Sixteen Iowa Senate races to watch, with ratings

Iowans will elect 25 state senators today. Those races have attracted far less attention than this year’s Iowa House races, because Republicans have a lopsided 32-18 majority in the upper chamber and only a 53-47 advantage in the House.

Nevertheless, it’s important to keep an eye on the Senate races, because this year’s outcome will influence Democratic prospects under the new map coming in 2021.

This overview covers five districts where both parties are spending six-figure amounts, seven districts where Republicans spent a significant amount, and four more districts where the results could shed light on political trends in various parts of the state, even though neither Democrats nor Republicans targeted the race.

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Bleeding Heartland's coverage of Iowa legislative races in 2019

I’ve always enjoyed writing about legislative happenings and campaigns, since my first year on the job as an analyst covering Russian domestic politics during a parliamentary election year.

While most political reporters were understandably assigned to follow the many presidential candidates visiting Iowa in 2019, I made it a priority to keep an eye on down-ballot races. The 2020 Iowa House and Senate elections may affect our daily lives more than whether Donald Trump or the Democratic nominee wins our state’s electoral votes. For one thing, breaking the GOP trifecta is the only way to guarantee that Iowa preserves nonpartisan redistricting for the coming decade.

I’m proud that Bleeding Heartland provided more in-depth coverage of potentially competitive state legislative races than any other Iowa news source this year. All of those stories are linked below.

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Iowa Senate district 36 preview: Jeff Edler vs. Dave Degner

Some sobering facts about the bloodbath that was the 2016 election in Iowa:

Donald Trump carried eighteen state Senate districts that had voted for President Barack Obama in 2012.*

Eleven of those eighteen were even-numbered districts, which are on the Iowa ballot in presidential election years.

The four Republicans who already represented Obama/Trump districts all easily won another term in the Iowa Senate.**

But six of the seven Democratic senators up for re-election in Obama/Trump districts lost: Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (Senate district 8), Mary Jo Wilhelm (Senate district 26), Brian Schoenjahn (Senate district 32), Steve Sodders (Senate district 36), Tom Courtney (Senate district 44), and Chris Brase (Senate district 46).

With Republicans now enjoying a 32-18 majority in the upper chamber, Democrats need to win back at least a few Obama/Trump seats next year to have a realistic chance of regaining Iowa Senate control after the next round of redistricting.

Democrats have been actively campaigning in Senate districts 8 and 44 for some time. Now GOP State Senator Jeff Edler has a strong challenger in Senate district 36.

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Republicans outspending Democrats in most Iowa Senate battlegrounds

Iowa House and Senate candidates were required to file their last pre-election campaign finance reports on Friday. In stark contrast to four years ago, Republicans are outspending Democrats in most of the contested state Senate districts. (I’ll address spending in the key Iowa House races in a different post.)

Currently, there are 25 Senate Democrats, 23 Republicans, and one independent. If former GOP Senator David Johnson makes good on his promise to remain an independent in 2017, and Democrats win the December special election to replace the late Senator Joe Seng, Republicans would need to pick up three seats to gain control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2004.

I enclose below in-kind contribution figures for the Senate districts expected to be in play next Tuesday. Candidates running elsewhere did not report large in-kind contributions from their respective parties.

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The truth about that so-called "trolley for lobbyists"

Iowa Republicans have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this fall on television commercials and direct mail highlighting supposedly wasteful spending by Democratic state lawmakers. For the fourth election cycle in a row, many of these attacks repeat zombie lies from the 2010 campaign about money spent on “heated sidewalks” and a “trolley for lobbyists.”

As Bleeding Heartland explained here, Iowa House and Senate Democrats never approved money for heated sidewalks. They simply rejected a GOP amendment to a 2010 appropriations bill, which would have prohibited using state funds for “geothermal systems for melting snow and ice from streets or sidewalks.” The amendment was pointless, because planners of the award-winning streetscape project in question had already ruled out heated sidewalks in favor of porous pavement.

What about the Republican hit pieces claiming Democrats spent money on a “trolley for lobbyists”?

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