Final look at nine Iowa Senate races to watch, with ratings

Few Iowa politics watchers doubt that Democrats will gain ground in the state House today–the only question is how much will the Republican majority shrink.

In contrast, the Iowa Senate landscape could shift in either direction. Republicans now hold 29 seats and are unopposed in Senate district 1, where independent Senator David Johnson is retiring. They are also outspending several Democratic incumbents in districts Donald Trump carried in the last presidential election. Democrats currently hold 20 Senate seats, but they could add to their ranks today, despite a difficult map and a couple of bad breaks over the summer.

Here’s how the key races look going into election day, based on voter registration totals, recent voting history, absentee ballot numbers, and where Democratic or Republican leaders have made large expenditures.

Figures on party registration and absentee ballots returned to county auditors come from the Iowa Secretary of State’s website. Important caveat: the early vote numbers tell us how many Democrats, Republicans, and no-party voters have cast ballots in each district. They don’t tell us for whom they voted. We don’t know how the independents are splitting or whether any given candidate is attracting a lot of support from members of the other party.

For recent voting history, I relied on this Daily Kos Elections spreadsheet, showing how residents of each Iowa Senate district voted in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections and the 2014 statewide races.

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s website has links to finance reports that were due on October 19 and November 2. Each candidate’s “in-kind” filings reveal party spending on their behalf, which makes up the largest share of spending in most battleground Iowa legislative races. While this post focuses on districts where one or both parties are spending significant funds, surprises can happen, especially in a wave election. Two years ago, Republicans picked up Senate district 44 in southeast Iowa, which wasn’t on many people’s radar.

REPUBLICAN-HELD OPEN SEAT

Senate district 41

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 13,582 active registered Democrats, 10,784 Republicans, 11,285 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 5,386 Democrats, 3,098 Republicans, 1,519 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 52.9 percent for Barack Obama and 45.1 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 45.5 percent for Bruce Braley and 49.3 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 37.9 percent for Hillary Clinton and 56.9 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Mary Stewart: about $220,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf Mariannette Miller-Meeks: about $315,000

Despite the Democratic registration advantage here, this area elected Mark Chelgren and voted heavily for Trump. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is well-known in the community as a doctor and three-time Congressional candidate. Although early voting numbers look good for Mary Stewart, I am not ready to call this a lean Democratic race.

Rating: toss-up

DEMOCRATIC-HELD OPEN SEAT

Senate district 49

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 11,698 active registered Democrats, 11,067 Republicans, 17,616 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 4,262 Democrats, 3,361 Republicans, 2,717 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 57.4 percent for Barack Obama and 41.3 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 45.7 percent for Bruce Braley and 50.1 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 42.0 percent for Hillary Clinton and 51.7 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Patti Robinson: about $230,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf Chris Cournoyer: about $470,000

I shifted my rating on this race from toss-up in September to lean Republican last month after seeing the in-kind spending disparity. No one should count Robinson out, because Democratic turnout could be very high in this area. Rita Hart has represented the district in the Senate since 2013 and is now the lieutenant governor nominee.

Rating: lean Republican

REPUBLICAN INCUMBENTS FACING DEMOCRATIC CHALLENGERS

Senate district 7

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 11,287 active registered Democrats, 9,175 Republicans, 10,410 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 4,031 Democrats, 3,160 Republicans, 1,571 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 56.7 percent for Barack Obama and 41.9 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 44.7 percent for Bruce Braley and 50.0 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 44.9 percent for Hillary Clinton and 49.7 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Jackie Smith: about $154,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf Rick Bertrand: about $15,000, but the GOP donated $75,000 to Bertrand’s campaign earlier this fall

I see no clear advantage for either candidate. If Bertrand had not changed his mind about retiring this summer, it would have been a Democratic pick-up for sure. But it’s hard to beat a two-term incumbent, even with good early vote numbers.

Rating: toss-up

Senate district 13

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 12,531 active registered Democrats, 15,796 Republicans, 15,630 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 5,431 Democrats, 5,330 Republicans, 2,965 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 47.2 percent for Barack Obama and 51.4 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 38.6 percent for Bruce Braley and 56.9 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 36.8 percent for Hillary Clinton and 56.7 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Vicky Brenner: about $228,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf Julian Garrett: just under $250,000

Here’s some fun Iowa political trivia I learned last week: before his long career in the Attorney General’s office, Julian Garrett was the 1978 GOP challenger to Tom Harkin, who represented a U.S. House district covering much of southwest Iowa.

