EMILY's List backing eleven Iowa House, Senate candidates

One of the country’s largest Democratic-aligned political action committees announced its first Iowa legislative endorsements for the 2020 cycle this week.

EMILY’s List supports pro-choice Democratic women for federal, state, and local offices. The bulk of the group’s spending is directed toward U.S. House and Senate races, but the PAC also endorses hundreds of women running for offices lower on the ballot.

EMILY’s List makes direct campaign contributions, and its political arm Women Vote! funds independent expenditures (like direct mail or television advertising) on behalf of some endorsed candidates.

For down-ballot candidates, the most valuable part of an EMILY’s List endorsement is access to a nationwide network of like-minded voters. The PAC’s emails and mailings reach millions of grassroots donors. Without communication from EMILY’s List, most of them would have no idea who’s running for the Iowa legislature, let alone which races will be crucial for Democratic gains.

The statehouse candidates EMILY’s List endorsed on April 29 include five House Democrats first elected in 2018, four challengers for Republican-held House seats, and two challengers in Republican-held Senate seats.

The focus on the House reflects two realities. First, Democrats have a better chance of regaining control of the lower chamber (currently 53 Republicans, 47 Democrats) than the Senate (32 Republicans, 18 Democrats). Second, Democratic recruits in some of the best Senate targets happen to be men, and EMILY’s List endorses only women.


The suburbs were fertile ground for Iowa Democratic candidates in 2018, and all five women who won state House seats in suburban areas are on the new endorsement list.

Heather Matson (House district 38), Karin Derry (House district 39), and Kristin Sunde (House district 42) defeated Republican incumbents in Polk County suburban races where both parties spent six figures. All of their races should be competitive, as Bleeding Heartland discussed in this overview of the Iowa House landscape. A separate post in January took an in-depth look at Derry’s coming race against Eddie Andrews, which will be among this year’s top Republican targets.

Jennifer Konfrst (House district 43) and Molly Donahue (House district 68) both won GOP-held open seats where Republicans had spent heavily in 2016. However, the GOP let those districts in the suburbs of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids go without much of a fight in 2018. I would be surprised if they put significant resources behind this year’s challengers, so I don’t currently view these seats as endangered, but Democrats should take nothing for granted.


Jen Pellant announced her candidacy in House district 16 last fall. As Bleeding Heartland discussed in detail here, this seat covering part of Council Bluffs was a sleeper race in 2018. Although neither party spent much money, the Republican incumbent came very close to losing. It’s an open seat now, where Pellant will face former House Speaker Brent Siegrist.

When Andrea Phillips first ran for House district 37 in 2016, neither party targeted the race. But the Ankeny area has steadily trended toward Democrats over the past four years, and volunteers are well-organized. Phillips’ rematch against State Representative John Landon will be highly competitive; Bleeding Heartland profiled the race in February.

Kayla Koether lost in House district 55 by a heartbreaking margin of nine votes, as Republicans prevented 29 absentee ballots cast on time from being counted. Her rematch against State Representative Michael Bergan will be a top Democratic target. Activists in this part of northeast Iowa are highly motivated.

Carissa Froyum is running in House district 63, covering Bremer County and part of Black Hawk County. Republican State Representative Sandy Salmon narrowly won her first race in 2012 and has been re-elected three times by larger margins. I haven’t previewed this race yet, but it was on my list before the coronavirus pandemic began to dominate the news.

Salmon is among the most extreme social conservative lawmakers. If a way-out-there bill has, say, six to ten co-sponsors, count on her to be one of them. Early this year, she sought to remove gender identity protections from Iowa’s Civil Rights Act. More recently, she was one of the Republican lawmakers urging Governor Kim Reynolds to relax COVID-19 mitigation measures.


Senate district 20, covering suburbs to the northwest of Des Moines, was a natural fit for EMILY’s List. Rhonda Martin’s opponent, four-term State Senator Brad Zaun, has been steadfastly committed to undermining reproductive rights. He’s a longtime proponent of “personhood” legislation, and this year introduced a bill that would impose a 72-hour-waiting period for all abortions. Pressed at a district forum, Zaun declined to clarify whether his bill would also apply to D&Cs after miscarriages. Bleeding Heartland previewed this race when Martin announced last May. Derry’s House district makes up half of this Senate district.

Pam Egli is challenging first-term State Senator Craig Johnson in Senate district 32, covering parts of several Northeast Iowa counties. Bleeding Heartland previewed this race last October. House district 63, where Froyum is running, makes up half of this Senate district.

Incidentally, two of the three Democrats running in Senate district 22 are women. If either Tricia Gavin or Sarah Trone Garriott becomes the nominee, I anticipate that EMILY’s List will endorse here as well before the general election. The district covers several suburbs to the west of Des Moines.

Final note: EMILY’s List has endorsed four women seeking federal offices in Iowa this year: Theresa Greenfield in the U.S. Senate primary, Representatives Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne in the first and third Congressional districts, and Rita Hart in the second Congressional district.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin