Little diversity in Iowa legislature, despite more women running than ever

More Iowa women are running for office in 2018 than ever before, which could lead to record numbers of female state representatives and senators next year.

However, in other meaningful ways, Iowa’s legislature could become less diverse after the November election.


The Iowa Senate has been all-white since Swati Dandekar resigned in 2011. That trend will continue in 2019 and 2020. No candidates for any of the 25 districts on the ballot this year are African American, Latinx, or Asian American.

For the last two years, the Iowa House has had 95 white members and five African Americans: Ako Abdul-Samad (House district 35), Ras Smith (House district 62), Ruth Ann Gaines (House district 32), Phyllis Thede (House district 93), and Helen Miller (House district 9). The first four are virtually certain to be re-elected this year. Abdul-Samad, Smith, and Thede have no opponents. Although Republican William Charlier has filed against Gaines, it would be a miracle for a GOP candidate to win House district 32, which contains roughly three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

Miller is retiring after eight terms, which makes her the longest-serving African-American state lawmaker in Iowa history. None of the three candidates running in her district are black. The Democratic contender here is Megan Srinivas, who is the only Asian American running for the Iowa legislature from either party this year. If elected, she would become the first Asian American in the House since 2008, when Dandekar left the lower chamber to run for state Senate.

Reyma McCoy McDeid, one of two Democrats challenging Kevin Koester in House district 38, is the only other African American running for the Iowa legislature this year. UPDATE/CORRECTION: Pauline Chilton, the GOP candidate in House district 99, is also Black. ToyA Johnson later filed as a Libertarian candidate in House district 32.

No Latinx candidates filed for any House seat in 2018. CORRECTION: Noah Canady, one of two Democrats running against State Representative David Kerr in House district 88, is Latino. That’s a step backwards from the last election cycle, when two Latina Democrats challenged GOP incumbents. Four Latinx candidates (all Democrats) filed to run in Iowa House or Senate primaries in 2014. LATE UPDATE: Canady ended his campaign in May and endorsed Lanny Hillyard, the other Democrat running for the House seat.


No one affiliated with any religion other than a branch of Christianity has served in the Iowa Senate for some time. To my knowledge, Janice Weiner is the only Jewish candidate for either chamber of the Iowa legislature this year. She is one of four Democrats seeking to represent Senate district 37, where Bob Dvorsky is retiring. Imad Youssif, another Democrat running in that district, is Muslim. However, Zach Wahls is the front-runner in the Senate district 37 primary, having raised more than $54,000 in his first two weeks as a candidate.

Since Anesa Kajtazovic retired from the Iowa House in 2014, Ako Abdul-Samad has been the only Muslim among the 100 members of the lower chamber.

Megan Srinivas, the Democrat running in the open House district 9, is Hindu.

I am not aware of any other House candidates this year who follow a non-Christian faith tradition.


Democrat Matt McCoy is the only openly gay person ever to serve in the Iowa Senate. He is not seeking re-election this year, and both Democratic candidates running for Senate district 21 are straight.

Democratic State Representative Liz Bennett (House district 65) is the only current member of the lower chamber who identifies as LGBTQ. To my knowledge, Reyma McCoy McDeid is this year’s only non-incumbent state legislative candidate who identifies as LGBTQ.

UPDATE: A reader suggested that I should mention Zach Wahls here. That’s a common misconception. Though he became famous by speaking out for marriage equality from his perspective of being raised by two moms, and he later co-founded the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, Wahls is straight.


A close observer of Iowa legislative happenings for 35 years confirmed my impression that in recent memory, no lawmaker in either chamber from either party has identified as having a disability. As far as I know, Reyma McCoy McDeid is the only current state legislative candidate who identifies as part of this group.

Please let me know if I have missed any candidates who are part of a minority or marginalized population and would like to be included in this post.


Now for the good news. Next year’s Iowa House may include more women than ever. The number of women in the Senate is almost certain to increase as well, though not necessarily setting a record (ten of the 50 senators were women in 2013 and 2014; only six are now).

Dianne Bystrom, longtime director of Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, noted that 89 women are running for the state legislature in 2018, up more than 40 percent compared to the 62 women who filed for Iowa House or Senate primaries in 2016.

Both parties have more female candidates this year, but as has been the case for many election cycles in Iowa, most women running for the legislature are Democrats. To be precise, 63 women in the 2018 state House or Senate primaries are Democrats, 25 are Republicans, and one is a Libertarian.

State Senators Pam Jochum (D), Janet Petersen (D), Liz Mathis (D), and Amy Sinclair (R) are not up for re-election this year. The two women who are on the ballot both have female challengers:

Amanda Ragan (D) faces Shannon Latham (R) in Senate district 27
Rita Hart (D) faces Chris Cournoyer (R) in Senate district 49

Bill Dix resigned last week as Senate majority leader. Two women are seeking to replace him in Senate district 25: Tracy Freese (D) and Annette Sweeney (R). Chad Buss is also competing in the GOP primary here, but he will be an underdog against Sweeney, a well-connected former state lawmaker.

In Senate district 21, where Matt McCoy is not seeking re-election, the Democratic nominee will be either Connie Ryan or Claire Celsi. Either would be heavily favored against Republican Brian Bales in November.

So in all likelihood, at least eight women will be sworn in as Iowa Senate members in 2019.

