IA-01: How Liz Mathis might match up against Ashley Hinson

Democratic State Senator Liz Mathis told Iowa news outlets on June 14 that she is “seriously considering” running for Congress next year and will announce her plans in late July.

Mathis won her first race in a 2011 special election for Iowa Senate district 34, covering much of the Cedar Rapids suburbs. She has since been re-elected three times. Republicans did not invest in Senate district 34 in 2012, made an unsuccessful play there in 2016, and opted not to field a candidate against Mathis in 2020.

My Democratic contacts in Linn County expect Mathis to run in the first Congressional district. I am inclined to agree. If she weren’t leaning toward running, she would probably not disclose her plans until after Iowa adopts new maps, which is unlikely to happen before September.

Mathis retired last month from Four Oaks, which provides services to children in the Cedar Rapids area. So she could devote full-time efforts to a Congressional campaign whenever the state legislature is not in session. Since her Iowa Senate term runs through 2024, she doesn’t need to give up her current office to compete for IA-01.

My Republican contacts expect U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson to run for U.S. Senate if Chuck Grassley retires. For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming Grassley will seek an eighth term, and Hinson will seek re-election in IA-01.

GUESSES ABOUT THE NEXT CONGRESSIONAL MAP

Although it will be a few months before we know how Iowa’s Congressional map will look for the 2020s, we can make a few guesses based on requirements in state law and the Iowa Constitution. Congressional districts must be made up of whole, contiguous counties, must be close to equal in population, and should be relatively compact.

The Republican-controlled legislature will likely have a say on the next Congressional map, because a state constitutional provision that allows the Iowa Supreme Court to take over redistricting after September 15 only applies to state legislative maps.

Linn County, the second-largest in Iowa, will anchor some Congressional district in the eastern part of the state. I doubt any map that combined Linn with Johnson County (Iowa City area) or Story County (Ames) would gain Republican approval, because that would be a difficult district for any GOP candidate to win. Hinson defeated Democratic Representative Abby Finkenauer last November by only a 2.6 percent margin.

So Linn County will likely be grouped again with much of northeast Iowa, probably including Black Hawk (Waterloo/Cedar Falls) and Dubuque counties. The new IA-01 could become slightly more Democratic or somewhat more Republican. The current district has a small Democratic voter registration advantage but went for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, indicating that no-party voters in the area have drifted toward the GOP.

Using the last two presidential election results for the 20 counties in IA-01, I calculated the district’s partisan voting index to be R+4. In other words, voters in the current IA-01 tilt about 4 points more Republican than the nationwide electorate.

DEMOCRATS NEED A CANDIDATE WHO RUNS STRONG IN LINN COUNTY

A close look at the last two elections in IA-01 reveals a straightforward path for any Democratic candidate: run up the score in Linn County (and Black Hawk County if possible), and don’t get blown out everywhere else.

Click on any county on this interactive map for the vote totals and percentages from Democratic challenger Abby Finkenauer’s 2018 win against Representative Rod Blum. Finkenauer received between 50 percent and 60 percent of the vote in the blue counties. Blum’s vote share was between 50 percent and 60 percent in the red counties, and he carried the pink counties with less than 50 percent of votes cast.

County Name

D Canidate 1 61% 30390
R Canidate 2 39% 10390

This interactive map shows results from Republican challenger Hinson’s 2020 victory over Finkenauer. Hinson received more than 60 percent of the vote in the maroon counties; Blum hadn’t hit that mark anywhere in 2018. Hinson received between 50 percent and 60 percent in the red counties, while Finkenauer carried the blue counties.

County Name

D Canidate 1 61% 30390
R Canidate 2 39% 10390

To make it easier to see the patterns, I put the county-level results from both races in this table. Counties are listed in descending order by number of ballots cast in the 2018 Congressional race.

CountyFinkenauer results 2018Blum results 2018Finkenauer results 2020Hinson results 2020
Linn57,712 (56.7%)40,733 (40.0%)69,391 (55.2%)56,243 (44.7%)
Black Hawk29,667 (55.9%)22,103 (41.6%)36,060 (55.1%)29,333 (44.8%)
Dubuque22,359 (52.3%)19,282 (45.1%)26,541 (50.2%)26,253 (49.7%)
Marshall6,611 (46.7%)7,124 (50.4%)8,176 (47.1%)9,176 (52.8%)
Benton4,698 (40.8%)6,465 (55.8%)5,307 (36.6%)9,165 (63.3%)
Bremer5,182 (45.4%)5,908 (51.7%)6,036 (43.0%)8,000 (57.0%)
Winneshiek5,102 (51.8%)4,364 (44.3%)5,807 (49.0%)6,041 (51.0%)
Jones3,787 (44.2%)4,490 (52.4%)4,242 (39.0%)6,621 (60.9%)
Jackson3,797 (44.6%)4,483 (52.7%)4,340 (41.0%)6,225 (58.9%)
Buchanan3,977 (47.1%)4,166 (49.3%)4,481 (42.0%)6,180 (58.0%)
Poweshiek3,966 (48.1%)4,044 (49.1%)4,429 (44.8%)5,432 (55.0%)
Fayette3,701 (45.2%)4,167 (50.8%)4,099 (40.6%)5,984 (59.3%)
Clayton3,311 (42.0%)4,320 (54.7%)3,590 (37.8%)5,895 (62.1%)
Iowa3,099 (40.8%)4,203 (55.3%)3,543 (36.9%)6,041 (63.0%)
Delaware2,810 (37.5%)4,475 (59.7%)3,280 (33.1%)6,608 (66.8%)
Tama3,257 (44.7%)3,780 (51.9%)3,750 (42.1%)5,150 (57.8%)
Allamakee2,353 (41.6%)3,073 (54.4%)2,697 (37.0%)4,595 (63.0%)
Mitchell1,836 (40.8%)2,518 (55.9%)2,016 (36.1%)3,559 (63.8%)
Howard 1,587 (44.0%)1,878 (52.0%)1,893 (39.1%)2,944 (60.8%)
Worth1,530 (43.7%)1,866 (53.2%)1,669 (38.7%)2,633 (61.1%)
District-wide170,342 (51.0%)153,442 (45.9%)201,347 (48.7%)212,088 (51.3%)
County-level results from Iowa’s first Congressional district in 2018 and 2020 (table created by Laura Belin)

Hinson outperformed Blum across the board, especially in the reddest counties. It surely helped that no Libertarian candidate was on the ballot in 2020; Libertarian Troy Hageman received 10,285 votes in IA-01 in 2018.

Look at the Linn County numbers. Finkenauer’s advantage of 16,979 votes there in 2018 was nearly equal to her 16,900 margin over Blum district-wide.

Republicans recruited Hinson in large part because of her potential do to well in Linn County. She represented an Iowa House district in the Cedar Rapids suburbs and had been a reporter and anchor for KCRG, the ABC affiliate and most-watched station in the area for tv news.

Finkenauer moved to Cedar Rapids while serving in Congress. Even so, she came out of Linn with just 13,148 more votes than Hinson in the much higher-turnout presidential election. It wasn’t nearly enough to counter Hinson’s advantage in smaller counties, especially since Finkenauer barely carried Dubuque County, where she grew up.

Again, we don’t know that all of these counties will be part of IA-01 next year. But we do know Linn County will have the largest population in the Congressional district where it ends up. The Democratic nominee will need to do very well there to have any chance of defeating Hinson.

MATHIS IS WELL-POSITIONED IN LINN COUNTY, NORTHEAST IOWA

Early in her broadcasting career, Mathis was an anchor on the Waterloo-based station KWWL, the NBC affiliate in the Cedar Rapids market. She later spent nine years as a reporter and anchor at KCRG.

That background gives Mathis higher name ID than almost any other potential Democratic candidate in IA-01. And while she’s best known in Linn County, KCRG reaches all of the green counties on this map, which includes most of northeast Iowa.

Mathis’s chances would improve if Hinson runs for Senate, creating an open-seat race in IA-01. Of possible Republican contenders in the first district, only Rod Blum could match Hinson in name ID to start the campaign. Mathis should be able to do at least as well against any GOP candidate in Linn County as Finkenauer did against Blum in 2018.

Even if the new map makes IA-01 a tougher district than its current configuration, a Democrat with a solid base in Linn County should have a fighting chance. And if the Congressional race doesn’t pan out, Mathis would still have a seat in the Iowa Senate.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.–Hinson’s camp seem worried.

Top image: Facebook profile pictures of State Senator Liz Mathis on the left, U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson on the right.

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