Republican Jon Dunwell won the October 12 special election in Iowa House district 29 by 2,820 votes to 1,890 for Democrat Steve Mullan (59.9 percent to 40.1 percent), according to unofficial results. The outcome was expected, for reasons Bleeding Heartland discussed here. Nonetheless, Democrats will be demoralized to lose yet another state legislative seat containing a mid-sized city that used to be a Democratic stronghold.
Once Dunwell is sworn in, Republicans will hold 60 of the 100 Iowa House seats, the same number they held in 2011 and 2012. But ten years ago, that lopsided majority could be viewed as a high-water mark following the 2010 GOP landslide. Democrats had a net gain of seven Iowa House seats in 2012 and were only a few hundred votes away from regaining the majority.
The current GOP majority appears to be more durable in light of an Iowa political realignment. To illustrate how different these two majorities are, I've broken down each party's caucus in 2011 and 2021 by the type of House district each member represented: rural/small-town, "micropolitan," suburban, and urban.
Not every House district fits neatly into one category. For instance, Ross Paustian's Scott County seat contains a small piece of Davenport, the increasingly suburb-like community of Eldridge, and rural areas. I'm considering the college towns of Ames and Cedar Falls as urban and the cities of Bettendorf and Coralville as suburban. Others might put those in different groups.
Regardless of how we view those House seats, the political trends are clear.
2011: MORE SUBURBAN REPUBLICANS
Then, as now, rural Iowa elected the majority of House Republicans. These 41 members of the 2011 GOP caucus represented those living in rural areas and small towns:
Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer
Speaker Pro-Tem Jeff Kaufmann
Assistant Majority Leader Matt Windschitl
Assistant Majority Leader Dave Deyoe
Assistant Majority Leader Steve Lukan
Other members: Dwayne Alons, Rich Anderson, Rich Arnold, Clel Baudler, Josh Byrnes, Royd Chambers, Betty De Boef, Cecil Dolecheck, Jack Drake, Greg Forristall, Joel Fry, Julian Garrett, Pat Grassley, Bob Hager, Dave Heaton, Lee Hein, Lance Horbach, Dan Huseman, Stew Iverson, Jarad Klein, Brian Moore, Steve Olson, Dawn Pettengill, Dan Rasmussen, Henry Rayhons, Tom Sands, Jason Schultz, Tom Shaw, Jeff Smith, Chuck Soderberg, Annette Sweeney, David Tjepkes, Jim Van Engelenhoven, Guy Vander Linden, Ralph Watts, Gary Worthan
Three Republicans represented districts containing a mid-sized city as the population center: Chip Baltimore (Boone), Mark Lofgren (Muscatine), and Glen Massie (Indianola).
Ten Republicans represented districts anchored in the suburbs:
Speaker Kraig Paulsen (Hiawatha)
Majority Whip Erik Helland (Johnston/Grimes)
Other members: Peter Cownie (West Des Moines), Chris Hagenow (Windsor Heights/Clive/West Des Moines), Kevin Koester (Ankeny), Linda Miller (Bettendorf), Ross Paustian (Eldridge and edge of Davenport), Kim Pearson (Altoona), Scott Raecker (Urbandale), Nick Wagner (Marion)
Six Republicans represented districts containing part of a large city:
Assistant Majority Leader Renee Schulte (Cedar Rapids)
Other members: Mark Brandenburg (Council Bluffs), Mary Ann Hanusa (Council Bluffs), Ron Jorgensen (Sioux City), Walt Rogers (Cedar Falls and Waterloo), Jeremy Taylor (Sioux City)
2011: MORE RURAL AND MICROPOLITAN DEMOCRATS
On the other side of the aisle, the following 23 House Democrats represented largely urban constituencies ten years ago.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Des Moines)
Assistant Minority Leader Ako Abdul-Samad (Des Moines)
Assistant Minority Leader Mary Mascher (Iowa City)
Other members: Deborah Berry (Waterloo), Ruth Ann Gaines (Des Moines), Chris Hall (Sioux City), Lisa Heddens (Ames), Bruce Hunter (Des Moines), Chuck Isenhart (Dubuque), Anesa Kajtazovic (Waterloo), Bob Kressig (Cedar Falls), Vicki Lensing (Iowa City), Jim Lykam (Davenport), Pat Murphy (Dubuque), Jo Oldson (Des Moines), Rick Olson (Des Moines), Tyler Olson (Cedar Rapids), Janet Petersen (Des Moines), Kirsten Running-Marquardt (Cedar Rapids), Todd Taylor (Cedar Rapids), Phyllis Thede (Davenport/Bettendorf), Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (Ames), Cindy Winckler (Davenport)
Eight Democrats represented mid-sized cities that had been electing Democrats to the Iowa House for a long time:
Assistant Minority Leader Mark Smith (Marshalltown)
Assistant Minority Leader Sharon Steckman (Mason City)
Other members: Dennis Cohoon (Burlington), Mary Gaskill (Ottumwa), Jerry Kearns (Keokuk), Dan Kelley (Newton), Helen Miller (Fort Dodge), Mary Wolfe (Clinton)
Only one House Democrat represented what I would consider a suburban district in 2011: Dave Jacoby (Coralville, North Liberty)
Amazingly, eight of the 40 caucus members were able to win a state House election in a rural district despite the 2010 GOP landslide: Curt Hanson, Dan Muhlbauer, Brian Quirk, Kurt Swaim, Roger Thomas, Andrew Wenthe, Nate Willems, and John Wittneben.
