Where things stand in Iowa's Senate, Congressional races

Labor Day traditionally marks the beginning of the most intense phase of campaigning in election years. This holiday is also a good time to review the state of play in races for federal offices in odd-numbered years. Though new candidates could emerge at any time before Iowa’s March 2020 filing deadline–Patty Judge was a late arrival to the Democratic U.S. Senate field in 2016–it’s more typical for federal candidates here to kick off their campaigns by the end of summer the year before the election.

Thanks to Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting system, all four U.S. House races here could be competitive in 2020, and our Senate race is on the map–in contrast to 2016, when Senator Chuck Grassley’s re-election was almost a foregone conclusion.

U.S. SENATE

Senator Joni Ernst is favored to win a second term. All other things being equal, Iowans tend to re-elect their incumbents. The last time Iowans voted out a U.S. senator was in 1984, when Tom Harkin defeated Roger Jepsen.

Largely sympathetic news coverage also works in Ernst’s favor. No Iowa-based media organization has a correspondent on the ground in Washington since years before Ernst was elected in 2014. She has followed Grassley’s playbook for influencing reporting on her activities. As a result, Iowans rarely hear about potentially unpopular Senate votes or anything Ernst is up to, other than stories her office pushes out through news releases, conference calls with reporters, and 99-county tour stops.

National election forecasters differ about how long the odds are for Democrats challenging Ernst. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the IA-Sen race as “lean Republican,” while the Cook Political Report see it as a “likely Republican” hold.

Even so, this cycle will probably be the best opportunity for Democrats to defeat Ernst. The last three U.S. senators from Iowa to lose their re-election bids (Democrat Dick Clark in 1978, Democrat John Culver in 1980, and Jepsen in 1984) were all completing their first six-year term. Ernst has been a loyal foot soldier to President Donald Trump, whose trade policies have hurt Iowa’s economy.

Four Democrats are seeking the Senate nomination, and at at least one other is considering the race. Unlike the 2016 field, which included a three-time statewide election winner in Judge, none of the Democrats running against Ernst have held elective office before. None has high name recognition statewide.

Theresa Greenfield has the most support within the Democratic establishment and allied interest groups. Her individual supporters include:

  • U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack
  • former Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson
  • former First Lady Christie Vilsack
  • State Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen
  • State Senator Zach Wahls
  • State Representative Jo Oldson
  • State Representative Sharon Steckman
  • Former State House Minority Leader and Representative Mark Smith
  • Former State Representative Ro Foege
  • Howard County Democratic Party Chair Laura Hubka
  • Gun Sense Activist Amber Gustafson
  • Former Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro

    U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who recently dropped out of the presidential race, has also endorsed Greenfield.

    Groups backing Greenfield include:

  • the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
  • EMILY’s List
  • AFSCME Council 61
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Local 431
  • the End Citizens United PAC

    Greenfield is campaigning as a “farm kid with farm values” and frequently highlights her opposition to Trump’s trade war. She also has promised to fight for Social Security, which helped her make ends meet as a widow raising two young children.

    Kimberly Graham was the first Democrat to declare her Senate candidacy. A first-time candidate, she is the only person in the field to back single-payer health care reform (Medicare for All), the Green New Deal, free tuition at state colleges, and ending the electoral college. CORRECTION: Graham told Bleeding Heartland she is for a “universal, single-payer healthcare system” but doesn’t support “Medicare for All” because “Medicare reimbursement rates are currently insufficient. Also, our new system needs to cover more than Medicare currently does.” Graham is campaigning as an “unapologetic progressive” who can win with the backing of a “grassroots, people first movement.”

    A few weeks ago, the National Republican Senatorial Committee took out a billboard featuring Graham on a major Des Moines street. Though the message was critical, the unstated goal was to elevate Graham’s profile and boost her in the Democratic primary by bashing her as “TOO LIBERAL” for Iowa. Like similar billboards in other states, the image featured Graham’s photo next to those of U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

    Eddie Mauro was the second Democrat to join the Senate field. He unsuccessfully challenged a Democratic state lawmaker in 2016 and finished second to Cindy Axne in the 2018 primary to represent the third Congressional district. High-profile endorsers of Mauro’s Senate candidacy include State Representatives Ako Abdul-Samad and Charlie McConkey. Greenfield, Mauro, and Graham have all advocated for stronger gun safety legislation, but only Mauro and Graham attended a recent Senate town hall organized by March for Our Lives. Mauro also speaks often of the need to fight climate change.

