If Rod Blum tanks, how many Iowa House Republicans will he take with him?

A New York Times poll of Iowa’s first Congressional district this week found Democratic challenger Abby Finkenauer leading two-term Representative Rod Blum by 51.5 percent to 37 percent. Finkenauer led by double digits in every turnout model the pollsters applied to the raw data. Blum’s favorability of 35 percent was even lower than President Donald Trump’s 39 percent approval rating among respondents.

As national Republican strategists and GOP-aligned advocacy groups write off Blum and election forecasters increasingly view IA-01 as a probable Democratic pickup, I’ve been thinking about how a Blum implosion could affect down-ballot Republicans. With no straight-ticket option for Iowa voters this year, coat-tails may be less important than they were in the past. Nevertheless, it can’t be good for GOP legislative candidates that Finkenauer’s campaign has had field organizers working across the district for at least six months to identify and turn out supporters.

Democrats need a net gain of ten Iowa House seats to win a majority in the lower chamber (currently split 59 R/41 D). At least eight potentially competitive GOP-held state House districts are located within the first Congressional district.

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Fourteen Iowa House Democrats who seem content to stay in minority forever

Iowa Democrats are in a deep hole, controlling only 20 of the 50 seats in the state Senate and 41 of 100 in the House. On the plus side, strong candidate recruitment and a wave of Republican retirements are giving Democrats plenty of opportunities to pick up House seats. (The 2018 Iowa Senate map is less promising.)

Raising money can be challenging for leaders of a minority party, who don’t call the shots on legislation. Furthermore, Iowa Republicans have a natural advantage, since the policies they promote are often tailored to suit wealthy individuals or corporate interest groups. While money doesn’t always determine campaign outcomes, quite a few Democratic lawmakers and challengers lost in 2016 after being massively outspent on television commercials and direct mail (see here, here, and here for examples).

Yet the latest set of campaign financial disclosures reveal little sense of urgency among Democratic incumbents who could do much more to help others win competitive districts this November.

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A close look at Republican message-testing in key Iowa House races

Republicans are testing potentially damaging messages about Iowa House Democratic candidates, along with statements that might increase support for GOP candidates in battleground legislative districts. After listening to several recordings of these telephone polls and hearing accounts from other respondents, I have three big takeaways:

• Republicans are seeking ways to insulate themselves from voter anger over inadequate education funding and the Branstad administration’s botched Medicaid privatization;
• The time-honored GOP strategy of distorting obscure legislative votes is alive and well;
• The Iowa Democratic Party’s platform plank on legalizing all drugs may be used against candidates across the state.

Read on for much more about these surveys.

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Democrat Jessica Kean to face GOP's Andy McKean in Iowa House district 58

Democrats have a new candidate in Iowa House district 58, which will likely be targeted by both parties. Jessica Kean, who works for a non-profit organization in Maquoketa, will seek the nomination at a special convention next month. Previous Democratic candidate Peter Hird had been running for the seat since last October and was unopposed in the primary, but yesterday he announced plans to end his campaign for unspecified “personal reasons,” following “much deliberation.” The party’s new recruit Kean will be favored at the special convention, even if other Democrats enter the fray.

Among the most Democratic-leaning Iowa legislative seats currently held by a Republican, House district 58 is a must-win for Democrats to have any hope of regaining control of the lower chamber, where the party now holds 43 of the 100 seats. It became one of the top pickup opportunities when GOP State Representative Brian Moore decided not to seek re-election, joining more than half a dozen of his colleagues this cycle.

I assumed Moore would be a one-term wonder after his shocking, narrow victory in 2010. But his constituents re-elected him even as Barack Obama received 55.6 percent of the vote in House district 58 in 2012. Only residents of House district 91 in the Muscatine area gave a higher share of their votes to the president while electing a Republican to the Iowa House. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, House district 58 contains 7,038 active registered Democrats, 5,236 Republicans, and 8,567 no-party voters.

The GOP candidate in House district 58 is former state lawmaker Andy McKean. He easily won a three-way primary with more than 62 percent of the vote. He served fourteen years in the Iowa House and ten in the Senate before retiring in 2002 to run successfully for Jones County supervisor.

