As was the case two years ago, Democratic candidates are at a financial disadvantage in almost all of the Iowa Senate districts both parties are targeting.
The disparity adds another challenge to a party already facing a difficult path to gaining ground in the upper chamber. Republicans currently hold 29 of the 50 Senate seats and are guaranteed to pick up the district independent Senator David Johnson is vacating.
The latest filings by candidates for statewide and state legislative offices are available on the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s website. The October 19 disclosures cover fundraising and spending from July 15 through October 14. Political parties typically spend most of the money in battleground legislative races, making in-kind donations to cover the cost of television and radio air time, digital advertising, and direct mail.
Although all 25 odd-numbered Iowa Senate seats are on the ballot in November, this post focuses on eleven seats I previously identified as potentially competitive. Click here for preliminary race ratings and analysis, with maps, voter registration numbers, and recent voting history for all of those districts.
REPUBLICAN-HELD OPEN SEAT
In Senate district 41, where Republican Senator Mark Chelgren is retiring, Democrat Mary Stewart had $6,241.07 cash on hand in mid-July and raised $54,211.77 over the next three months. She received about $20,000 from labor PACs, $2,000 from EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice, Democratic women, and the rest from individuals. Most of the $26,794.39 Stewart spent during the latest reporting period went to the Iowa Democratic Party. In turn, the state party accounted for most of the $84,959.63 on Stewart’s in-kind report: about $32,000 on mail, $10,000 on digital ads, and $36,860.00 on television.
Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks had $16,769.35 in the bank in mid-July and reported $70,855.00 in contributions over the next three months. The three-time Congressional candidate raised most of that money from individuals. About $14,000 came from PACs. Senator Joni Ernst’s JONIPAC gave $5,000 to Miller-Meeks and to most of the Republicans competing in key Senate districts. Miller-Meeks spent $66,273.44 from mid-July to mid-October, of which $52,000 went to the Iowa GOP and most of the rest to the Victory Enterprises political consulting firm. She had $21,350.91 cash on hand with three weeks to go.
Miller-Meeks benefited from $165,137.01 in in-kind spending, almost all by the Iowa GOP. The state party put about $76,000 into tv ad production and air time and spent $7,650 on digital advertising, about $42,000 on radio, and $5,535 on newspaper ads.
I rated Senate district 41 a toss-up last month, and my view has not changed, despite the Democratic voter registration advantage here. Democrats lead in absentee ballots, but only about 10 percent of the likely electorate has voted already.
DEMOCRATIC-HELD OPEN SEATS
Democrats waved the white flag in Senate district 15. Senator Chaz Allen’s retirement inspired rising Republican star Zach Nunn to run for the upper chamber instead of the Iowa House district he has represented for four years. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Dan Nieland did not disclose when seeking the nomination that his wife was under criminal investigation for allegedly collecting Social Security disability benefits while drawing a salary from the couple’s business. The $19,920.00 Nieland raised since August came mostly from the Jasper County Democratic Central Committee ($11,500) and the East Polk Democratic Committee ($2,500). He spent just $4,752.03. The state party spent nothing in-kind for Nieland.
Nunn left a position in Iowa House Republican leadership to run for this seat. He already had $24,496.83 in the bank on his last report. Since mid-July, Nunn raised $65,525.36, just under $40,000 from PACs. He spent $20,999.69, largely on printing, signs, and advertising. As of October 14, Nunn’s campaign had $69,022.50 cash on hand. Even though this race is a sure thing, the Iowa GOP spent more than $77,000 on direct mail and a combination of radio, television, and digital advertising.
I called this a likely Republican district last month but I now consider it safe Republican.
Senate district 49 is open because Senator Rita Hart agreed to be Fred Hubbell’s running mate in the governor’s race. She had been considered a strong favorite for re-election. New Democratic candidate Patti Robinson has been campaigning since early July and reported $56,878.00 in contributions on her latest filing. Labor PACs contributed a little more than half of that sum. The rest came from individuals, mostly small donors other than Bill Knapp, who gave $10,000. Robinson’s campaign spent $21,065.69 through mid-October, mostly on ads and printing, and had $42,306.91 in the bank with about three weeks to go. The Iowa Democratic Party spent $58,392.98 in kind here, mostly on mail and digital advertising.
