Republican Annette Sweeney will represent Iowa Senate district 25 for the remainder of the year after winning today’s special election by 4,742 votes to 3,726 for Tracy Freese (56.0 percent to 44.0 percent), according to unofficial results. Although that may not sound like a close race, Freese’s vote share was impressive in a district with nearly twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats.
Hillary Clinton received about 33.6 percent of the vote in Senate district 25 in November 2016. Two years earlier, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley received just under 34.8 percent here. Democrats did not field a candidate in Senate district 25 during the 2014 cycle.
In addition, Freese was a first-time candidate, whereas Sweeney represented parts of this district for four years in the Iowa House. The Iowa GOP also spent far more promoting Sweeney during the brief special election campaign (truncated because Majority Leader Bill Dix resigned during the legislative session) than the Iowa Democratic Party did on behalf of Freese. Unlike the December special election in Senate district 3, Republicans had quite a few canvassers and ballot chasers out during the last several days.
Freese carried the Story County precincts, which do not include the Democratic stronghold of Ames, by 1,440 votes to 1,148 (55.6 percent to 44.3 percent). That’s a good result, considering the recent voting history of those areas. But it wasn’t enough to overcome the GOP advantage elsewhere.
Sweeney’s home county, Hardin, delivered 1,795 votes for the Republican and 1,120 for Freese (61.6 percent to 38.4 percent). That’s a big margin, though smaller than the GOP registration advantage in the county. Fun fact: Hardin County Auditor Jessica Lara was the first Republican elected official in Iowa to come out as #NeverTrump, in May 2016. To my knowledge, she was our state’s only GOP elected official to say publicly (in an October 2016 interview) that she’d vote for Clinton.
Butler County was last to report results, even though they had the fewest ballots cast; most of the county’s residents live outside Senate district 25. Sweeney received 531 votes, Freese 392 (57.5 percent to 42.5 percent).
A few words about campaign spending: as of April 6, Freese had raised $21,979.55, all from individuals other than $250 from the Butler County Democratic Central Committee. Almost all of Freese’s donors contributed $250 or less; just three donors gave $1,000 or more. The largest single gift was $1,500 from Fred and Charlotte Hubbell. Freese’s campaign reported spending $12,579.72, and the Iowa Democratic Party chipped in $17,405.05 for direct mail.
Sweeney raised only $2,385.00 from ten donors, who did not include the candidate’s longtime friend Bruce Rastetter. Her campaign reported spending a difficult-to-believe $4.10 as of April 6. However, the Republican Party of Iowa spent $48,231.40 promoting her campaign, mostly on advertising and direct mail.
After Sweeney is sworn in sometime next week, Republicans will again hold 29 Iowa Senate seats. Democrats hold 20 seats, and Senator David Johnson is affiliated with neither party.
The number of women in the chamber will rise to seven, as was the case in 2015 and 2016. Sweeney and Amy Sinclair are the only female GOP state senators; their Democratic counterparts are Amanda Ragan, Pam Jochum, Liz Mathis, Rita Hart, and Janet Petersen. The peak for women’s representation in the Iowa Senate was 2013-2014, when ten of the 50 members were women. Given how many women are running for the legislature this year, though, a record number may win in November.
Sweeney and Freese will likely face off again in November; Bleeding Heartland published background on both contenders here. Freese is the only Democratic candidate in Senate district 25, and Chad Buss has virtually no chance of beating Sweeney in the GOP primary.
UPDATE: Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson interviewed the senator-elect shortly after results came in.
Sweeney told Radio Iowa the voters she talked with didn’t have much to say about the senator she’s now replacing and the drama surrounding his exit from the legislature.
“The voters, when we visited, they wanted somebody to get back down to the capitol,” Sweeney said, adding that even in the Butler County area where Dix is from, voters told her they were ready for a “fresh start.”
Henderson posted the following turnout figures, citing the Republican Party of Iowa:
Butler County 19.63%
Story County 15.49%
Grundy County 22.72%
Hardin County 25.25%
That’s high for a special election on short notice.
Here’s the official statement from the Iowa GOP:
“Tonight, the voters of the 25th Senate District reiterated their support for strong conservative leadership by electing Annette Sweeney to the Iowa Senate. Annette will always stand up for rural Iowans, and her strong record for Iowa agriculture will be welcomed in our state legislature. I’m thrilled to be able to work alongside Annette’s vision as we build a better future for our state.
“While history favors the party out of power in midterm elections, the Republican grassroots rose up to meet the challenge to keep this seat in Republican hands. If Republicans knock doors and work their tail off, a mosquito won’t be able to surf on the blue wave. Democrats continue their embrace of far left policies and would like to roll back the progress made under Republican leadership, but Republican momentum in Iowa continues to grow. We won’t stop until we elect Annette and other great conservatives up and down the ballot this November.”
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver added the following statement on Annette Sweeney’s victory tonight:
“Annette Sweeney is a natural fit for Senate District 25. Her strong agricultural background and unwavering commitment to rural Iowa was rewarded by voters in that district. She worked hard every day communicating her positive vision for Iowa. I am eager to work with her in the Iowa Senate and continue to advance our bold, pro-growth agenda.”
Republican staffer Eddie Failor (the son of Dix’s former chief aide Ed Failor, Jr.) laughably tried to spin Sweeney’s “big win”: “She was a candidate for just 3 weeks, running against someone campaigning & organizing for 10 months. Huge victory!” Freese is a first-time candidate, while Sweeney was a state lawmaker for four years, the last two as Agriculture Committee chair.
Meanwhile, Austin Rex Harris described the GOP staffers who worked on Sweeney’s behalf as “focused, hard working but most importantly, fearless.” It’s hardly brave to try to elect a Republican in a district where GOP registrants outnumber Democrats by two to one. “Fearless” is Freese stepping up to run against the Senate majority leader in a seat like this. She couldn’t have anticipated last summer that Dix would resign.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen released this statement on April 10.
“I want to thank Trace Freese, her family, and the amazing volunteers who worked so hard to give Iowans a stronger voice in the Iowa Senate.
“From the start, we knew this was going to be an uphill climb. President Trump won the district by 26 percent, but the Democrats in Butler, Grundy, Hardin, and Story counties worked hard to turn around this district and get the state headed in the right direction again.
“While the vote total didn’t flip this seat from red to blue, it shows Democratic enthusiasm is growing, and that we’re in a strong position to compete in the November election.”
SECOND UPDATE: Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price released this statement on April 11.
“Iowa Democrats are incredibly proud of the campaign Tracy Freese and her awesome team ran in Senate District 25.
Her candidacy underscores why it is so important that Democrats to run in every seat we can, talk to as many voters as we can, and let them know that we are here and we are fighting for them – even in districts our presidential Republican opponent carried by 26 points in 2016.
Current Republican leadership has failed time and time again to put the people of Iowa ahead of special interests and political games. This must stop, and it only will if we’re fighting for every vote in every district every single year.
While we may have come up short yesterday, Democrats in District 25 improved on their performance by 14 points. We look forward to move the needle even farther as we fight alongside Tracy in November!”