2021: MORE MICROPOLITAN REPUBLICANS, FEWER IN SUBURBS AND CITIES
Rural Iowa remains an even more important stronghold for Republicans, electing these 45 current House members:
Speaker Pat Grassley
Majority Leader Matt Windschitl
Speaker Pro-Tem John Wills
Majority Whip Mike Sexton
Assistant Majority Leader Cecil Dolecheck
Assistant Majority Leader Joe Mitchell
Other members: Rob Bacon, Terry Baxter, Michael Bergan, Brian Best, Jane Bloomingdale, Steven Bradley, Holly Brink, Dennis Bush, Dave Deyoe, Dean Fisher, Joel Fry, Thomas Gerhold, Stan Gustafson, Lee Hein, Dustin Hite, Steven Holt, Chad Ingels, Jon Jacobsen, Tom Jeneary, Megan Jones, Bobby Kaufmann, David Kerr, Jarad Klein, Shannon Latham, Shannon Lundgren, Dave Maxwell, Charlie McClintock, Norlin Mommsen, Tom Moore, Carter Nordman, Anne Osmundson, Sandy Salmon, Jeff Shipley, David Sieck, Ray Sorensen, Henry Stone, Jon Thorup, Skyler Wheeler, Gary Worthan
Another seven Republicans represent districts anchored in mid-sized cities: Brooke Boden (Indianola), Mark Cisneros (Muscatine), Jon Dunwell (Newton), Martin Graber (Keokuk), Ann Meyer (Fort Dodge), Phil Thompson (Boone), and Cherielynn Westrich (Ottumwa).
Only six House Republicans come from largely suburban districts: Eddie Andrews (Johnston/Grimes), Mike Bousselot (Ankeny), Garrett Gobble (Ankeny), Brian Lohse (Altoona), Gary Mohr (Bettendorf), Ross Paustian (Eldridge).
Just two House Republicans now represent districts with large cities as the population center: Assistant Majority Leader Brent Siegrist (Council Bluffs), and Jacob Bossman (Sioux City)
2021: MORE URBAN AND SUBURBAN DEMOCRATS, FEWER IN SMALLER COMMUNITIES
Democratic losses in rural and micropolitan districts have canceled out their gains in larger cities and nearby suburbs. The following 27 House Democrats—that's two-thirds of the caucus—now represent urban districts:
Minority Whip Lindsay James (Dubuque)
Assistant Minority Leader Ako Abdul-Samad (Des Moines)
Assistant Minority Leader Charlie McConkey (Council Bluffs)
Assistant Minority Leader Brian Meyer (Des Moines)
Other members: Marti Anderson (Des Moines), Liz Bennett (Cedar Rapids), Christina Bohannan (Iowa City), Timi Brown-Powers (Waterloo), Tracy Ehlert (Cedar Rapids), Ruth Ann Gaines (Des Moines), Chris Hall (Sioux City), Steve Hansen (Sioux City), Bruce Hunter (Des Moines), Chuck Isenhart (Dubuque), Bob Kressig (Cedar Falls), Monica Kurth (Davenport), Mary Mascher (Iowa City), Jo Oldson (Des Moines), Rick Olson (Des Moines), Kirsten Running-Marquardt (Cedar Rapids), Ras Smith (Waterloo), Art Staed (Cedar Rapids), Phyllis Thede (Davenport, part of Bettendorf), Beth Wessel-Kroeschell (Ames), Ross Wilburn (Ames), Dave Williams (parts of Waterloo and Cedar Falls), Cindy Winckler (Davenport),
Just four House Democrats are left in micropolitan districts: Sue Cahill (Marshalltown), Dennis Cohoon (Burlington), Sharon Steckman (Mason City), and Mary Wolfe (Clinton).
The suburban contingent has grown to eight:
Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst (Windsor Heights, Clive, part of West Des Moines)
Assistant Minority Leader Eric Gjerde (Hiawatha, Robins, part of Marion)
Other members: Molly Donahue (Marion), John Forbes (Urbandale), Dave Jacoby (Coralville), Kenan Judge (Waukee), Amy Nielsen (North Liberty), Kristin Sunde (West Des Moines)
Todd Prichard is the last remaining House Democrat representing primarily Iowans living in small towns and rural areas.
Because of population shifts over the past decade, the redistricting plan that will soon be adopted should create a few more urban and suburban districts, opening up some opportunities for Democrats. But without winning back some rural or micropolitan areas, the party has no path to 51 House seats.
Top: Nagel Photography image of Iowa state capitol as reflected in the windows of the Henry A. Wallace Building, available via Shutterstock.