A massive organizing effort paid off for Kimberly Sheets, as the Democrat won the August 29 special election for Warren County auditor by a two-to-one margin. Unofficial results first reported by Iowa Starting Line show Sheets received 5,051 votes (66.56 percent) to 2,538 votes for Republican David Whipple (33.44 percent). Turnout was more than three times higher than the previous record for a Warren County special election (a school bond issue in 2022).
Republicans haven't lost many races lately in this county, but they pushed their luck by nominating Whipple. Not only was he lacking experience in election administration—one of the duties of Iowa county auditors—he had shared Facebook posts espousing conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election and other QAnon obsessions.
The county's previous auditor, Democrat Traci VanderLinden, retired in May and wanted Sheets (the deputy in her office) to succeed her. Whipple's appointment by an all-Republican county board of supervisors generated lots of statewide and some national media attention, because of his now-deleted social media posts. Local Democrats collected about 3,500 signatures over a two-week period demanding a special election.
County GOP activists could have picked a less controversial nominee for the auditor's race, but they stuck with Whipple. The move backfired spectacularly.
WARREN COUNTY HAS SHIFTED TOWARD REPUBLICANS
Recent political trends explain why Warren County Republicans were confident they could elect the candidate of their choice against a Democrat with far more relevant experience.
Located directly south of the Des Moines metro area, the county has grown from about 36,000 residents in 1990 to more than 52,000 according to the 2020 census, making it the eleventh largest of Iowa's 99 counties. More than half of Warren County residents live in the cities of Indianola and Norwalk. Those towns haven't trended blue like some suburbs to the west of Des Moines.
Warren County was solidly Republican for much of the 20th century, becoming more competitive during the 1980s. It was a "swingy" area, voting twice for Bill Clinton, then twice for George W. Bush for president. Democrats Tom Harkin (who grew up in Cumming, a small town in the county) and Tom Vilsack carried Warren in their campaigns for U.S. Senate and governor, but the Iowa House seat covering the Indianola area changed hands several times over the last two decades.
Since around 2008, Republicans steadily gained ground up and down the ballot. Warren County had narrowly favored Barack Obama in his first presidential race, but went for Mitt Romney in 2012, even as Obama won Iowa by nearly 6 points.
Republican Joni Ernst carried Warren County by nearly 16 points in 2014, about double her statewide margin over Bruce Braley in that Senate race. It was the same story in 2020, when Ernst outpaced Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield by about 6.6 points statewide but by around 16 points in this county.
Donald Trump solidified the realignment at the top of the ticket, winning Warren by 16 points against Hillary Clinton and by nearly 17 points against Joe Biden. Trump carried Iowa as a whole by about 9 points in 2016 and by 8 points four years later.
Also in 2020, Republican Brooke Boden defeated four-term Democratic State Representative Scott Ourth for the Iowa House seat containing Indianola. She was easily re-elected last year, and Warren County voters favored every GOP candidate for a statewide office.
Republicans have won almost all recent elections for county-wide offices, other than the 2020 auditor's race, which featured the long-serving Democratic incumbent VanderLinden.
Voter registration trends favor Republicans here as well. Going into the 2012 general election, the GOP had only a small voter registration advantage in Warren County. That edge grew to about 2,000 by November 2016, around 2,500 by November 2020, and was nearly 3,900 in the latest official figures from August 2023.
DEMOCRATS ENERGIZED FOR SPECIAL ELECTION
Simpson College Professor Kedron Bardwell called attention to Whipple's social media history soon after Warren County's three Republican supervisors appointed the interim auditor in June. Democrats were already motivated to work toward a special election; Whipple angered them more by putting Sheets on administrative leave during his first two weeks as interim auditor.
Sheets' campaign raised more than $35,000 for the special election, about three times more than Whipple. Democrats focused on the ground game, with a small army of volunteers knocking doors, making phone calls, and sending text messages. Dozens of Democratic volunteers made thousands of voter contacts over the past month. Sheets also was able to finance direct mail and digital advertising.
Speaking to KNIA-KRLS radio reporter Andrew Swadner before the election, Sheets highlighted her professional background, leadership skills, and experience working in the auditor's office for seven years. Because Whipple placed her on leave, she was able to devote full-time hours to campaigning and attended many local events.
Although the auditor's office won't release the partisan breakdown of voters for several days, anecdotally it appears that a larger percentage of registered Democrats turned out. That was certainly true for early voters: Warren County elections staff told Bleeding Heartland near the end of the day on August 28 that 1,151 registered Democrats had already cast ballots, compared to 507 Republicans, 235 no-party voters, and three Libertarians.
The lopsided result suggests independents favored Sheets as well. Once the election has been certified, the turnout report should indicate how many no-party voters participated.
Whipple complained in an August 27 Facebook post that his opponent was trying to mobilize students at Simpson College in Indianola to vote in the special election. "While it may be legal, it isn't always right," he wrote.
The Iowa Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court affirmed during the 1970s that college students have the right to vote in local elections where they are living and studying. Sheets again called on Simpson students to turn out in an election day Facebook post: "You’re part of our community and deserve to have a say in its leadership."
REPUBLICAN DOWNPLAYED CONSPIRACY THEORIES
Whipple's campaign sent thousands of postcards to area voters and recruited volunteers, including U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, to share the Republican's message and campaign literature. (Warren County became part of Miller-Meeks' district after Iowa adopted new political maps in 2021.)
In interviews and other public statements, Whipple emphasized his management experience and downplayed his conspiracy mongering in the aftermath of the 2020 election. He told BBC reporter Mike Wendling he had shared some "ridiculous" things on Facebook but didn't create that material.
"They weren't things that I was authoring personally," he says. "I'd say, 'Hey, check this one out', and send it on to my friends and family." [...]
"It was a very emotional time for a lot of people in the world," he says. "It's unfortunate that a lot of these things ended up being so much misinformation."
Whipple and his allies, led by Warren County GOP chair Steve Kirby, spent much of the campaign publicizing allegations of mismanagement in the auditor's office. Republicans claimed staff had paid bills late, racking up fees, and let voting machines and election thumb drives go missing.
"WE TRUST COMPETENCE OVER CONSPIRACIES"
Even in defeat, Whipple told the media the result reflected "more of a popularity contest" than "who can do the job." In a video posted by Iowa Starting Line's Pat Rynard, the Republican implied that voters hated him for who he is, as opposed to rejecting him because he spread lies.
Whipple alleged there are "a lot of problems in this office" and predicted Sheets would struggle. The Democrat told Amy Duncan of the Indianola Independent Advocate, "People are tired of the mudslinging.” She pledged to "to start mending fences" and "putting pieces back together in the office" when she goes back to work next week.
More than 7,500 residents cast ballots, which works out to around 19 percent of Warren County's 39,000 registered voters. That's high turnout for a summertime special election. Whipple's inexperience with running elections was showing when he characterized the participation as low ("people don't get up off the couch sometimes ... it's a shame").
Sheets said in a written statement after results were in,
This is an historic night for Warren County. When the County Supervisors tried to take away the voice of the people, the people of Warren County stood up for our democracy and said with one voice: we trust competence over conspiracies.
Sheets will serve the remainder of the auditor's current term, which runs through the end of next year. This position and several other county offices will be on the November 2024 ballot. Winning re-election amid presidential year turnout could be a challenge for a Democrat—though Republicans could make it easier for Sheets if they nominate a conspiracy theorist again.
Top image of Kimberly Sheets cropped from a photo posted on her social media feeds on August 29.