GOP candidate Chris Cournoyer had $30,364.68 on hand in mid-July and raised $33,576.00 through October 14, nearly two-thirds from PACs or political committees. Of the $55,073.76 Cournoyer’s campaign spent during the past three months, $48,000 went to the state Republican Party. With three weeks to go, she had $8,866.92 on hand. The Iowa GOP has poured $208,092.79 into this race already, spending around $105,000 on tv ad production and air time, some $40,000 on direct mail, about $28,000 on radio, $12,000 on digital ads, and just under $8,000 on newspaper advertising.
I rated this seat toss-up last month, but I’m revising that view to lean Republican. Robinson’s name ID will likely be lower than Cournoyer’s. Democratic turnout should be high here to support Hart in the statewide race, but Republicans are only slightly behind in early votes.
REPUBLICAN INCUMBENTS FACING DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGERS
In Senate district 5, first-term GOP Senator Tim Kraayenbrink started the latest fundraising period with $59,738.30 in the bank and raised $68,265.00 from a mix of individuals and corporate PACs from mid-July through mid-October. His campaign spent $116,929.01 during the same period, of which $102,000 went to the Iowa GOP. Kraayenbrink had $11,074.29 cash on hand as of October 14. The Iowa GOP spent about $35,000 on direct mail supporting him. If they were worried they would have spent far more.
Senate district 7 remains the best chance for Democrats to take out a GOP state senator. Rick Bertrand had a poor attendance record at the statehouse during the past two legislative sessions. A recent Des Moines Register report on the longstanding toxic work environment for women at the capitol revealed that Bertrand would sometimes “say inappropriate things about women” and once asked a colleague if he could invite the man’s wife over for “bath night.”
Nevertheless, Bertrand raised a ton of money since reversing his decision to retire. His latest report showed $144,700.00 in contributions, of which $75,000 came from the Iowa GOP and the rest from a mix of individuals and corporate PACs. Bertrand spent $148,272.74, mostly on advertising, leaving $20,153.25 on hand as of October 14. The Iowa GOP spent another $15,449.07 in kind, mostly on direct mail supporting him.
Former Woodbury County Supervisor Jackie Smith started the latest fundraising period with $26,654.55 and raised $29,815.35 in the past three months. About $8,000 came from labor PACs, $2,000 from EMILY’s List, and the rest from individuals, including $2,000 from presidential candidate John Delaney. Smith’s campaign spent $50,468.54, of which $41,200 went to the state party. She reported $6,001.36 in the bank as of October 14. Most of the $126,265.71 Smith’s campaign received in kind came from the Iowa Democratic Party, which spent more than $120,000 on mail, digital, and broadcast media.
Senate district 13 wasn’t competitive four years ago, and Republican Senator Julian Garrett appears not to have expected a real fight. His campaign had $17,682.31 in the bank in mid-July and raised just $17,270.00 through October 14, more than half from PACs. During the same period, Garrett spent $12,239.55, mostly on advertising or political consulting. He had $52,712.76 on hand as of October 14, having loaned his campaign $30,000 three days earlier.
Republicans went up on television for Garrett five weeks before the election. After running a positive spot for a week, the party launched a strange attack ad tying challenger Vicky Brenner to U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell, who had headlined a fundraiser for her. Through October 14, the Iowa GOP’s in-kind spending in Senate district 13 exceeded $117,000, including around $30,000 on direct mail, $13,000 on digital ads, and $70,000 for television.
