After the wipeout of 2016, I questioned whether Iowa's top races of 2018 and 2020 would be foregone conclusions for the Republican incumbents. But amid unusually high turnout for a midterm election, Democratic challengers flipped two U.S. House seats and fell only a few points short against Governor Kim Reynolds and Representative Steve King.
One of my goals for 2019 was to provide in-depth reporting on Iowa's federal and state legislative races. Thanks to our nonpartisan redistricting system, none of our four Congressional districts are considered safe for either party in 2020. While U.S. Senator Joni Ernst is still favored to win a second term, she is increasingly seen as a vulnerable GOP incumbent.
Follow me after the jump for a review of Bleeding Heartland's coverage of the campaigns for U.S. Senate and House, with links to all relevant posts. A separate post will cover the year's stories about battleground legislative districts.
Eddie Mauro spent several months laying the groundwork for a Senate campaign, but Kimberly Graham was the first Democratic challenger to announce, in a guest post for this website in May. Soon after, Bleeding Heartland covered campaign launches by Mauro and Theresa Greenfield, who came out of the gate with a lot of establishment support.
Meanwhile, Ernst was one of just 22 Republican senators to vote for a budget plan that would require massive cuts to most federal government programs. Senator Rand Paul's proposal was so extreme that less than half of the GOP caucus supported it.
Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker ruled out running for Senate in August. The following month, he endorsed Graham in a guest post for this site. Bleeding Heartland will welcome commentaries endorsing any of the Democratic candidates in 2020. Please read these guidelines and contact me if you are interested in writing.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee put up a billboard in Des Moines in August, bashing Graham as "too liberal" for Iowa. The main campaign arm for Senate Republicans ran similar billboards in other states, trying to raise the profile of the most left-wing Democrat in each race.
Mike Franken launched his Democratic campaign in late August, highlighting his opposition to the Iraq War.
I reviewed the state of the Senate race in early September.
As the Ukraine scandal unfolded later that month, Ernst strove mightily to avoid commenting on Trump's alleged conduct. When House Democrats agreed to launch a formal impeachment inquiry, Ernst's official comment was a classic exercise in misdirection. The irony was, she is a member of the Senate's bipartisan Ukraine Caucus and had repeatedly touted her support for increasing U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
An October post covered several warning signs for Ernst:
• a major national forecaster changed its rating on the race from "likely" to "lean Republican";
• a new poll showed the senator underwater on approval;
• Ernst defended Trump's trade policies, despite their impact on Iowa's agricultural sector, while dodging questions about the Ukraine scandal;
• Greenfield outraised Ernst during the third quarter, and Mauro loaned his campaign a million dollars, ensuring that both would have the resources for paid advertising statewide before the primary.
As the lead Senate Republican negotiator on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, Ernst pulled the plug on bipartisan talks in early November. She blamed Democrats for the breakdown, but one of the sticking points was the National Rifle Association's opposition to closing the so-called "boyfriend loophole."
In early December, Brian Slodysko of the Associated Press published evidence suggesting Ernst and some of her campaign staff may have illegally coordinated with the nonprofit Iowa Values, and that the group's political activity may violate conditions of its tax-exempt status under federal law. I discussed some of the legal issues as well as an incident from 2014 that raised questions about illegal coordination with a group supporting Ernst.
The same week, Mauro became the first candidate to run television advertising (Several outside groups aired spots earlier in the year supporting or attacking Ernst.) I posted video and transcripts of the spots, which used footage from one of Ernst's 2014 campaign ads in a provocative way. I also transcribed part of an interview Mauro gave to the Iowa chair of Brady United Against Gun Violence.
A Public Policy Polling survey for End Citizens United (which has endorsed Greenfield) found Ernst's approval and re-elect numbers below 50 percent. The senator led Greenfield on an initial ballot test but trailed after respondents heard questions containing negative information about Ernst.
A fifth Democratic candidate formally launched his campaign in mid-December. I interviewed Cal Woods and briefly summarized strengths the other contenders will bring into the Democratic primary campaign.
After House Democrats approved two articles of impeachment, Ernst announced that she had "yet to see anything that is an impeachable offense." It was quite different from her claim in October that she would "evaluate the facts" as a "jurist" if the House referred charges against Trump.