Returning to the task at hand: nearly 14,000 votes have already been cast here, a high number considering the total vote in Garrett’s 2014 race was a little more than 26,000. Brenner’s ground game has been strong to generate more early votes in a district with such a large GOP registration edge.

I initially viewed Senate district 13 as likely Republican but changed to lean Republican last month and am sticking with that. This territory would be tough for any Democrat.

Rating: lean Republican hold

Senate district 19

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 14,945 active registered Democrats, 18,066 Republicans, 16,906 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 6,012 Democrats, 4,711 Republicans, 3,127 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 46.1 percent for Barack Obama and 52.5 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 40.0 percent for Bruce Braley and 56.4 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 42.4 percent for Hillary Clinton and 50.2 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Amber Gustafson: about $290,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf Jack Whitver: about $530,000

What panic looks like: the Iowa Senate majority leader spending more than $412,000 on his own race during the last three weeks of the campaign. Whitver has a mix of positive and negative ads in heavy rotation on Des Moines television stations.

Amber Gustafson’s hard work and a strong field effort, aided by Jason Kander’s organization Let America Vote, have generated more early votes for Democrats than Republicans in a district that was long considered safe for the GOP.

First I called Senate district 19 likely Republican, then I said lean Republican. Gut feeling today: don’t be surprised if Gustafson pulls this off.

Rating: toss-up

Senate district 47

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 13,475 active registered Democrats, 14,811 Republicans, 18,337 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 6,066 Democrats, 5,429 Republicans, 3,906 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 50.6 percent for Barack Obama and 48.3 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 44.5 percent for Bruce Braley and 52.9 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 47.1 percent for Hillary Clinton and 46.5 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Marie Gleason: about $215,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf Roby Smith: about $435,000

Another district with very high early voting numbers and an absentee ballot lead for Democrats despite a GOP registration edge. The Scott County Democrats have a strong volunteer operation. Since mid-October, Republicans have spent nearly $300,000 to support Smith, who was easily re-elected four years ago.

Rating: lean Republican hold

DEMOCRATIC INCUMBENTS FACING REPUBLICAN CHALLENGERS

Senate district 27

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 10,398 active registered Democrats, 12,929 Republicans, 16,075 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 3,534 Democrats, 3,813 Republicans, 2,387 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 53.0 percent for Barack Obama and 45.9 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 46.7 percent for Bruce Braley and 49.7 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 39.8 percent for Hillary Clinton and 54.8 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Amanda Ragan: about $185,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf Shannon Latham: about $316,000

Republicans have never spent serious money against Ragan before this year. Nevertheless, Democratic leaders did not pour huge sums into this race late in the game, like Whitver did in Senate district 19. That suggests confidence the second-ranking Iowa Senate Democrat will win a fifth term. The early vote numbers worry me a little, but Ragan should do well among no-party voters.

Rating: lean Democratic hold

Senate district 29

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 14,654 active registered Democrats, 11,996 Republicans, 17,706 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 5,504 Democrats, 3,924 Republicans, 3,031 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 52.2 percent for Barack Obama and 46.8 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 42.9 percent for Bruce Braley and 52.5 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 37.2 percent for Hillary Clinton and 57.7 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Tod Bowman: about $284,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf of Carrie Koelker: about $460,000

Solid early voting numbers by Democrats here, partly fueled by the desire to oust Representative Rod Blum in the first Congressional district and the top-tier race in Iowa House district 57. Then again, Republicans have invested a lot in an area that swung heavily toward Trump. I called this a likely Democratic race last month, but I’m revising that view.

Rating: lean Democratic hold

Senate district 39

Voter registration totals as of November 1: 13,364 active registered Democrats, 13,359 Republicans, 15,617 no-party voters

Absentee ballots returned as of November 6: 4,912 Democrats, 3,576 Republicans, 2,439 no-party voters

Recent voting history: 52.8 percent for Barack Obama and 45.6 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012, 45.1 percent for Bruce Braley and 51.0 percent for Joni Ernst in 2014, 44.9 percent for Hillary Clinton and 48.7 percent for Donald Trump in 2016

In-kind spending by Democrats on behalf of Kevin Kinney: about $228,000

In-kind spending by Republicans on behalf of Heather Hora: about $417,000

Republicans had trouble recruiting a candidate here. Although they have put a lot of money into this district, I remain skeptical that farmer and Iowa Pork Producers member Heather Hora can beat farmer and retired Johnson County deputy sheriff Kevin Kinney. He’s well-known and well-liked, and Democratic volunteers are highly engaged in Johnson County.

Rating: likely Democratic hold

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