I’ve always enjoyed writing about legislative happenings and campaigns, since my first year on the job as an analyst covering Russian domestic politics during a parliamentary election year.
While most political reporters were understandably assigned to follow the many presidential candidates visiting Iowa in 2019, I made it a priority to keep an eye on down-ballot races. The 2020 Iowa House and Senate elections may affect our daily lives more than whether Donald Trump or the Democratic nominee wins our state’s electoral votes. For one thing, breaking the GOP trifecta is the only way to guarantee that Iowa preserves nonpartisan redistricting for the coming decade.
I’m proud that Bleeding Heartland provided more in-depth coverage of potentially competitive state legislative races than any other Iowa news source this year. All of those stories are linked below.
The Republican majority in the lower chamber shrank from 59-41 before the 2018 elections to 54-46 after. It could have been 52-48, if not for a painful loss by 37 votes in House district 82, where neither party spent significant funds, and Republicans’ refusal to allow 29 absentee ballots to be counted in House district 55, where certified results put the GOP incumbent ahead by nine votes.
The GOP majority did shrink during the last week of the 2019 legislative session, when State Representative Andy McKean left the GOP caucus. He soon confirmed he would seek re-election as a Democrat in 2020.
Shortly after lawmakers adjourned for the year, I published my first review of the Iowa House landscape. That post identified nineteen districts that seemed most likely to become competitive in 2020: three top-tier Democratic targets, six secondary Democratic targets, five top-tier Republican targets, and five secondary Republican targets.
While that may seem like a lot, keep in mind that one or both parties spent substantial amounts in twenty Iowa House districts in 2018.
For reasons explained here, Republican-held seats where Democrats have the best chance of winning in 2020 are House district 55 in northeast Iowa (including Decorah), House district 67 in part of the Cedar Rapids suburbs, and House district 82 in southeast Iowa (including Fairfield).
It’s not yet clear whether GOP State Representative Michael Bergan will seek re-election in House district 55, nor has Kayla Koether clarified whether she plans to run for the legislature a second time. (Five legislators who won in 2018 had previously lost state House or Senate races.) I will write a more comprehensive district profile once the Democratic and Republican candidates have announced.
Democrat Eric Gjerde confirmed in July that he will take another crack at House district 67 (part of the Cedar Rapids suburbs), which will be an open seat with State Representative Ashley Hinson running for Congress. I plan to preview this race after a GOP candidate emerges.
House district 82 is shaping up to be a rematch between GOP State Representative Jeff Shipley and the Democrat he beat last year, Phil Miller. A detailed post on this race is planned for early 2020.
Democratic challengers are actively campaigning in four of the six GOP-held districts I identified as possibly vulnerable. I previewed:
Jen Pellant’s race against State Representative Mary Ann Hanusa in House district 16 (Council Bluffs);
Kelcey Brackett’s prospects against State Representative Gary Carlson in House district 91 (Muscatine);
The possible rematch between Democrat Christian Andrews and State Representative Louis Zumbach (who may retire) in House district 95 (Linn County outside the Cedar Rapids metro area).
Andrea Phillips announced her candidacy in House district 37 (Ankeny) in a guest post for this website in October. GOP incumbent John Landon has not confirmed his plans for next year.
To my knowledge, no Democrat has declared in House district 9 (Fort Dodge area) or House district 73 (Cedar County and some rural parts of Johnson County).
Bonus trivia: Districts 16 and 95 are the only two Iowa House districts where residents closely reflected statewide voting for president in both 2012 and 2016.
Republicans are either playing their cards close to the chest or having trouble recruiting candidates in key House districts.
In August I profiled the race in House district 58, where Republican Steve Bradley has been actively campaigning against McKean.
I’m keeping my eye on House district 38, where Ankeny teacher Garrett Gobble is running against Democratic State Representative Heather Matson. I haven’t written up that race yet, because I suspect at least one other candidate will seek the GOP nomination there.
Eddie Andrews filed papers establishing a campaign committee in House district 39 (northwest Des Moines suburbs) in December but told me he is still exploring whether to run against State Representative Karin Derry.
I’m not aware of any declared GOP candidate in House district 44 (Waukee area). I had a feeling it would be hard to find a Republican willing to run against State Representative Kenan Judge. He posted on Twitter this week that he met his goal to knock 3,000 doors since the legislature adjourned. Judge’s commitment to canvassing is legendary; he is often seen leaving events early to squeeze in some doors before dark.
To my knowledge, no Republican has stepped up in House district 60 (Cedar Falls and part of Waterloo) either. Former State Representative Walt Rogers, who lost his 2018 re-election bid in House district 60 to Dave Williams and lost this year’s special election in Senate district 30, recently told me he does not plan to run for office in 2020.
As for the seats on the second tier of GOP pickup opportunities next year, I haven’t heard of any Republicans actively campaigning in House districts 14 (part of Sioux City), 15 (part of Council Bluffs), 26 (much of Warren County), 52 (Floyd and Chickasaw counties), or 64 (much of Fayette and Buchanan counties, including the cities of Oelwein and Independence).
Two more districts are worth mentioning. Republicans will likely make a play for House district 71 (Marshalltown), where State Representative Mark Smith will not seek re-election.
Conversely, Democrats probably don’t need to worry about House district 81 (Ottumwa area), where State Representative Mary Gaskill confirmed in November she will run for the House for the tenth time.
Democrats are in a deeper hole in the upper chamber, holding just eighteen of the 50 seats. It could have been worse, but Eric Giddens won the March special election to represent Senate district 30.
For that reason, many Iowa politics watchers have paid little attention to the 2020 Senate races. For instance, Fred and Charlotte Hubbell formed a new political action committee focused solely on taking back the Iowa House.
But it would be a mistake to write off the Senate races. Democratic performance next year could greatly affect prospects for gaining control of the chamber in 2022, when a new map of political boundaries should create more competitive Senate districts in the suburbs. So every seat that can be won back in 2020 is important.
Furthermore, while a net gain of eight seats for a majority would be difficult to accomplish this cycle, Democrats have recruited a number of strong challengers and have only one obviously vulnerable seat to defend. Senator Rich Taylor was re-elected in Senate district 42 by a small margin in 2016 after Republicans inexplicably spent almost no money on the race. The southeast corner of Iowa was big Trump country.
TOP-TIER DEMOCRATIC TARGETS
By August, Democrats had declared candidates in all four of the most promising Senate pickup opportunities. Bleeding Heartland profiled all of the races:
Steve Gorman is running against Senator Dan Dawson in Senate district 8 (Council Bluffs).
Tricia Garvin, Sarah Trone Garriott, and Michael Libbie are running against Senator Charles Schneider in Senate district 22 (Clive, Windsor Heights, Waukee, and part of West Des Moines). Corey Suesakul announced his candidacy over the summer but posted on Facebook in December that he did not intend to pursue the race.
Former State Senator Tom Courtney is favored to win the Democratic primary in Senate district 44 (Burlington and nearby parts of southeast Iowa), but Rex Troute and Kevin Warth are also seeking the nomination. GOP State Senator Tom Greene has not confirmed whether he will run for a second term.
Like many suburban areas around the country, Senate districts 20 and 22 voted for Mitt Romney for president in 2012 but favored Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Districts 8 and 44 voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and for Trump four years later.
SECOND-TIER DEMOCRATIC TARGETS
The rest of the potentially competitive Iowa Senate districts followed the Obama/Trump pattern. They include these second-tier opportunities where Democrats have announced candidates:
Matt Tapscott is running against Senator Michael Breitbach in Senate district 28 (Allamakee and Clayton counties, plus most of Winneshiek County and part of Fayette County).
Pam Egli is running against Senator Craig Johnson in Senate district 32 (Bremer County and parts of Fayette, Buchanan, and Black Hawk counties).
Dave Degner is running against Senator Jeff Edler in Senate district 36 (Marshall and Tama counties, plus a little bit of Black Hawk County).
Former Senator Chris Brase is running against Senator Mark Lofgren, who defeated him four years ago in Senate district 46 (parts of Muscatine and Scott counties).
In 2020, I’ll have my eye on a couple more districts where Democrats don’t have a candidate yet: Senate district 24 (Boone, Greene, and Hamilton counties, plus small areas in Story and Webster counties), and Senate district 26 (Worth, Howard, Mitchell, Floyd, and Chickasaw counties, plus some rural areas of Cerro Gordo and Winneshiek counties). Residents of both voted for Obama in 2012 but swung to Trump in 2016.
I’ll also profile races in some Democratic-held districts when the field of candidates becomes clear. Republicans may target Senate districts 30 (Cedar Falls/Waterloo) and 34 (part of the Cedar Rapids suburbs), but those areas voted for Clinton and would be long-shots for the GOP compared to Senate district 42, which Trump carried by a wide margin.
Final note: Bleeding Heartland readers responded very favorably when Lance Roorda launched his campaign in Senate district 40, which is so heavily Republican that Democrats did not field a candidate in 2016. Giving voters an alternative is important, even in districts that appear nearly impossible to win.