First thoughts on another disastrous election for Iowa Democrats

Bleeding Heartland will analyze the Iowa election results from many perspectives in the coming weeks. For now, let’s review the big picture: just like in 2016, the outcome was more devastating than any Democrat’s worst nightmare.

Turnout set a new record: Iowans cast at least 1,697,102 ballots, roughly 107,000 more than the high water mark of 1,589,951 people voting in the 2012 presidential election.

But as we learned in November 2018, high turnout doesn’t only help Democrats.

Presidential race

Other than the final Selzer & Co. poll for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom, most recent polling pointed to a close race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in Iowa. But unofficial results show Trump received 896,286 votes, Biden only 757,580.

Biden didn’t flip a single one of the 93 counties Trump carried in 2016.

His 53 percent to 45 percent loss was nearly as big as Hillary Clinton’s 9-point deficit (50.6 percent to 41.3 percent).

Biden did improve on Clinton’s performance: she had received only 653,669 votes. But Trump improved almost as much on the 800,983 votes he won in Iowa four years ago.

For six elections in a row, Iowa’s vote for president tracked fairly closely with the national results. But our presidential preference diverged sharply from the country’s in 2016. Now it’s even more clear that Iowa is no bellwether. As a group, Iowans are well to the right of the country as a whole.

U.S. Senate

Most recent polls of Iowa’s U.S. Senate race showed a lead for either Joni Ernst or Theresa Greenfield within the margin of error. One consistent thread running through those surveys: Ernst’s re-elect number was just a little below Trump’s. Democrats had grounds to hope that if Trump and Biden were within a point or two, Greenfield might be able to squeeze out a victory.

Ernst did underperform Trump. She received about 32,000 fewer votes in total, and carried 91 counties to Trump’s 93. The senator’s vote share was 51.7 percent, compared to Trump’s 53.0 percent. But that was still good enough to beat Greenfield by around 6.5 points (roughly 110,000 votes).

A few years ago, nearly everyone in Iowa politics expected Ernst to be re-elected with little trouble. I didn’t think outside groups would invest in this race at all. In that context, a single-digit margin is not an impressive win for the incumbent. But it’s crushing for Democrats who had come around to believing that this race was winnable.

U.S. House

Here’s where the carnage came into focus. Forthcoming posts will examine each of the Congressional races in more detail. The basics:


Unofficial results show State Representative Ashley Hinson beating U.S. Representative Abby Finkenauer by 211,573 votes to 200,814 (51.25 percent to 48.65 percent). Finkenauer did not concede, and her campaign issued a statement saying it “will continue to review election returns and data on outstanding ballots.” Iowa law allows absentee ballots to be counted if they are postmarked no later than the day before election day and arrive by the following Monday. But clearly there will not be thousands of late-arriving ballots to overcome this margin.

Hinson was a strong candidate; she outpolled Trump in her district in 2016, and two years later was the only Iowa House Republican to hold a district Fred Hubbell carried in the governor’s race. That’s why Republicans started recruiting her almost immediately after Finkenauer was elected in 2018.

Still, I didn’t expect Hinson to win a district that had voted for Hubbell, and I didn’t think Trump’s coattails would be particularly helpful in this part of the state. After the vote count is finalized, Bleeding Heartland will dig into the county-level results to figure out where Finkenauer fell short.

One data point that jumped out at me: in 2018, Finkenauer netted about 17,000 votes from Linn County, where 102,448 people voted. At least 125,077 Linn County residents voted this year, but Finkenauer’s lead over Hinson there was only about 13,000 votes. The goal of reducing Democratic margins in the Cedar Rapids area was a big reason Republicans wanted Hinson in this race, instead of former U.S. Representative Rod Blum, who seemed ready for a rematch.


This one won’t be resolved anytime soon. Unofficial results in the district retiring Democrat Dave Loebsack has represented for fourteen years show Republican State Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks leading former State Senator Rita Hart by 196,769 votes to 196,487 (49.95 percent to 49.87 percent). We’re in recount territory, and the votes will be closely scrutinized.

I had assumed Trump wouldn’t match his 2016 performance in this part of the state, that Hart (the 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor) was well-positioned in a district that Hubbell carried. Wrong again.

