Chasing traffic never has been and never will be my primary goal for Bleeding Heartland. If it were, I'd publish weekly posts about puppies or Casey's pizza instead of Iowa wildflowers.
And anyone who has worked on an online news source can vouch for me: a writer's favorite projects are often not the ones that get the most clicks.
Still, people do ask me from time what posts tend to do well, and I find it fun at year-end to recap the pieces that were particularly popular with readers. Since I started this exercise a few years ago, I've always uncovered some surprises.
This list draws from Google Analytics data about views of 638 posts this website published during 2019: 348 written by me and 290 by other authors. I left out the site’s front page and the “about” page.
On to the countdown, which features eleven pieces I wrote and eight by others:
19. IA-03: Zach Nunn spreads false hearsay about Cindy Axne
Ever since Zach Nunn was first elected to the Iowa legislature in 2014, many people have expected the former staffer for Senator Chuck Grassley to run for Congress someday. Months before Nunn launched a "listening tour" to hear from constituents in the third Congressional district, I'd previewed how he might match up against first-term Democratic Representative Cindy Axne.
I didn't expect Nunn to come out of the gate with an easily disprovable lie. So when he told a conservative website in May, “We’ve got a Congresswoman who is a quarter of the way through her time and still hasn’t shown up in every county in the district,” I pulled together some of the public evidence that Axne had already held multiple events in all sixteen counties.
18. Senate Republicans throw transparency out the window
Nothing says "clickbait" like rules governing Iowa Senate committee meetings.
Seriously, I thought only hard-core legislative watchers would care that Senate Republicans in charge of many panels had abandoned longstanding rules requiring that subcommittee meetings be open to the public, announced at least 24 hours in advance, and that committee chairs allow votes on all germane amendments.
17. Public education lines have been drawn. Time to pick a side
Of the four Bleeding Heartland posts State Senator Claire Celsi wrote last year, this one was by far the most widely-shared on social media.
Celsi was inspired to write after Governor Kim Reynolds held a private meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. In her words, "In case you’ve been living in a cave for two years, DeVos is best known for her crusade in Michigan to create a charter school system and to donate to and elect conservative politicians who would further her vision."
16. Joe Biden will probably lose Iowa
New Hampshire resident Dan Guild knows more about the history of the Iowa caucuses than most people active in politics here. Already in March, he could tell Joe Biden looked weak for a front-runner in Iowa.
Dan's take on the June poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom held up very well over the next seven months. He also noted in this piece that an early surge by Pete Buttigieg (putting him at 14 percent in that poll, barely behind Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) was "unique" and "an astonishing accomplishment."
15. Laughable spin casts Reynolds as hero of latest Medicaid fiasco
A late Friday afternoon press release announced that Governor Kim Reynolds ended the state's contract talks with UnitedHealthcare (which managed care for most Iowans on Medicaid) "because of terms that I believed to be unreasonable and unsustainable." I couldn't resist calling out the asburdity. If Reynolds were genuinely concerned about a reasonable and sustainable Medicaid program, she could use her authority to roll back the disastrous privatization policy.
14. Paul Pate's error sends pro-gun amendment "back to square one"
I got a tip soon after Iowa Firearms Coalition President Kurt Liske emailed supporters on a Sunday evening, “Because of the Secretary of State’s complete failure, we must now go back to square one of the constitutional amendment process.” The 2019 legislative session was to begin the following morning.
I set aside the Iowa House and Senate previews I was working on and managed to get this post up before midnight. Gun advocates believed they were halfway to adding language to Iowa's constitution that would make it nearly impossible to regulate firearms in any meaningful way. But because the Iowa Secretary of State's office neglected to publish the text of the amendment in Iowa newspapers before the 2018 election, "last year’s vote and all of our work leading up to it appear to have been undone," Liske wrote.
House and Senate Republicans started the process over by passing the pro-gun constitutional amendment during the 2019 session. In theory, the same language needs approval in both chambers of the legislature after the 2020 elections in order to come before Iowa voters in 2022. However, I suspect advocates may try to pull a fast one to get the measure on the 2020 general election ballot.
At Pate's request, Republican lawmakers later changed state law to eliminate the role of the Secretary of State's office in publishing draft constitutional amendments.
13. First look at the Iowa House landscape for 2020
Soon after the legislature adjourned for the year, I took a stab at identifying nineteen state House districts that could be competitive in 2020. Later in the year, as candidates or state lawmakers announced plans in various districts, I wrote in-depth pieces about several of these races and continued to update the overview periodically.