    Retired Admiral Michael Franken declared his candidacy last week. He is the only Democratic contender who doesn’t live in Polk County, having grown up in Sioux County and moved to Sioux City upon retiring from the U.S. Navy. His first campaign video highlighted his opposition to invading Iraq in 2002, a sign he will “go against the grain in Washington to do what’s right for Iowa.”

    In a September 1 telephone interview, Franken told Bleeding Heartland he isn’t worried about the late start, because he has many months to meet voters and get his message out. He added that his campaign “surpassed” their initial fundraising goal, and his initial conversations with local party leaders “have been going exceedingly well.” Franken plans to roll out a list of prominent endorsers soon.

    The DSCC discouraged other Iowa Democrats from running for Senate. Greenfield’s opponents have expressed confidence that they can convince voters they would be the best opponent to face Ernst. After the DSCC endorsed Greenfield in June, Mauro said in a statement, “Democrats in Iowa want a spirited primary about the issues that affect their healthcare, jobs, their children’s education and the climate chaos that imperils our farms and communities. […] Voters deserve a United States Senator who has a real record of taking action and leading on progressive issues and who can defeat Joni Ernst, and we don’t need DC dictating to us.” Graham recently tweeted, “The establishment may discount this campaign, but I intend to harness grassroots people power and prove them wrong.” Franken commented on Twitter, “Iowa is first on deck to choose the president of the United States. We can choose our own senator.”

    Republicans have a slight statewide advantage in terms of voter registration, but the largest group of Iowa voters has no party affiliation. It’s too early to guess whether prevailing national sentiment will favor Ernst or her Democratic challenger next fall.

    IA-01

    This district covering much of northeast Iowa, including the large cities of Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Dubuque, will be among the top-targeted U.S. House races in the country. Outside groups spent nearly $4 million to influence the outcome in IA-01 last cycle, and the 2020 race will likely be even more costly.

    I concur with the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball that this race looks like a toss-up. Some counties in northeast Iowa saw the largest swings in the country from support for Barack Obama in 2012 to support for Trump four years later. Collectively, the IA-01 counties favored Obama by 56.2 percent to 42.5 percent for Mitt Romney, but delivered 48.7 percent of the 2016 vote to Trump, compared to 45.2 percent for Hillary Clinton.

    The latest official figures indicate the 20 counties in this district contain 161,221 active registered Democrats, 139,392 Republicans, and 193,371 no-party voters.

    Abby Finkenauer is the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress, having beaten two-term GOP incumbent Rod Blum last November. Click on any county on this interactive map to view the total votes and percentages for Finkenauer, Blum, Governor Kim Reynolds, and her Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell. A table showing the same county-level figures for Finkenauer and Blum is available here.

    County Name

    D Canidate 1 61% 30390
    R Canidate 2 39% 10390

    Finkenauer between 50% and 60%

    Blum won with less than 50%

    Blum between 50% and 60%

    Three Republicans have announced their candidacies in IA-01, but the only serious GOP contender at this writing is State Representative Ashley Hinson. She was the top Republican recruit for this race, for reasons Bleeding Heartland discussed in detail here. Short version:

  • Hinson is from Linn County, the largest by population in IA-01 and a growing area where Republicans need to hold down Democratic margins.
  • Before serving in the state legislature, Hinson worked for ten years as a reporter and anchor at the most-watched Cedar Rapids television station for local news. The Cedar Rapids market covers fourteen of the twenty counties in IA-01.
  • Hinson is the only Iowa House Republican who represents a district carried by both Clinton in 2016 and Hubbell in 2018.
  • She outperformed Blum in every precinct of her Iowa House district last November.
  • Hinson raised an impressive amount during the second quarter and is backed by many heavy-hitters in Iowa Republican circles. Ernst chipped in $5,000 from her JONI PAC. The National Republican Congressional Committee added Hinson to their “Young Guns” program last month; she’s among 43 designated “on the radar” candidates across the country.