In addition to the Trump wave, Miller-Meeks may have benefited from the name recognition she built during her three campaigns against Loebsack in 2008, 2010, and 2014.


Strong GOTV by Democrats in Polk and Dallas counties saved this race for Representative Cindy Axne. She’s leading David Young by 218,968 votes to 212,727 (48.94 percent to 47.55 percent). Axne’s margin in Polk County was about 39,000 votes, while Young’s advantage in Dallas was only about 2,500.

Libertarian candidate Bryan Jack Holder may have helped by pulling some conservatives away from Young; he’s at 15,338 votes so far.


Every Iowan should be thankful for J.D. Scholten. By proving in 2018 that Representative Steve King could be beaten, Scholten motivated the GOP establishment to take out King in this year’s Republican primary. State Senator Randy Feenstra campaigned like he was in the witness protection program, Doug Burns quipped the other week. But that was good enough to swamp Scholten by 236,852 votes to 144,344 (61.99 percent to 37.78 percent).

Last cycle, Scholten carried six of the 39 counties in the fourth district, and kept King below 50 percent in three more. Unburdened by King’s baggage, with Trump putting the wind at his back, Feenstra won every county except for Story.

The Sioux City Journal’s Bret Hayworth interviewed Scholten on election night.

“I am kind of just in shock. I felt good going into (Monday) night, knowing we worked our tails off,” Scholten said in as late Tuesday interview.

“The turnout by Democrats across the state of Iowa was abysmal … Counties I did well in last time, we got smoked,” Scholten added.

When the dust settles, I will look closely to see whether Democratic turnout was low or whether Scholten lost independents and Republican moderates who had voted for him in 2018 as a gesture against King’s toxicity.

Iowa House

This was the most shocking part of the election for me. I thought Democrats might fall short in their effort to gain control of the state House, but I didn’t think Republicans could realistically expand their majority. As bad as 2016 was (Democrats had a net loss of two Iowa House seats and fell short in a bunch of pickup opportunities), only one of their incumbents lost that year.

Republicans defeated six House Democrats last night:

Scott Ourth (House district 26)
Heather Matson (House district 38)
Karin Derry (House district 39)
Andy McKean (House district 58)
Mary Gaskill (House district 81)
Jeff Kurtz (House district 83)

Republicans targeted three of those races but spent very little against Matson, Derry, and Kurtz.

State Representative Wes Breckenridge barely escaped becoming another casualty, winning re-election in House district 29 by only 139 votes.

Republican Chad Ingels picked up the Democratic-held open seat in House district 64. That’s plus seven for the GOP.

Democrats spent six figures in more than a dozen GOP-held House seats. The only successful contender was Eric Gjerde in the open House district 67 (which Hinson vacated to run for Congress).

Unless I’ve missed some other shocker, it appears Republicans have improved from a 53-47 majority to a 59-41 majority. Even if Iowa preserves our nonpartisan redistricting process, and the political map adopted in 2021 creates opportunities, it will be difficult for Democrats to chart a path to 51 House seats.

Iowa Senate

Democrats had no realistic chance to win control of the Senate this year, but the party had many strong candidates and invested in four GOP-held districts. The only winner was Sarah Trone Garriott, who was campaigning in the open Senate district 22.

Rhonda Martin fell about 1,000 votes short against State Senator Brad Zaun in the other suburban target (Senate district 20), and Steve Gorman lost by a little more than 4 points in the Council Bluffs seat (Senate district 8).

Former State Senator Tom Courtney, a surprise loser in 2016, lost by double digits in Senate district 44 (Burlington area).

To make matters worse, Republicans took down Democratic State Senator Rich Taylor in neighboring Senate district 42. Taylor had barely won re-election in 2016 and lost this year by nearly a 20-point margin.

Constitutional convention

I’ll close this out with a small bit of good news. Iowans rejected the proposal to call a state constitutional convention by 971,561 votes to 407,757 (70.4 percent to 29.6 percent). This question is required to appear on Iowa ballots once a decade, in the year ending in zero. It has never come close to passing. The latest vote was even more lopsided than the victory for “no” in 2000 and 2010.

Any thoughts about what we just witnessed are welcome in this thread.

