Where things stand in Iowa's second Congressional district

Part of a series catching up on Iowa’s 2020 races for federal offices.

Republicans and GOP-aligned interest groups did not make a serious play for Iowa’s second Congressional district in the 2016 or 2018 elections, but this seat covering 24 counties in southeast Iowa is expected to be much more competitive this year, due to U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack’s retirement.

As the filing period for state and federal candidates approaches, both parties still have two declared candidates in IA-02, but the front-runners–former State Senator Rita Hart for Democrats and State Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks–have further consolidated their positions.

TOSS-UP OR LEAN DEMOCRAT?

Both Cook Political and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate this open seat as a toss-up race. Inside Elections sees the district tilting Democratic.

The 24 counties in IA-02 swung hard toward Republicans during the last presidential election cycle. While Barack Obama outpolled Mitt Romney in the district by 55.8 percent to 42.7 percent in 2012, voters favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 49.1 percent to 45.0 percent margin four years later. In retrospect, Republicans should have put some money into this race in 2016.

As in the first Congressional district, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the IA-02 counties, but a plurality of voters are affiliated with neither party. The latest official figures indicate the district contains 165,715 active registered Democrats, 142,399 Republicans, and 190,218 no-party voters. Those numbers don’t include anyone who changed their registration on February 3 to participate in the Democratic caucuses. UPDATE: As of March 2, the totals for the district were 173,089 active registered Democrats, 140,552 Republicans, and 182,487 no-party voters.

Loebsack outperformed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Democratic candidate for governor Fred Hubbell last cycle. This interactive map shows the 2018 vote totals and percentages for Loebsack, his Republican challenger Christopher Peters, Governor Kim 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.

Worth noting: Hubbell carried the second Congressional district by about 11,000 votes, whereas he outpolled Reynolds in the IA-01 counties by only about 4,000 votes.

Usually, it’s harder to defend an open seat than to get an incumbent re-elected. So when Loebsack announced last April that he would not seek an eighth term, I thought IA-02 would be a toss-up.

However, as the leading candidates in each party have emerged, I have come around to seeing this district leaning to Democrats.

HART, MILLER-MEEKS STRONGLY FAVORED IN THEIR PRIMARIES

Hart was the top Democratic recruit for this race. As a farmer and retired educator, she is a good fit for the district. She was well-received around the state as the 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor. Dozens of well-known Iowa Democrats have endorsed Hart, as have groups that spend substantial resources in U.S. House races, such as EMILY’s List.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officially backed Hart last month, though DCCC leaders made their preference for her known early last summer.

Newman Abuissa of Iowa City announced his candidacy last summer, running on what might be called a Bernie Sanders platform. He backed Sanders before the Iowa caucuses, while Hart did not endorse a presidential candidate.

Abuissa has yet to file a campaign finance disclosure with the Federal Election Commission, and several of my contacts around the district did not recall seeing nominating petitions out for him at the February 3 precinct caucuses. To qualify for the primary ballot, Abuissa would need to submit at least 1,606 signatures, including minimum amounts from at least twelve counties, by March 13. I’m seeking comment on whether he is still planning to file. Either way, he is not positioned to contend for the nomination. UPDATE: Abuissa ended his campaign on March 2.

The two declared Republican candidates are Bobby Schilling and Miller-Meeks. The GOP establishment continues to coalesce around Miller-Meeks. The National Republican Congressional Committee put her in their “Young Guns” program last month. This week U.S. Senator Joni Ernst endorsed Miller-Meeks, joining other powerful Republicans such as Governor Kim Reynolds and former Governor Terry Branstad.

Miller-Meeks reduced her Iowa Senate committee obligations before the 2020 session to free up more time to campaign. Schilling, a former member of Congress representing an Illinois district just across the Mississippi River, will be hard-pressed to compete.

UPDATE: I didn’t realize Rick Phillips is also running here as a Republican. He was the Constitution Party’s candidate for governor in 2010. FEC filings indicate his campaign raised no money in 2019, other than receiving a $2,000 loan from the candidate, and had $53.53 cash on hand at year-end.

HART BUILDING UP FUNDRAISING ADVANTAGE

Miller-Meeks filed her year-end campaign finance disclosure early, and Bleeding Heartland covered the highlights here. From October through December, her first three months as a candidate, Miller-Meeks’ campaign raised $259,945.99 and spent $45,201.78, leaving $214,744.21 cash on hand as of December 31. (The top GOP challenger in IA-01, Ashley Hinson, has raised more but also spent more.)

Although Schilling raised millions as a U.S. House candidate in Illinois in 2010, 2012, and 2014, he has struggled to compete on the fundraising front in Iowa. His latest quarterly FEC filing shows he raised $26,352.40, of which $24,352.40 came from individuals and $2,000 came from two political action committees.

That’s less than half of the $54,505.55 Schilling raised from July through September.

The campaign spent almost all of what it raised during the fourth quarter: $25,098.58 on various routine expenses. That left only $49,744.38 in the bank at the end of 2019. Schilling is less well-known than Miller-Meeks, who was the GOP nominee against Loebsack three times. He may struggle to get his message out before the June primary.

Hart had her strongest fundraising quarter yet, bringing in $335,848.50 from October through December. Her campaign had raised $279,593.81 during the second quarter and $228,581.96 during the third quarter.

The year-end report shows $265,483.50 in contributions from individuals and $71,000.00 from a range of PACs. By my count, thirteen of Hart’s donors have maxed out with $5,600 gifts this cycle. The rest could give again to her campaign. The committee donations came from a mix of labor unions, groups affiliated with Democratic members of Congress (including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), and progressive advocacy organizations.

Hart’s campaign reported spending $101,675.25 during the fourth quarter, mostly on staff salaries, various forms of consulting, and voter lists. At year-end, the campaign had $647,770.82 cash on hand.

Outside groups spent almost nothing in IA-02 during the last two election cycles (see here and here). Even as an open seat, I expect this race to be less costly than the campaigns in Iowa’s first and third districts. However, if internal polling shows a close competition between Hart and Miller-Meeks this fall, independent expenditures in IA-02 may well exceed spending by the candidates.

UPDATE: Miller-Meeks was not among 35 candidates bumped up to the second rung in the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program on January 19. State Representative Ashley Hinson (the top challenger in IA-01) and former U.S. Representative David Young (IA-03) were included. That’s a sign GOP leaders in Washington do not yet view IA-02 on the top tier of their pickup opportunities and is another reason I am calling this a lean Democratic seat.

LATER UPDATE: The Miller-Meeks campaign announced the endorsement of U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on February 23 (read here). I can’t imagine many Republicans in Iowa take their cues from Graham. My hunch is this endorsement is designed to pre-empt claims by Schilling that he would be a more reliable ally to President Donald Trump in Congress.

Top image: Facebook profile pictures of Rita Hart (left) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (right).

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