How many Iowa candidates "won" under rules Republicans forced on unions?

Sixth in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2020 state and federal elections.

Republican lawmakers and Governor Terry Branstad set out to cripple public sector unions in 2017 by enacting a law that eviscerated bargaining rights and established new barriers to union representation. Under that law, public employees must vote to recertify their union in each contract period (in most cases, every two or three years). Anyone not participating in the election is considered to have voted against the union. So a successful recertification requires yes votes from a majority of all employees in the bargaining unit.

The law hasn’t accomplished its goal of destroying large unions that typically support Democratic candidates. The vast majority of bargaining units have voted to recertify in each of the past four years. This fall, all 64 locals affiliated with the Iowa State Education Association voted to keep having that union negotiate their contracts. AFSCME Council 61, which represents most Iowa state and local government workers, was nearly as successful, with 64 out of 67 units voting to recertify.

I decided to return to a question Bleeding Heartland first pondered in 2017: how many candidates for other Iowa offices could declare victory under the system Republicans forced on labor unions?

I found that even after Iowa’s highest-turnout election in decades, our state would have no representation in Congress if contenders needed a majority vote among all constituents. “Winners” could be declared in about a third of state legislative races.

A quick word about methodology: I was more generous than the GOP’s collective bargaining law is to labor unions. I considered candidates to have “won” if they received support from a majority of the registered voters they were seeking to represent. A better analogy would be to see whether their vote total exceeded a majority of all eligible voters, but I don’t have reliable figures for the number of U.S. citizens at least 18 years old living in each district.

I lowered the bar a bit more by using voter registration numbers the Secretary of State’s office published on November 2, which don’t include anyone who registered to vote on election day.


No candidate for federal office came close to winning a majority in the 2020 general election, if non-voters are considered to have voted against every contender. The Secretary of State’s office counted 2,245,096 registered Iowa voters at the beginning of November. That means President Donald Trump and Senator Joni Ernst would have needed at least 1,122,549 votes to win. Trump received 897,672 votes, which was 53.1 percent of Iowans who made a choice in the presidential race, but only 40.0 percent of all Iowa registered voters, not counting anyone who registered on November 3.

Ernst received 864,997 votes, which was 51.7 percent of Iowans who made a choice in the U.S. Senate race, but only 38.5 percent of the statewide electorate.

All of the winning U.S. House candidates fell short of the mark as well. Ashley Hinson would have needed more than 274,000 votes to win a majority of all registrants in IA-01. She received 212,088 votes.

We still don’t know the winner of the second district, but both Rita Hart and Mariannette Miller-Meeks received nearly 197,000 votes. That’s way below the 283,485 that would constitute a majority of voters in the 24 counties.

Cindy Axne’s 219,205 votes delivered a second term in IA-03 under what we all recognize as fair election rules. But she would have needed 296,391 to claim a majority of that district’s voters.

Among all Iowa candidates for the U.S. House this year, Randy Feenstra received the most votes. His 237,369 votes represented 62.0 percent of those who made a choice in the IA-04 race. However, that’s only 44.3 percent of the 535,922 registered voters in the 39 counties.


The 25 even-numbered Iowa Senate districts were on the ballot this year. Only seven candidates received more votes than a majority of registrants in those districts. Three were Republicans running unopposed: Jeff Taylor (Senate district 2, Iowa’s most heavily GOP district), Dennis Guth (Senate district 4), and Amy Sinclair (Senate district 14). Two were Republicans facing Democratic challengers: Ken Rozenboom (Senate district 40) and Dan Zumbach (Senate district 48).

Democratic incumbents Janet Petersen (Senate district 18) and Liz Mathis (Senate district 34) also received enough votes to exceed a majority of the registered voters in their districts. Neither had an opponent.

I went back and compared the 2018 election results with the voter registration totals from November of that year. Although turnout was relatively high for an Iowa midterm, zero candidates won enough votes to claim a majority of all registrants in the 25 odd-numbered state Senate districts on the ballot.


To my surprise, candidates in 36 of the 100 Iowa House districts received more votes than half of all registered voters their districts. That was many more than the 20 who did so in 2016, probably because Iowa’s overall turnout in 2020 was nearly 10 percent higher than in the last presidential election. Only six Iowa House candidates (none of whom had a major-party opponent) had cleared that threshold in 2018.

Nine of this year’s “winners” were Republicans running unopposed:

John Wills (House district 1)
Megan Jones (House district 2)
Dennis Bush (House district 3)
Thomas Jeneary (House district 5)
Jacob Bossman (House district 6)
David Sieck (House district 23)
Jon Thorup (House district 28)
Dustin Hite (House district 79)
Holly Brink (House district 80)

Sixteen were Republicans facing Democratic challengers:

Skyler Wheeler (House district 4, the state’s most Republican district)
Terry Baxter (House district 8)
Mike Sexton (House district 10)
Brian Best (House district 12)
Matt Windschitl (House district 17)
Steven Holt (House district 18)
Ray Sorensen (House district 20)
Jon Jacobsen (House district 22)
Cecil Dolecheck (House district 24)
Joel Fry (House district 27)
Pat Grassley (House district 50)
Jane Bloomingdale (House district 51)
Anne Osmundson (House district 56)
Shannon Lundgren (House district 57)
Joe Mitchell (House district 84)
Lee Hein (House district 96)

Eleven Democrats, all unchallenged, also cleared this bar:

Rick Olson (House district 31)
Ruth Ann Gaines (House district 32)
Marti Anderson (House district 36)
Jo Oldson (House district 41)
Bob Kressig (House district 59)
Liz Bennett (House district 65)
Kirsten Running-Marquardt (House district 69)
Dave Jacoby (House district 74)
Amy Nielsen (House district 77)
Christina Bohannan (House district 85)
Mary Mascher (House district 86)

The bottom line is that to meet the standard Iowa Republicans set for labor unions, a state legislative candidate needs to be either unopposed or competing in a district that overwhelmingly favors one party. Even in those conditions, the formula rarely works in non-presidential years.

Why bother going through this exercise? No one would ever count Iowans who chose not to participate in an election as having voted against a specific candidate. That would be absurd and unfair. Which just about sums up the recertification rules Republicans imposed on some 180,000 public employees in Iowa.

UPDATE: A reader commented, “a more comparable up or down election may be the retention vote for judges. How many judges would be retained if they needed the votes of Registered voters instead of actual voters?”

No Iowa Supreme Court justice or Iowa Court of Appeals judge would ever be retained if they needed “yes” votes from a majority of all registered voters, instead of a majority of those who filled out that part of the ballot.

I don’t have population data for Iowa’s judicial districts, but I am certain that no lower court judges would ever be able to meet the standard Republicans set for recertification votes. Hundreds of thousands of Iowa voters leave the judicial part of the ballot blank.

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