12. J.D. Scholten reacts to Steve King on "Iowa Press"
Posts about U.S. Representative Steve King often grab the attention of Bleeding Heartland readers. King's 2018 Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten argued in this commentary that "King is blindly pandering to Trump voters because he knows he’s in trouble," and that voters in Iowa's fourth district are getting tired of King "continually playing the victim of the national media when he does it to himself – all while abdicating his position of leadership for Iowa."
11. Grassley, Ernst again vote for extreme budget, hope no one notices
As a general rule, posts about Congressional votes rarely generate a lot of traffic. But for reasons I haven't been able to identify, every once in a while one of these articles will take off. In 2017, it was a post about Iowa's U.S. senators voting against a package that raised the debt ceiling and included aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey. In 2018, it was a post about a Republican bill that claimed to (but did not) protect people with pre-existing conditions.
To my knowledge, no other Iowa news organizations covered the June 2019 vote on Senator Rand Paul's budget plan. That proposal would require such deep cuts in federal spending on domestic programs that only 22 of the 53 GOP senators supported it.
10. Highlights: How Iowa's Pete Brownell helped NRA become Russian asset
My vision for this post was similar to how I covered Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report in April. Since many other news media were writing up Mueller's key findings, I published the sections that mentioned two figures of particular interest to Iowans: Sam Clovis and Barbara Ledeen, a longtime staffer to Grassley.
But I realized that approach wouldn't work as I read through the document minority staff on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee released following an 18-month investigation. At least half the pages mentioned Pete Brownell, CEO of a major firearms retailer in Grinnell and the vice president of the National Rifle Association when the events occurred. I summarized the five most important conclusions from the report, providing short excerpts supporting each point.
Although mainstream media are often eager to cover the Iowa angle on a national news event, I was unable to find any reporting on this investigation by an Iowa newspaper, radio or television station, or news agency. The only other journalist who covered it was Elizabeth Meyer for Iowa Starting Line. Gavin Aronsen of the Iowa Informer had previously reported on Brownell's ties to Maria Butina and other influential Russians. The moral of the story: support independent reporting about Iowa politics.
9. Iowa's defense of (whose) marriage act
Randy Richardson got good traction on his contributions last year: four of the five pieces he wrote were among Bleeding Heartland's 50 most-viewed posts of 2019. Randy mostly writes about education, the field where he spent his career. While searching for education bills introduced shortly before an Iowa legislative deadline, he found the so-called "Elevated Marriage Act," sponsored by State Representative Tedd Gassman.
"Social conservative lawmaker proposes wacky bill" has been a popular genre since the earliest days of the liberal blogosphere. Randy highlighted a few of the many problems that would be created by establishing a new class of "elevated marriage" in Iowa.
8. In bait and switch, Iowa governor hiring "public relations manager"
When I got the tip about an unexpected listing on the state government jobs site, I never would have guessed this scoop would be among the most widely read posts of the year. The governor's office had told Republican legislators it needed a 10 percent budget increase to cover new health and tax policy analysts, but the only position being advertised in early June was for a public relations manager. Later in the summer, Bleeding Heartland was also first to report that the governor picked Heather Nahas for that job.
Reynolds did hire new health and tax policy analysts (Liz Matney and Joel Anderson), without advertising either position.
7. Dear Iowans: Teacher patience is running out
Posts about problems affecting Iowa public schools often resonate with Bleeding Heartland readers, many of whom have worked as educators. Bruce Lear has covered this topic from many angles. In this piece, he identified some things overworked, underpaid, and burned out teachers need.
6. Hy-Vee won't sponsor major Democratic event after giving Iowa GOP $25,000
I followed up on the year's most-viewed post in August, when Polk County Democrats chair Sean Bagniewski announced that corporate leadership of the Hy-Vee grocery chain declined a request to sponsor the Polk County Steak Fry. Hy-Vee leaders later told Bagniewski the company's PAC would sponsor the Iowa Democratic Party's major fall fundraiser at the $25,000 level. But the PAC ended up donating $10,000 to sponsor the Liberty and Justice Celebration.
5. New bill is "clear attempt by MidAmerican to monopolize the sun in Iowa"
The title quoted the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program director Kerri Johannsen, who also said, "This bill threatens the solar industry in Iowa as we know it."