Soon after being sworn in as the second-youngest woman elected to Congress, U.S. Representative Abby Finkenauer landed the assignment she requested: a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Given the big swing from Obama 2012 to Trump 2016 in northeast Iowa, the first district was an obvious Republican target for this election cycle. In January, I analyzed how Finkenauer might match up against the GOP's top recruit for this race: State Representative Ashley Hinson. That post was among the 35 most-viewed out of more than 630 articles Bleeding Heartland published this year. (Hinson officially launched her campaign in May.)
As former U.S. Representative Rod Blum refused to rule out a political comeback, pondered Blum's likely case and his prospects in a potential rematch against Finkenauer.
Both Finkenauer and Hinson reported strong fundraising during the second quarter.
By Labor Day, the National Republican Congressional Committee had added Hinson to its "Young Guns" program, publicly indicating she was the party's preferred candidate. The establishment continued to consolidate around Hinson. Her third-quarter fundraising and an endorsement from Governor Reynolds were strong signals to Blum that Republicans in Iowa and Washington didn't want him back in the game.
Finkenauer outraised Hinson in the third quarter and had nearly double the challenger's cash on hand as of September 30.
News that the Republican National Committee was no longer sharing analytics with other GOP candidates or committees made me wonder whether the blockade would hurt candidates like the presumptive IA-01 nominee.
Interactive map showing the 2018 results in IA-01 (click on each county to bring up vote totals and percentages for Blum and Finkenauer):
Blue counties: Finkenauer received between 50% and 60% of the vote
Pink: Blum won with less than 50%
Red: Blum received between 50% and 60%
I didn't expect a competitive race in the second Congressional district this cycle. Republicans didn't put resources behind challenger Christopher Peters in 2016 or 2018. But seven-term Representative Dave Loebsack changed the equation when he announced in April that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2020. My analysis of why Loebsack's retirement made IA-02 a toss-up race was among the 30 most-viewed Bleeding Heartland posts of the year.
Several Democrats looked at the race but opted not to run, including State Senator Kevin Kinney, Iowa City business owner Veronica Tessler, Scott County Supervisor Ken Croken, and Davenport attorney Ian Russell.
When former State Senator Rita Hart declared her candidacy in May, it was immediately clear she was the front-runner for the Democratic primary. Johnson County activist Newman Abuissa decided to seek the nomination as well, but the Democratic establishment obviously preferred Hart. She racked up many high-profile endorsements, including from Loebsack, Finkenauer, and IA-03 Representative Cindy Axne.
By the time Bobby Schilling launched his Republican campaign in early July, I was ready to call IA-02 a lean-Democratic seat. Hart is a better fit for the district than a former one-term member of Congress from Illinois.
Reviewing the race again around Labor Day, I remained convinced that Hart will be slightly favored to keep this seat in Democratic hands.
Schilling's third-quarter fundraising was weak, and Hart's was strong, while Abuissa didn't raise enough to file a Federal Election Commission report, leading me to conclude that Hart and Miller-Meeks will likely face off next November.
I was surprised when Miller-Meeks walked away from a prized Iowa Senate committee assignment in November to spend more time and energy running for Congress.
Interactive map showing 2018 results in IA-02:
Dark blue: Loebsack won with more than 70%
Blue: Loebsack won with more than 50%
Pink: Peters won with less than 50%
Red: Peters won with more than 50%
Maroon: Peters won with more than 60%
Like Finkenauer, newly elected Representative Cindy Axne got the committee assignments she had requested: seats on the Financial Services and Agriculture panels. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to put Axne on Agriculture after Republicans removed Representative Steve King from all committees.
Several Republicans were rumored to be considering this race. In February, I sized up Axne's chances against State Representative Jon Jacobsen and State Senator Zach Nunn (rumored to be the National Republican Congressional Committee's preferred candidate).
Axne confirmed in early May that she would run for re-election and not for the Senate against Ernst.
Days later, former Representative David Young made his comeback bid official on the same day Nunn announced he would go on a "listening tour" around the district's sixteen counties. Young quickly nailed down a public endorsement from Senator Chuck Grassley and a campaign contribution from former Governor Branstad.