Brenner took on a huge challenge, running against an incumbent who faced only token opposition in 2014. An effective fundraiser, she had $43,171.34 in the bank in mid-July. Since then Brenner has raised $40,458.00, around $10,000 from PACs and the rest from individuals. Her campaign had spent $72,410.82 through October 14, of which $66,000 went to the state party. The Iowa Democratic Party spent roughly the same amount in kind for Brenner, mostly on mail and digital advertising. Her campaign had $11,218.52 on hand with three weeks to go.
I rated this race likely Republican but am changing to lean Republican. The voter registration numbers are daunting here, but the GOP is obviously worried, and their weak attacks are raising Brenner’s name ID.
Senate district 19 may be Iowa’s most interesting legislative race this cycle. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver had no opponent on the 2014 ballot, when he was the second-ranking Republican in the minority caucus. He is deeply concerned about his prospects now.
As the top Iowa Senate Republican since Bill Dix’s unexpected resignation in March, Whitver is responsible for raising the bulk of the money for all the campaigns. He had $445,262.48 in the bank in mid-July and has raised $516,575.25 since then. Dozens of individuals and PACs made four- or five-figure donations to Whitver. Even after transferring $600,000 to the state party, which accounted for most of his campaign’s $615,162.00 in spending through October 14, Whitver still had $346,675.73 on hand.
The Iowa GOP spent more than $118,000 in kind on Whitver’s race, including more than $40,000 on direct mail, more than $14,000 on digital advertising, and more than $50,000 on tv ad production or air time. The majority leader went on the air with a positive ad in early October and more recently launched a spot calling his Democratic challenger a “nightmare.”
Amber Gustafson reported $41,846.51 cash on hand in mid-July and had a banner fundraising period, bringing in $78,235.82 through October 14. Individuals donated the vast majority of that amount; less than $10,000 came from PACs. Most of the $111,272.75 in spending by her campaign went to the Senate Majority Fund ($95,000 total). Her campaign had $8,809.58 in the bank as of October 14.
Democrats are making a huge play here, with the Senate Majority Fund chipping in $174,600.00 for television advertising, $6,000 for digital ads, and more than $50,000 on mail supporting Gustafson. Jason Kander’s Let America Vote PAC also kicked in canvassing help worth about $5,000.
Last month I considered this race likely Republican but Senate district 19 only leans Republican now. Some could make a case for a toss-up rating. Democrats have good early vote numbers so far, and Gustafson revealed on October 19 that some 1,300 Democrats in her district who did not participate in the 2014 election have already voted. That’s a sign the party is not merely cannibalizing its election-day vote but is mobilizing Iowans who don’t usually cast a ballot in a midterm.
In Senate district 47, two-term GOP incumbent Roby Smith had $208,337.13 in the bank in July. He raised another $78,168.00 through October 14, mostly from PACs. Smith’s campaign spent $91,426.68 during the same period, sending $75,000 to the state party, and had $195,078.45 on hand as of October 14. The Iowa GOP has spent $140,107.22 here, mostly on mail and broadcast advertising.
Democratic challenger Marie Gleason started with $13,725.06, raised $36,141.42, more than $25,000 from labor PACs and the rest from individuals. spent $19,564.59, $16,200 to the state party, had $30,301.89 cash on hand. The state party kicked in just under $47,000 in kind on mail and digital advertising. Also has had about $5,000 in in-kind from the Let America Vote PAC, since Smith floor managed the voter suppression bill.
I still see this district as a likely Republican hold.
DEMOCRATIC INCUMBENTS FACING REPUBLICAN CHALLENGERS
Four-term incumbent and Senate minority whip Amanda Ragan faces her toughest re-election bid in Senate district 27, where the GOP fielded weak candidates in 2010 and 2014. Her latest disclosure shows she had $86,799.42 on hand in July and has since raised $68,362.46 from a mix of PACs and individuals. Ragan’s campaign spent $108,953.63, sending $70,000 to the state party and using most of the other funds for radio and newspaper advertising. As of October 14, her campaign had $46,208.25 on hand.