There are also quite a few women challenging male incumbents:

Sara Ramsey (D, Senate district 11)
Vicky Brenner (D, Senate district 13)
Amber Gustafson (D, Senate district 19)
Carrie Koelker (R, Senate district 29)
Heather Hora (R, Senate district 39)
Marie Gleason (D, Senate district 47)

As well as women competing against male candidates for open Senate seats:

Jackie Smith (D, Senate district 7)
Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R, Senate district 41)
Mary Stewart (D, Senate district 41)–competitive primary

I wouldn’t want to make predictions now for all of those races, but it’s quite possible at least three women could win. Eleven or more women would be the largest number ever to serve in one Iowa Senate cohort.

Moving to the lower chamber, thirteen of the 28 women now serving in the Iowa House are running for re-election unopposed: Republican Speaker Linda Upmeyer (House district 54) and the following Democrats.

Marti Anderson (House district 36)
Jo Oldson (House district 41)
Lisa Heddens (House district 46)
Sharon Steckman (House district 53)
Timi Brown-Powers (House district 61)
Kirsten Running-Marquardt (House district 69)
Amy Nielsen (House district 77)
Vicki Lensing (House district 85)
Mary Mascher (House district 86)
Monica Kurth (House district 89)
Cindy Winckler (House district 90)
Phyllis Thede (House district 93)

Democrat Tracy Ehlert was the only candidate to file in the open House district 70.

Several other women incumbents have challengers but are favored to hold their seats, given the partisan lean of their districts.

Megan Jones (R, House district 2)
Ruth Ann Gaines (D, House district 32)
Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (D, House district 45)
Liz Bennett (D, House district 65)
Mary Gaskill (D, House district 81)
Mary Wolfe (D, House district 98)

So that’s 20 women virtually guaranteed to be elected to the House in November.

A number of female House Republicans are seeking re-election in districts that either will be or could be targeted.

Mary Ann Hanusa (House district 16)–male challenger
Jane Bloomingdale (House district 51)–male challenger
Shannon Lundgren (House district 57)–one female and two male challengers
Sandy Salmon (House district 63)–male challenger
Ashley Hinson (House district 67)–male challenger

Now consider the large number of women running for House seats now held by men. Although most of these candidates are underdogs, given the natural advantages of incumbency, I wouldn’t count them all out.

Karen Larson (D, House district 1)
Rita DeJong (D, House district 6)
Debra Jensen (D, House district 7)
Connie Price (D, House district 8)
Sarah Abdouch (R, House district 15)–competitive primary
LeAnn Hughes (R, House district 15)–competitive primary
Jan Creasman (D, House district 17)
Denise O’Brien (D, House district 21)
Ann Howell (R, House district 29)
Tiffany Allison (D, House district 31)–competitive primary
Heather Ryan (D, House district 31)–competitive primary
Marrianna Collins (Libertarian, House district 34)
Heather Matson (D, House district 38)–competitive primary
Reyma McCoy McDeid (D, House district 38)–competitive primary
Kristin Sunde (D, House district 42)
Brenda Brink (D, House district 49)
Kayla Koether (D, House district 55)
Mindy Benson (D, House district 72)–competitive primary
Joycelyn George (D, House district 72)–competitive primary
Jodi Clemens (D, House district 73)
Kimberly Davis (D, House district 78)
Cherielynn Westrich (R, House district 81)
Laura Liegois (D, House district 91)
Jean Simpson (D, House district 92)
Joan Marttila (D, House district 94)

Winning an open seat is usually easier that defeating an incumbent, and quite a few women are running in open Iowa House districts.

Megan Srinivas (D, House district 9)
Ann Meyer (R, House district 9)–competitive primary
Ann Fields (D, House district 28)–competitive primary
Jennifer Konfrst (D, House district 43)
Anna Bergman (R, House district 44)–competitive primary
Victoria Sinclair (R, House district 47)–competitive primary
Lori Egan (D, House district 56)–competitive primary
Molly Donahue (D, House district 68)–competitive primary
Paula Denison (D, House district 75)–competitive primary
Doris Guilford (D, House district 75)–competitive primary
Samantha Keith (D, House district 79)
Holly Brink (R, House district 80)–competitive primary
Susan McDanel (D, House district 80)
Sheila Matheney (R, House district 84)–competitive primary
Pauline Chilton (R, House district 99)
Lindsay James (D, House district 99)–competitive primary

The bottom line: although we are a long way from the goal of the non-partisan non-profit 50-50 in 2020, there’s a strong chance Iowans will make history by electing more than 28 women to the state House this year.

On a related note, an unusually large number of Iowa women are seeking statewide or federal offices in 2018. Three are running for governor (Republican Kim Reynolds and Democrats Cathy Glasson and Andy McGuire), two are running for other offices (State Auditor Mary Mosiman and secretary of state candidate Deidre DeJear), and seven are running for Congress (Abby Finkenauer and Courtney Rowe in IA-01, Ginny Caligiuri in IA-02, Cindy Axne and Theresa Greenfield in IA-03, and Leann Jacobsen and Cyndi Hanson in IA-04).


Though this disclaimer should not be necessary, I want to be clear that none of the above implies that women or candidates from minority or marginalized groups are naturally better legislators, or that straight, white, Christian men are bad elected officials. On the contrary, any man or woman, with any racial or religious background or sexual orientation, with or without a disability, can be a wonderful public servant or a terrible one.

That said, it’s a problem for any institution–business, legislature, newsroom, judiciary, student body–if the group as a whole lacks a wide range of perspectives.

Though this November’s election may bring many new women to the Iowa House and Senate, which would be a welcome change, certain groups will continue to be under-represented. A more diverse field of candidates in both parties could strengthen our state in future election cycles.

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