    The other two declared GOP candidates, Thomas Hansen and Darren White, have raised almost no money and have no notable public support.

    Early this year, Blum was making the rounds at Republican events, and he didn’t rule out trying to win his old job back. He’s continued to give occasional interviews and visit towns across the district this summer. Although he wasn’t fundraising during the first two quarters, he occasionally updates his official Facebook page and was in Washington, DC last week. Blum has the means to self-fund a campaign, but many Republican insiders would prefer for him to stay out of this race.

    IA-02

    Cook Political and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate this open seat as a toss-up race. When Representative Dave Loebsack announced in April that he would not seek re-election in 2020, I agreed.

    The 24 counties in IA-02 swung hard toward Republicans in 2016: from a 55.8 percent to 42.7 percent advantage for Obama in 2012 to a 49.1 percent to 45.0 percent margin for Trump.

    The latest official figures indicate the district contains 164,225 active registered Democrats, 142,566 Republicans, and 186,188 no-party voters.

    Loebsack outperformed the top of the Democratic ticket in 2016 and the party’s nominee for governor two years later. This interactive map shows the 2018 vote totals and percentages for Loebsack, his Republican challenger Christopher Peters, Reynolds, and Hubbell. The colors represent the Congressional voting. Hubbell carried only six counties in Loebsack’s district: Johnson, Scott, Lee, Des Moines, Jefferson, and Clinton (barely).

    County Name

    D Canidate 1 61% 30390
    R Canidate 2 39% 10390

    Loebsack won with more than 70%

    Loebsack won with more than 50%

    Peters won with less than 50%

    Peters won with more than 50%

    Peters won with more than 60%

    This post includes a table with the same numbers, as well as county-level results in IA-02 from 2016.

    Without Loebsack on the ballot, IA-02 will be a more difficult hold. On the other hand, Democrats landed their top recruit in Rita Hart, a farmer and retired educator who is also former state senator and the 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor. EMILY’s List is supporting Hart, along with dozens of well-known Iowa Democrats, including:

  • Representative Dave Loebsack
  • Representative Abby Finkenauer (IA-01)
  • Representative Cindy Axne (IA-03)
  • State Auditor Rob Sand
  • Former Lieutenant Governor and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge
  • State Senator Joe Bolkcom
  • State Senator Kevin Kinney
  • State Senator Rich Taylor
  • State Senator Zach Wahls
  • State Representative Wes Breckenridge
  • State Representative Mary Gaskill
  • State Representative Dave Jacoby
  • State Representative Mary Mascher
  • State Representative Amy Nielsen
  • State Representative Monica Kurth
  • State Representative Phyllis Thede
  • State Representative Mary Wolfe
  • Former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky
  • Newman Abuissa is also competing in the Democratic primary, running to Hart’s left. It’s hard to see how he can win the nomination, however, given Hart’s establishment support and strong fundraising.

    The only declared Republican candidate at this writing is Bobby Schilling, who represented an Illinois district in Congress for two years. Signs point to State Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks entering the race soon. She was the GOP nominee against Loebsack in 2008, 2010, and 2014.

    Most of the time, an open seat is more difficult to defend. But I consider Hart slightly favored against either Schilling or Miller-Meeks. The NRCC has vowed to target IA-02 but left Schilling out of their first wave of “Young Guns” candidates.

    IA-03

    The third district is the most politically balanced of Iowa’s four Congressional districts. As of August 1, its sixteen counties contained 170,121 active registered Democrats, 169,878 Republicans, and 175,821 no-party voters.

    Democrat Cindy Axne raised and spent about $5 million on her 2018 campaign, more than the $2.8 million spent by two-term GOP incumbent David Young. Outside groups spent nearly $9 million to influence this race during the last cycle. It will be a top target for both parties again.

    National forecasters disagree on Axne’s prospects for 2020. Cook Political lists IA-03 as a toss-up, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball calls the seat lean Democratic, in part because this district contains more voters with a college degree. In addition, Hubbell carried IA-03 but not IA-01 in last year’s governor’s race.

