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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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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Iowa Senate district 42: Nothing to see here--unless Trump has big coattails

Iowa is blessed with an unusually large number of competitive state legislative districts, thanks to our non-partisan redistricting process. Most election years, at least half a dozen Iowa Senate seats and twice as many House seats are in play. Campaign finance reports showing where candidates and party leaders are spending the most money provide the best clue on which legislative races are worth watching.

That said, most years at least one little-noticed candidate pulls off a big upset in an Iowa House or Senate district neither party was targeting. Now-disgraced Kent Sorenson won his first race in 2008, taking a House seat that had been considered safe for Democrats. Two years later, Kim Pearson got no help from GOP leaders en route to winning a House seat where the Democratic incumbent had been unopposed the previous election. Republican Mark Chelgren won an Ottumwa-based Senate district for the first time by ten votes. That seat had been considered so safe that the Democratic incumbent was knocking doors for a colleague in another district during the final weekend. I learned later that internal GOP polling had Chelgren almost 20 points down a couple of seeks before the election.

I can’t shake the feeling that in this strange campaign with two unpopular presidential nominees, something weird will happen in a down-ballot race no one is watching. So before I get back to Bleeding Heartland’s last few battleground Senate and House race profiles, a few words on why I feel a race in Iowa’s southeast corner could produce a shocking result.

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Democratic and Republican party spending in the Iowa Senate races

Candidates for the Iowa legislature were required to submit campaign finance disclosure reports on October 19 and November 2. The Schedule E forms on “In-Kind Contributions” contained the most interesting numbers, because they showed how Democratic and Republican party leaders are allocating resources across the battleground districts.

After the jump I’ve enclosed in-kind contribution figures for the Senate districts expected to be in play tomorrow. Candidates running in other Senate races did not report large in-kind contributions from their respective parties.

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