Given McKean’s political experience and long career as an attorney in the Anamosa area, I am surprised he hasn’t raised more money for his House campaign. He reported $8,351.00 in contributions by mid-May, mostly from individuals, but spent almost all of that cash before the June primary. He raised another $5,115.00 in the next reporting period, of which $3,000 came from a PAC representing general contractors. As of July 14, McKean had just $4,594.23 cash on hand. House Republican leaders will probably need to spend part of Speaker Linda Upmeyer’s huge war chest defending this seat.

I enclose below background on both candidates and a map of the district, which covers all of Jackson County, much of Jones County, and two rural Dubuque County townships. Donald Trump carried Jackson County and most of the Jones County precincts in the February 1 precinct caucuses, while Marco Rubio carried the Dubuque County precincts. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton carried Jackson County; the Jones County precincts were a mixed bag, and the Dubuque precincts were a tie.

More voters in House district 58 live in Jackson County (Kean’s base) than in Jones County, where McKean has lived for decades. On the other hand, Kean is a first-time candidate, whereas McKean has been elected to the state legislature ten times.

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Republican Brian Moore retiring, opening up Iowa House district 58

One of the best pickup opportunities for Democrats in the Iowa House got better on Thursday, as three-term Republican State Representative Brian Moore told KMAQ Radio in Maquoketa that he will not run for re-election in House district 58. After an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in an Iowa Senate district, Moore switched parties, filed in a House seat where there was no Republican challenger, and pulled off one of the most shocking Iowa state legislative upsets in 2010. He won a re-match against Tom Schueller in the next election cycle and defeated challenger Kim Huckstadt by a comfortable margin in 2014.

House district 58 is among the most Democratic-leaning legislative seats currently held by a Republican. In 2012, Barack Obama received 55.6 percent of the vote here; only residents of House district 91 in the Muscatine area gave a higher percentage of their votes to the president while electing a Republican to the Iowa House. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, House district 58 contains 6,968 active registered Democrats, 4,726 Republicans, and 9,151 no-party voters.

Moore has not always fallen in line with House Republican leaders. In late December, he told William Garbe of the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald that he may break with his caucus during this year’s session to support a larger funding increase for K-12 schools. Fellow GOP State Representatives Quentin Stanerson and Ron Jorgensen are also retiring this year and are known to have been dissatisfied with the final compromise on education funding last year. Moore’s announcement will increase speculation that State Representative Josh Byrnes may not seek a fourth term in House district 51. He challenged Linda Upmeyer for the speaker’s chair last summer. After losing that contest, Byrnes criticized excessive partisanship and the failure to meet deadlines for approving school funding. In 2013, Byrnes and Moore were the only two House Republicans to vote with Democrats to expand Medicaid as foreseen under the Affordable Care Act.

Democrat Peter Hird launched his campaign in House district 58 in October. I enclose below some background on Hird and a map of the district, which covers all of Jackson County, a large area in Jones County and two rural Dubuque County townships. Pat Rynard profiled Hird at Iowa Starting Line last month. I would not be surprised to see another Democrat file to run for this seat, since the winner of the primary will have a good chance of being elected in November.

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20 Iowa House races to watch tonight

Thanks to Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process, we have an unusually large number of competitive state legislative districts. In any given general election, depending on candidate recruitment, between one dozen and two dozen of the 100 Iowa House districts could be up for grabs. Democrats and Republicans spend big money on a much smaller number of districts; this year, only seven Iowa House races involved a large amount of television advertising. But the parties and candidates invest in direct mail and/or radio commercials in many more places than that.

Republicans go into election day favored to hold their Iowa House majority, which now stands at 53 seats to 47. Carolyn Fiddler has pegged seven “districts to watch” at her Statehouse Action blog, and in September, the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble discussed five districts he viewed as “key to Iowa House chamber control.” I see the playing field as much larger.

Follow me after the jump to review 20 Iowa House seats that will determine control of the chamber for the next two years.

Caveat: most years, there’s at least one shocking result in an Iowa House district neither party had their eye on. I’m thinking about Tami Weincek defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent in Waterloo in 2006, Kent Sorenson defeating a Democratic incumbent in Warren County in 2008, three Democratic state representatives who had run unopposed in 2008 losing in 2010, and Democrat Daniel Lundby taking out the seemingly safe Republican Nick Wagner in the Linn County suburbs in 2012. Wagner had run unopposed in the previous election.

So, while I don’t expect any of the “favored” seats discussed below to change hands, I would not rule out a surprise or two. That would be excellent news for the stealth challenger’s party.

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