    Probably because of the higher percentage of college-educated voters, the swing to Trump in IA-03 was less pronounced than the vote shifts in IA-01 and IA-02. The third district favored Obama by 51.4 percent to 47.2 percent in 2012 (a much narrower margin than the eastern Iowa Congressional districts). Trump carried the same counties by 48.5 percent to 45.0 percent, roughly the same as his edge in IA-01 and IA-02.

    Here’s an interactive map of the 2018 election in IA-03. Click on any county to bring up the vote totals and percentages for Axne and Young. Percentages don’t add up to 100 because four other candidates were on the ballot. (Vote totals and percentages for the governor’s race in the same counties are here.)

    County Name

    D Canidate 1 61% 30390
    R Canidate 2 39% 10390

    Axne above 50%

    Young between 50% and 60%

    Young above 60%

    To my surprise, Young managed to scare off any serious Republican competition. Earlier this year, State Senator Zach Nunn was widely viewed as the preferred candidate for the GOP establishment. He seemed set on running when he announced a “listening tour” in May. But he passed on the race in July.

    Most other Republicans who had floated the idea of running in IA-03 have ruled out the race as well. Most recently, State Representative Jon Jacobsen told Bleeding Heartland on September 1 that he will seek re-election in Iowa House district 22 next year.

    Bill Schafer is seeking the Republican nomination in IA-03, but he has raised little money and has no prominent GOP supporters.

    The NRCC included Young on its list of “on the radar” candidates last month, a signal that Washington Republicans are content with an Axne-Young rematch.

    Until we know who will be the Democratic presidential nominee, I consider this race a toss-up. However, Trump on the ballot is unlikely to help Young among the suburban voters–especially women–who made the difference for Axne last year. Some Republicans believe Trump will inspire huge GOP turnout, pulling Young over the line. But Republican turnout was quite high in 2018.

    UPDATE: Governor Kim Reynolds endorsed Young in a September 3 news release.

    IA-04

    Both Cook Political and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate Iowa’s most conservative district as “likely Republican.” I would call this a lean Republican seat if Representative Steve King is on the general election ballot in 2020 and a safe seat for the GOP if one of King’s primary challengers wins the nomination.

    Republicans should have no trouble holding a district with 117,662 active registered Democrats, 188,449 Republicans, and 174,954 no-party voters according to the latest official figures. But King is an incredibly weak incumbent. He barely outperformed Trump in 2016, while Iowa’s other three U.S. House members all did substantially better than their party’s presidential nominee.

    King defeated J.D. Scholten by 157,676 votes to 147,246 (50.3 percent to 47.0 percent) last November–a remarkably close result in a district Trump had carried by 60.9 percent to 33.5 percent.

    This map shows county-level results for King, Scholten, Reynolds, and Hubbell in 2018. Reynolds received a substantially higher vote share in all 39 counties–even in King’s home county (Sac).

    County Name

    D Canidate 1 61% 30390
    R Canidate 2 39% 10390

    King above 70% of vote

    King between 60% and 70%

    King between 50% and 60%

    King won with less than 50%

    Scholten won with less than 50%

    Scholten between 50% and 60%

    Scholten above 60%

    A lot of Iowa Republican heavyweights, including well-known social conservative Bob Vander Plaats, are backing State Senator Randy Feenstra, King’s best-funded GOP challenger. (Jeremy Taylor and Bret Richards are also running.) Reynolds, Ernst, and Grassley have said they will stay neutral in the primary, a blow to King since all supported him against a GOP challenger in 2016.

    That said, I still see King as favored to win the 2020 nomination. Multiple Republicans are poised to split the anti-King vote, and the incumbent has a pretty good shtick as the conservative martyr to a corrupt establishment and biased media. King regularly makes national news in an unflattering way. But comments the average voter may find offensive could resonate with Republican activists who vote in primaries.

    While some Iowans assume no Democrat could ever carry IA-04, Scholten should not be underestimated in a rematch against King. (He is currently unopposed for the Democratic nomination.) This post outlines what it would take to get Scholten to a win number in November 2020.

    UPDATE: Steve Reeder joined the Republican field in IA-04 in late September.

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