Where things stand in Iowa's first Congressional district

Now that the presidential candidates have moved on, it’s time to catch up on the state of play in Iowa’s four U.S. House races, all of which should be competitive.

First, a look at the two-woman race shaping up in the first district.

WHY THIS RACE STILL LOOKS LIKE A TOSS-UP

The twenty counties that make up IA-01 cover much of northeast Iowa. The largest by population are Linn (Cedar Rapids metro area), Black Hawk (Waterloo/Cedar Falls), and Dubuque.

The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate IA-01 a toss-up, while Inside Elections sees the race tilting Democratic.

U.S. Representative Abby Finkenauer, the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress, defeated two-term Republican Rod Blum in 2018 by a 5-point margin (51.0 percent to 45.9 percent). However, turnout is always significantly higher in a presidential election year compared to a midterm, especially among voters not affiliated with any party, who comprise a plurality in IA-01. As of February 3, these twenty counties contained 161,422 active registered Democrats, 138,576 Republicans, and 196,011 no-party voters. UPDATE: Many Iowans changed their registration in order to participate in the 2020 Democratic caucuses. As of March 2, the totals for the district were 166,752 active registered Democrats, 136,647 Republicans, and 188,817 no-party voters.

Another reason forecasters expect a highly competitive race here: the swing from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016 was large across the IA-01 counties, especially in the smaller ones near the Minnesota border. Obama carried this district with 56.2 percent of the vote to 42.5 percent for Mitt Romney, but Hillary Clinton managed just 45.2 percent to Trump’s 48.7 percent.

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 in the 2018 general election. 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%

ASHLEY HINSON CONSOLIDATING REPUBLICAN SUPPORT

State Representative Ashley Hinson was the top Republican recruit for this race. She has a history of outperforming the top of the GOP ticket. Her first election to the Iowa House happened in 2016, when voters in her suburban district near Cedar Rapids favored Clinton over Trump. She went on to become the only House Republican to win a district that favored Hubbell in the 2018 governor’s race.

A former television news reporter and anchor, Hinson has higher name ID than the typical state lawmaker. The Cedar Rapids market covers fourteen of the twenty counties in IA-01, and the station where Hinson worked is the most-watched for local news in that part of the state.

Hinson will have plenty of time to campaign. She chaired the Iowa House Transportation Committee during the 2019 legislative session, but holds no committee leadership roles this year. (Finkenauer also had reduced Iowa House committee assignments in 2018, as she ratcheted up her own Congressional campaign.)

Many high-powered Republicans backed Hinson’s campaign last year, including Governor Reynolds and Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg. In late January, Hinson’s campaign announced an endorsement from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. The same news release bragged about support from various Republicans in Congress:

Hinson’s financial supporters include Ernst Victory Iowa PAC (Sen. Joni Ernst), Majority Committee PAC (Leader Kevin McCarthy), Eye of the Tiger PAC (Rep. Steve Scalise), Cowboy PAC (Rep. Liz Cheney), E-PAC (Rep. Elise Stefanik), CMR PAC (Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers), Susan PAC (Rep. Susan Brooks), Cut the Bull PAC (Rep. Carol Miller), Martha PAC (Rep. Martha Roby), The Freedom Project (Rep. John Boehner), ANN PAC (Rep. Ann Wagner) and VIEW PAC.

VIEW PAC is a “hybrid” PAC and super-PAC.

DOOR CLOSED FOR A BLUM COMEBACK?

In early 2019, Blum sounded open to running for Congress again. He continued to post occasionally on the official Facebook page created for his work as a member of the U.S. House.

Blum hasn’t publicly ruled out a political comeback, to my knowledge. When a Facebook commenter encouraged him a couple of weeks ago to run for Congress again, Blum thanked her for the “very kind comment” but did not tip his hand.

Last week, he posted on his Facebook and Twitter feeds that Trump was right to force Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman out of his job at the White House.

On the other hand, Blum doesn’t appear to be laying the groundwork for another U.S. House bid. His campaign committee raised no money during the fourth quarter of 2019. He spoke on behalf of Trump at his precinct caucus in Dubuque but didn’t have nominating petitions out at Republican caucuses around the district. To qualify for the GOP primary ballot, Blum would need to collect at least 1,614 signatures, with minimum amounts in at least ten counties, before March 13.

LEADING CANDIDATES RAISING BIG MONEY

Finkenauer raised about $4.5 million during the 2018 cycle, and she and Hinson both reported strong fundraising numbers last summer and fall. That trend continued in the year-end quarterly reports, which were due on January 31.

The Democratic incumbent reported $601,720.40 in total receipts from October through December 2019. Individual donors gave $402,580.55, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gave $625.38, and a large number of Democratic-aligned, labor, or corporate political action committees gave $167,696.71. Finkenauer also transferred $30,817.76 from other committees, mostly from the joint fundraising committee Finkenauer Victory Fund.

Finkenauer’s campaign reported spending $158,709.27 during the fourth quarter. The itemized expenditures are unremarkable: staff salaries, compliance services, costs related to fundraising, and $23,201.15 on polling. At the end of the year, the campaign had $1,424,285.72 cash on hand and $48,958.20 in debts.

Hinson had her strongest fundraising quarter yet, taking in $432,059.44. Most of the money came from individuals, including nineteen who donated the maximum $5,600 allowed during an election cycle. Conservative and corporate PACs contributed $60,000–a large amount for a non-incumbent to raise in one quarter. No doubt it helped that the National Republican Congressional Committee put Hinson in their “Young Guns” program last August.

Hinson’s burn rate remains high. Her campaign spent $194,787.87 during the fourth quarter; the most costly line items were for various consulting services, staff salaries, direct mail printing, and postage. I didn’t see any expenditure for polling, but the NRCC may have commissioned one or more internal surveys.

As of December 31, Hinson’s campaign had $734,771.72 cash on hand. She’s on track to have the resources to fund a full district-wide campaign. Blum spent a little more than $2.2 million on his 2018 re-election bid.

Two other Republicans declared their candidacies in IA-01 last year, but Darren White has not reported any fundraising to the Federal Election Commission. Thomas Hansen raised only a little more than $2,000 during the last three months of 2019. If White and Hansen file for the GOP primary, they will be non-factors.

A final note on fundraising: outside groups spent nearly $4 million to influence the outcome in IA-01 last cycle. The 2020 race will likely involve larger independent expenditures.

P.S.-I am not aware of any declared Republican candidate in House district 67, which Hinson is vacating to run for higher office. Tips are welcome on who may step up for the GOP before the March 13 filing deadline for federal and state candidates in Iowa. Hinson’s 2018 challenger, Eric Gjerde, is running again in what will be a top-targeted race for Democrats.

UPDATE: Hinson was among 35 candidates bumped up to the second rung in the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program on January 19. That’s a sign GOP leaders in Washington see IA-01 on the top tier of their pickup opportunities.

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