The Iowa Democratic Party spent more than $90,000 supporting Ragan, just under $40,000 on television and putting most of the rest into mail and digital advertising. Given the tendency to spend money protecting incumbents, I see the level of spending here as a sign internal polling shows Ragan in a good position.
For someone from a wealthy family who has been talked up by Republicans for more than a year, Shannon Latham hasn’t raised as much as I expected. She started with $31,506.12, raised $30,494.69 over the past three months, more than a third from PACs, spent $61,273.77, about three-quarters of that amount going to the Iowa GOP, leaving less than $1,000 in the bank.
Republicans spent heavily here: $176,812.03 in kind, more than $100,000 on tv ad production or air time, more than $33,000 on radio, $11,600 on digital ads, and most of the rest on direct mail.
I am sticking with my lean Democratic rating. If Ragan were in deep trouble, Democrats would be spending more here and less on Des Moines market tv for Gustafson in Senate district 19.
Voters in Senate district 29 swung heavily toward Donald Trump in 2016. So even though Senator Tod Bowman didn’t face a serious challenger in 2014, most Iowa politics watchers saw an opportunity for Republicans here. Bowman had $37,209.25 on hand in July and raised $42,575.38 through October 14, mostly from PACs. His campaign spent $65,155.57 over the past three months, contributing $45,000 to the state party and using most of the other funds for print or radio advertising. Three weeks before election day, the campaign had $14,629.06 in the bank.
The Iowa Democratic Party has spent more than $123,000 on this race. Television accounted for $54,320.00 of that sum, and the rest went mostly toward direct mail and digital ads.
GOP challenger Carrie Koelker had just $9,264.98 on hand in July. She has since raised $24,164.70, mostly through fundraisers headlined by Senator Joni Ernst and Governor Kim Reynolds. Koelker’s campaign spent $26,765.45 through mid-October, of which $16,153.37 went to the state GOP and most of the rest for political consulting or printing. She had $6,664.23 on hand as of October 14.
Republicans invested heavily here: $213,191.77 in kind on the latest filing. That spending included more than $125,000 for television, $35,000 for radio, $25,000 for direct mail, $12,600 for digital advertising, and more than $9,000 for newspaper ads.
I rated this race likely Democrat and am sticking with that assessment, though I could make a case for lean Democrat. Both parties are targeting Dubuque County, home base for both Rod Blum and Abby Finkenauer in the first Congressional district race. In addition, the rural Dubuque County half of Bowman’s Senate district (House district 57) is one of the top House targets for both parties. Expect very high turnout here; the early vote numbers are already larger than in most Senate districts. The Democratic voter registration edge will be a tough hurdle for Koelker.
Finally, first-term Democratic incumbent Kevin Kinney seems well-positioned in Senate district 39. He added to the $38,461.85 his campaign had in July with contributions totaling $55,077.00, more than half from PACs. Kinney’s campaign spent $71,941.02, of which $65,000 went to the state party, leaving $21,597.83 cash on hand. Direct mail financed by the Iowa Democratic Party accounted for most of the $78,901.12 on Kinney’s in-kind report.
GOP challenger Heather Hora had only $6,087.45 in the bank in July and raised $24,578.00 since then, more than half from PACs. Her campaign spent $27,884.59, including $21,305.82 to the state GOP, and reported $2,780.86 on hand as of October 14. Republicans have dropped a lot of money here. The GOP’s $193,891.80 in spending included around $135,000 for tv ad production and air time, $13,000 for digital advertising, $12,000 for radio, just under $5,000 on newspaper ads, and most of the rest on direct mail.
Despite the spending imbalance, I am sticking with my likely Democrat rating. As with Ragan and Bowman, I think Democrats would be spending more here if they thought Kinney were seriously threatened. Also worth noting: Kinney received contributions from quite a few PACs that mostly support Republicans, such as the Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers, Master Builders, Principal Financial Group’s PAC. When those groups make token donations to Democrats, they generally pick incumbents they expect to be re-elected.
Any comments about this year’s Iowa Senate races are welcome in this thread.