Iowa Senate primary has new front-runner, more level playing field

Former U.S. Representative Abby Finkenauer made it official on July 22: she’s running for the U.S. Senate. And even though signs point to long-serving Senator Chuck Grassley seeking another term in 2022, at least two other people are poised to compete against Finkenauer and Dave Muhlbauer for the Democratic nomination.

Finkenauer will carry several advantages into the primary campaign. But compared to Iowa’s last Democratic race for U.S. Senate, the contenders will be playing on a much more level field.

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Iowans in Congress report big 2Q fundraising numbers

Candidates for federal offices are raising more money than ever, and that trend was noticeable in the second-quarter Federal Election Commission filings for Iowa’s four U.S. House incumbents. Most of them reported fundraising numbers that would have attracted national attention just a few cycles ago. Many large donors live outside Iowa, a sign that national committees are driving contributions to candidates perceived to be in competitive districts.

The cash on hand totals may seem daunting for challengers who recently launched their campaigns or are still considering it. On the other hand, war chests are less important than they used to be, given the massive growth in outside spending on battleground U.S. House races. A fundraising advantage for an incumbent in 2021 may not be a major factor by next summer.

With that caveat, let’s review where things stand for the three Republicans and one Democrat who represent Iowa in the lower chamber of Congress.

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Don't bet on Chuck Grassley retiring

Five U.S. Senate Republicans have confirmed they won’t seek re-election in 2022. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama reported no individual or political action committee contributions during the first six months of 2021. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania reported $365 in total contributions during the same period. Rob Portman of Ohio–$23,635.83. Richard Burr of North Carolina–$140,764. Roy Blunt of Missouri–$194,149.74.

In contrast, Iowa’s senior Senator Chuck Grassley–who has served in elective office continuously since 1959–raised $682,379.79 in contributions from January through June, Federal Election Commission filings show. His campaign brought in $354,679.79 from individuals and $327,700 from a long list of PACs. He also transferred $193,811.28 from other committees to his main campaign account, which reported $2,549,206.27 cash on hand as of June 30.

Grassley refunded more campaign contributions ($11,400 in the first quarter, $20,775 in the second) than rival Republican candidate Jim Carlin (a state senator from Sioux City) raised from individuals other than himself. Carlin’s latest FEC disclosure shows his Senate campaign spent more than it brought in from April through June and closed out the second quarter with $8,639.20 cash on hand.

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J.D. Scholten to help Democrats "up our game in rural America"

“Right now, Democratic policies are very popular,” said J.D. Scholten in a video revealing his future plans. “However, they’re being drowned [out] by mis- and disinformation. We have to remember that we’re just a handful of states and under 100,000 votes from a Donald Trump second term and a Republican-controlled House and Senate.”

Many Iowa Democrats–including Scholten’s own parents–saw the two-time Congressional candidate as a possible 2022 contender for U.S. Senate. Others encouraged him to run for governor. But Scholten announced on July 13 that he won’t run for any elected office next year. Instead, he will serve as the executive director of RuralVote.org, a super-PAC with a mission “to improve the Democratic brand in rural communities and empower local advocates to battle misinformation in their communities.”

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House committee upholds Miller-Meeks' fine for going maskless

U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R, IA-02) did not appeal the $500 fine she received last month for going without a mask in the U.S. House chamber, the House Ethics Committee announced on June 25. A letter and accompanying statement from the committee’s chair and ranking member upheld the fine, noting that Miller-Meeks had not filed an appeal within the time allowed under House rules.

Two other Republicans fined for the same reason did appeal, saying they were vaccinated and in compliance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance. A majority of Ethics Committee members did not agree to those appeals. (Unlike most House committees, the ethics panel has equal representation for both parties.)

Under House rules adopted early this year, a second violation of the mask mandate would have incurred a $2,500 fine. However, Miller-Meeks won’t need to worry. Under guidance issued earlier this month, House members and staff who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 are no longer subject to the mask mandate.

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Iowa campaign regulator may discuss pre-checked recurring donations

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board may discuss whether to regulate campaigns pre-selecting recurring donation options, according to executive director Mike Marshall.

In May, the Federal Election Commission unanimously recommended that Congress ban the practice, which Donald Trump’s campaign used to raise enormous sums in 2020. Many of Trump’s supporters did not realize they were committing to recurring gifts and later asked for refunds or filed fraud complaints.

At least three Iowa Republican office-holders–Governor Kim Reynolds and U.S. Representatives Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks–adopted the tactic this year. Some of their fundraising pages on the WinRed platform have two boxes pre-selected: one for a recurring monthly donation, and one for an additional contribution on a specific date in the near future.

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