Meanwhile, Nunn sounded like he was committed to running for Congress, after completing a military deployment over the summer. He falsely accused Axne of not showing up in every county she represented, even though publicly available information proved she had visited all of the counties multiple times already.
State Senator Jake Chapman ruled out running for Congress in June. Nunn did the same in July, and so did Jacobsen later in the summer. Young had in effect cleared the field. His only competition for the GOP nomination was little-known and under-funded Bill Schafer.
Groups funded by health care industry interests spent heavily on television and online commercials bashing Democratic proposals for single-payer health care or a public option for health insurance, which Axne supports. I interviewed well-known Polk County Democrat Loretta Sieman about why she agreed to appear in one spot that was in heavy rotation in the late summer.
Interactive map showing 2018 vote totals and percentages for Axne and Young across the third district.
Blue: Axne received more than 50% of the vote
Red: Young between 50% and 60%
Maroon: Young above 60%
King's narrow victory over Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten rang alarm bells for Republicans. Reynolds distanced herself from King shortly after the 2018 election.
Even before the furor that led to King losing his House committee assignments, GOP State Senator Randy Feenstra announced plans to run against King in January. Within weeks, Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor and little-known army veteran Bret Richards launched their own Congressional campaigns.
The splintered field improved King's chances--though I felt he would be hard to beat even in a two-way GOP primary.
King raised surprisingly little money during the first quarter, and his campaign spent more than it took in. Feenstra raised several times more. In fact, all three GOP challengers ended the quarter with more cash on hand than the incumbent.
On the other hand, King was able to use his Congressional office budget to finance a series of town hall meetings in every IA-04 county. The early town halls took place in the most Republican areas, including counties Feenstra represents in the Iowa Senate.
I suspected that if Feenstra sensed he was getting no traction, he might bail on the Congressional race and run for re-election to the legislature, like State Representative Walt Rogers had abandoned his IA-01 bid in 2014. But Feenstra stepped down as Senate Ways and Means chair in June, signaling that he was all in on running for Congress.
The second-quarter fundraising in this race was weak all around.
But Feenstra landed more big endorsements, including social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats.
Ernst made news in July by saying she would stay neutral in the IA-04 primary. (She had enthusiastically backed King when he first faced a GOP challenger in 2016.) I still viewed King as the heavy favorite to be nominated again. From where I'm sitting, Feenstra needs explicit support from top Iowa Republicans more than King does.
As Scholten seemed likely to run for Congress again, I pulled together thoughts what would need to happen for him to pull off an upset. Scholten kicked off his campaign in early August, and Feenstra warned that Republicans needed to nominate an "effective conservative" to keep the seat in GOP hands. Nearly every public statement from Feenstra positions himself as the "effective conservative" alternative to King.
King's comments about rape and incest sparked yet another nationwide uproar in August, but I doubted the controversial remarks would hurt the incumbent among GOP primary voters in IA-04. Many of them also believe abortion should be banned with no exceptions.
In September, King wrapped up his series of 39 town halls, and Steve Reeder emerged as a fourth Republican challenger in IA-04. The incumbent was sitting pretty.
However, King's third-quarter fundraising report was simply embarrassing. I can't think of any long-serving member of Congress who raised less money while running for re-election.
With impeachment dominating the news out of Washington, King made sure everyone knew he was a loud and proud defender of Trump. He was among House Republicans who crashed an Intelligence Committee hearing in a secure facility.
Feenstra tried to turn the issue to his advantage, pointing out that King's "bizarre comments" left him without committee assignments, and therefore unable to participate in the House Judiciary impeachment hearings. The talking point sounded like inside baseball to me.
King delivered a typically hyperbolic and fact-challenged speech during the House floor debate on impeachment and voted against both articles.
Interactive map showing 2018 results for governor and Congress in the IA-04 counties.
Black: King above 70% of vote
Maroon: King between 60% and 70%
Red: King between 50% and 60%
Pink: King won with less than 50%
Light blue: Scholten won with less than 50%
Blue: Scholten between 50% and 60%
Dark blue: Scholten above 60%