For years, Iowa environmental advocates had nervously awaited an attack on "net metering," a policy dating to the 1980s that makes it economically viable to install renewable energy. So I knew I had to jump on this news as soon as I heard a very bad draft bill had dropped, with MidAmerican Energy's fingerprints all over it.
Unfortunately, this happened on a Wednesday, when my schedule was disrupted by needing to pick up kids for early dismissals from different schools. I didn't have the block of time I needed and was sure someone else would beat me to the story. But I managed to publish before taking my kids to an extracurricular activity (arriving a few minutes late) that afternoon. To my amazement, it was two or three days before mainstream news organizations reported on MidAmerican's bill. I suspect that's one reason this piece got a lot of traction on social media.
4. Jerry Foxhoven stopped playing along. This will end badly for Kim Reynolds
From time to time, a news event I didn't see coming ends up consuming a lot of my writing energy. Past examples include Bruce Harreld's hiring as University of Iowa president, the multifaceted Iowa State University airplane scandal, and a belated judicial appointment by the governor that violated Iowa's constitution.
The 2019 equivalent was Jerry Foxhoven's unexpected departure as Iowa Department of Human Services director.
For a month or so, Foxhoven kept mostly quiet about why he was forced out. That changed after the Associated Press reported Foxhoven had been "abruptly ousted from his job" on the first working day after he sent one of several agency-wide emails praising the late rapper Tupac Shakur.
The article didn't assert that Foxhoven was fired because of his love for Tupac. But some people jumped to that conclusion after the story went viral nationally, prompting Foxhoven to clarify in an interview with a music reporter that the governor's "staff asked me to do something I thought was illegal, and so I wouldn’t do it."
This post was my first of several attempts to get to the bottom of what possibly illegal thing Foxhoven might have been referring to. He later fleshed out many of the details in a wrongful termination claim.
3. Why I'm switching from Elizabeth Warren to Pete Buttigieg
Bleeding Heartland published many guest posts endorsing presidential candidates last year. This one by Tim Nelson in April caught fire more than any other. I believe the reference to switching in the headline piqued people's interest. Also, Mayor Pete's fans continually re-upped the link on Twitter and in Facebook groups for supporters.
Because Iowa caucus-goers sometimes change their minds, I recently asked Nelson whether he still intends to caucus for Buttigieg. Since writing this piece, he accepted the job of digital engagement director for Kimberly Graham's U.S. Senate campaign. For that reason, he declined comment on his plans for the Iowa caucuses.
2. Steve King implies Clintons should be executed
Every year since I started paying attention, some story about King ends up being among the most-viewed Bleeding Heartland posts (see here, here, and here).
Guest author Ed Fallon picked up on a meme King's political Facebook page shared in May. The image showed "Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who during the early years of the Cold War were executed for treason," along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, described as "still running free." Whoever was handling King's Facebook page that day added the hashtag "#LockHerUp."
Fallon commented, "In an age where the radical fringe feel emboldened to act violently against leaders and entire classes of people they disdain, King’s meme is not only politically irresponsible, it’s morally objectionable — and deeply so."
1. Hy-Vee's largest political donation in a decade preceded Trump event
This great scoop by Gwen Hope was not only Bleeding Heartland's most-viewed post of the year, but also the second most-viewed post in the thirteen years this blog has existed (surpassed only by a post The Drudge Report linked to in 2015).
Soon after President Donald Trump headlined a fundraiser for the Republican Party of Iowa at Hy-Vee's Ron Pearson Center in West Des Moines, Gwen looked up the latest Federal Election Commission filing by the grocery chain's PAC and found a recent $25,000 donation to the Iowa GOP. Further research by Gwen revealed that this was the PAC's largest recorded gift in a decade.
Why such an "abnormally large" donation? Gwen speculated, "The likely possibilities are that Hy-Vee was courting a favor from and/or doing a favor for RPI. Such an event provides access to presidential-level movers-and-shakers, which supports the first option. On the other hand, Hy-Vee PAC’s donation covered a significant portion of the fundraiser rental fee, which supports the second explanation."
I had a feeling this post might do well if published on a Sunday morning, when there would likely be little competing political news. Even so, I had no idea it would strike such a chord with readers. The combination of exclusive reporting, thorough research, and eye-catching cover art by Gwen surely contributed. In addition, people have strong emotional ties to the neighborhood grocery store. My only disappointment was that as far as I know, no other media outlets picked up on this newsworthy story.