Top image: Governor Kim Reynolds, Senator Joni Ernst, and Congressional candidate Ashley Hinson pose at an October 30 campaign event. Photo posted on Hinson’s Facebook page.

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  • Trying to understand

    I just don’t get it. I’ve been putting in a lot of hours this year between knocking doors (for Warren) in the caucus and making calls in the general. I feel for all the candidates and other volunteers who put so much time into this. I really didn’t expect such a bad result here. Hopefully, here in Johnson our results were strong enough to pull Rita Hart to victory once all counting of outstanding ballots is done. I’m not optimistic but I am hoping and praying.

    Not only am I sad and shocked but I am so angry. We definitely will need an autopsy of this once all the dust settles, both in Iowa, and within other states and nationally. James Carville, who I really think is just a relic anymore and who seems to think we live in the 1990s claimed in the afternoon on Tuesday that Democrats were going to have a big night. He also so adamant during the primaries that we couldn’t nominate Bernie not necessarily because of his policy positions per se but because his positions and “socialism” would turn off voters. Remember all the hand-wringing about Bernie as the nominee in Florida? It looks like Biden will lose Florida by a bigger margin than Clinton! Iowa isn’t the only place that went way more Republican than expected. There was something wrong with the dynamics on the top of the ticket that was disaster for other races.

    I don’t think we /know/ for a fact that Bernie or Warren would have won and I hate when people make that claim so definitely. However, we need to reconsider the old logic that a candidate who is centrist, who tries to appeal to the center as much as possible, is automatically a winning candidate. If the most centrist candidate won general elections, Hillary Clinton would have been running for re-election this year. I will be curious if post election surveys tell us anything. I remember seeing some post election survey that asked folks about the issues being discussed in Iowa. Majorities of Iowa voters on issue after issue, things like Medicaid, minimum wage, etc, agreed with the Democrats yet some of those folks still voted for Reynolds (and the post survey poll reflected that, so this wasn’t an issue of Reynolds voters not answering the survey). Florida last night voted by 20 points to raise the minimum wage over time to 15 dollars an hour! Voters agree with Democrats on issues, so it might be something about style, culture and passions enflamed by campaigns that are more important.

    As a final note, I sort of thought “well, the Republicans already control the state of Iowa, what more could they do” after hearing about the losses last night. But thinking about what might happen IPERS (my partner is a teacher) makes me very nervous. My partner and I are young enough to be able to move away from the state. Republicans complain about Iowa’s brain drain, but don’t connect any segment of that to their extreme policies. I hope that protest movements and constituent feedback will constrain any further move to the right in Iowa but I am not hopeful. I Iook forward to and thank you for your continued quality reporting about state politics and analysis of the legislative session when we get to that point!

    • Fear

      The term “liberal progressive” is a term very frightening to republicans and independents. When AOC’s name is brought up it is used to put the fear of
      God in their minds. So many Iowan’s are evangelicals and fear is something
      they truly understand. We have evangelicals in urban areas but the majority
      are in the rural and small towns. This is where the Governor and Senator Ernst
      got their votes. It is hard for us in urban areas to remember Iowa is mainly rural
      and conservative in every sense of the word. With redistricting there will be more
      urban legislators in the future, but that doesn’t help with winning statewide races.
      Someone running for a statewide race needs to be able to connect with rural voters,
      have military experience, or experience governing. Democrats in Iowa had good candidates but and a big but the Trumpians from all over the country are putting info on the internet that is very disparaging and Iowans are believing it.

  • I am already very thankful...

    …for the dedicated political analysts, volunteer and paid, who will work to figure out what happened in Iowa and why. I know we really do need that information.

    Just right now, however, I don’t think I even want to know what was in the minds of all the Iowans who watched Trump in office for four years, doing what he did and saying what he said, and still voted for him. The excuse of ignorance is gone. They knew what they were voting for.

    Thank you to gellerbach and all the other volunteers who worked so very hard on this election. You deserve deep gratitude, and you have mine. And many more thanks to the good candidates who worked so hard. And yet more thanks for this blog.

    You are all getting up off the floor and thinking about what needs to come next. Some of us who feel gutted will soon follow your good example. .

  • merlin pfannkuch

    When did I move to Oklahoma?