than he had in Texas, ending Iowa's two-decade-long bellwether status. Still, Democrats would be foolish to imagine we can pick up a lot of House seats in 2018 if Republicans vastly outspend our candidates in most of the targeted districts.
SOME DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES HAVE RAISED FAR MORE
Is it fair to pick on long-serving lawmakers who raise only a few thousand dollars? Yes, given the performance of hard-working Democrats who don't enjoy the advantages of incumbency and in some cases are running in much tougher districts.
Let's leave Zach Wahls aside for now. Most Iowa politicians don't have the national reputation or following to raise $54,090.50 in less than two weeks as a state Senate candidate. That said, several of the incumbents listed above should be able to raise at least that much in a year from their well-off constituents. Yet some of them didn't even bring in as much from individuals as did Wahls' rival in the Senate district 37 primary, Janice Weiner ($5,405).
Vicky Brenner raised $25,517.70 for her campaign in Senate district 13. All of her money came from individuals, with only four donations of $1,000 or more, even though this district is an uphill climb for any Democrat. GOP Senator Julian Garrett raised only $8,065 last year, of which $1,450 came from PACs.
Jodi Clemens stepped up to run in House district 73, where Democrats didn't field a challenger against Representative Bobby Kaufmann last cycle. She raised $11,906 last year, all in individual gifts of $250 or less.
Lindsay James, one of the Democratic candidates in House district 99 (where incumbent Abby Finkenauer is running for Congress), raised $34,101.54. All of her money came from individuals, and only three contributions were for $1,000 or more. Brad Cavanagh, another Democrat running in House district 99, raised $13,089.17.
Democrats left the Iowa House majority on the table in 2012, when the party's candidates won 47 seats and lost a half-dozen races by extremely narrow margins. Signs from Iowa and around the country point to an energized Democratic electorate in 2018. It would be a shame to let winnable House seats slip away for lack of resources to compete.
Final note: I anticipate hearing from readers that this or that lawmaker mentioned above doesn't get along with Mark Smith or supported someone else in the last balloting for House minority leader. No one cares about internal drama among statehouse Democrats. Personal grievances should not stop any incumbent from doing everything possible to end Republicans' unchecked power.
UPDATE: Johnson County Recorder Kim Painter commented via Twitter, "You cite your fatal flaw at the opening of the piece. There have been many events here for IDP, House Dems, and Senate Dems. Hosted and heavily promoted by those you name. Looking at their individual campaign accts is a dubious foundation for the conclusion you reach here." Fair point--there is no way for me to track how much money has gone to the House Truman Fund or Senate Majority Fund thanks to Iowa City area events promoted by Democratic lawmakers. I stand by my contention that all of these incumbents could be doing more to encourage their constituents to contribute. Republican Bill Dix raised far more than he needed for his own races and directed tens of thousands of dollars to GOP Senate candidates during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. That strategy is a key reason Dix is the Iowa Senate majority leader today.
Two-term State Representative Liz Bennett commented via Facebook, "Some people think it's 'selfish' for incumbents in safe districts to raise money because it 'takes money away from candidates who really need it.' If you hear this in your circles, please challenge it. I don't think it necessarily applies to all the folks mentioned, but it's been directed at me in Linn County." Noted.
On a different Facebook thread, Kressig objected, "I run my own reelection campaign and don’t use the Truman Fund." My whole point was that instead of focusing only on the funds they need for their own races, incumbents in districts like Kressig's could help candidates in winnable districts like mine not get outspent by $200,000.
Jacoby mentioned that this post gave "no recognition of the fundraisers last year in Johnson County that went straight to party." He also found the title "insulting," since "no one wants majority more than I do. I usually turn over 5 figures every cycle. look at ‘12, ‘14, and ‘16. Also the new way to raise money is for partners to give directly to party. I have $30k on hand and if no opponent every penny goes to help others. Before posting it is always a good idea to check for accuracy." Given how many well-off, politically engaged progressives live in Coralville, I think an aggressive fundraiser could bring in $50,000 to $100,000 a year, especially during 2017, when Democratic activism was off the charts.
As for past cycles, Jacoby's January 2016 filing showed $11,591.72 raised during the 2015 calendar year, almost all from PACs. Individuals gave a total of $330. His January 2014 report showed $8,966.70 raised the previous year, of which $455 came from individuals. His January 2012 disclosure showed not a single donation from a person in 2011, just $5,350 from PACs and $13.19 in bank interest on a checking account.