First thoughts on another disastrous election for Iowa Democrats

Bleeding Heartland will analyze the Iowa election results from many perspectives in the coming weeks. For now, let’s review the big picture: just like in 2016, the outcome was more devastating than any Democrat’s worst nightmare.

Turnout set a new record: Iowans cast at least 1,697,102 ballots, roughly 107,000 more than the high water mark of 1,589,951 people voting in the 2012 presidential election.

But as we learned in November 2018, high turnout doesn’t only help Democrats.

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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 House district 16 preview: Mary Ann Hanusa vs. Jen Pellant

UPDATE: Hanusa announced in March 2020 that she will not seek re-election. Original post follows.

Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take control of the Iowa House after the 2020 elections. One seat that wasn’t on the party’s 2018 target list (but should have been) was House district 16, covering part of Council Bluffs. State Representative Mary Ann Hanusa had a close shave there, defeating Democrat Steve Gorman by only 114 votes, a roughly 1 percent margin.

Gorman is running for the Iowa Senate this cycle, but as of October 1, Democrats have a strong challenger for the House seat: Jen Pellant.

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Democrats have candidates in all top Iowa Senate targets

Fifteen months before the 2020 election, Democrats have at least one declared candidate in each of the four most vulnerable Republican-held Iowa Senate districts. That’s good news for a party that needs to start making up ground in the upper chamber, where Republicans hold 32 of the 50 seats.

Bleeding Heartland will publish a fuller review of the Iowa Senate landscape (comparable to this first look at 2020 state House races) when the field is set in more competitive districts. For now, here’s where things stand in the top Democratic targets:

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First look at the Iowa House landscape for 2020

Republicans used their control over state government to inflict tremendous damage on Iowa during the 2019 legislative session: underfunding education, blocking steps that would improve Medicaid services, dismantling effective sex education programs, further undermining workers’ rights, targeting health care for transgender Iowans, and giving Governor Kim Reynolds the ability to pack our highest courts with conservative ideologues.

The disastrous outcomes underscored the urgent need for Democrats to break the Republican trifecta in 2020. The Iowa House is the only realistic path for doing so, since Reynolds won’t be up for re-election next year, and the 32-18 GOP majority in the Iowa Senate will take several cycles to undo. State Representative Andy McKean’s recent party switch improved Democratic prospects, shrinking the Republican majority in the chamber from 54-46 to 53-47. Nevertheless, a net gain of four House seats will be no easy task for Democrats.

The Daily Kos Elections team calculated the 2018 election results for governor and state auditor in every Iowa House district. Jeff Singer discussed their key findings in a May 2 post: Reynolds carried 60 state House districts, Democratic nominee Fred Hubbell just 39. The “median seat backed Reynolds 51.0-46.3, a margin of 4.7 points. That’s about 2 points to the right of her statewide margin of 2.8 points.” Eight Democrats represent districts Reynolds carried, and one (Dave Williams) represents a district where Reynolds and Hubbell tied, while “only one Republican is in a Hubbell district.”

I’d encourage all Iowa politics watchers to bookmark the DK Elections number-crunching, as well as the team’s spreadsheet on 2016 presidential results by House district.

The Daily Kos team also looked at the 2018 voting for state auditor, seeking clues on which House seats might be within reach for Democrats. I don’t find that angle as useful. Previous State Auditor Mary Mosiman ran a terrible campaign. Not only did Rob Sand outwork Mosiman on the trail, he ran unanswered television commercials for six weeks, allowing him to go into election day with higher name ID than the incumbent, which is almost unheard of. Sad to say, Democrats won’t be outspending incompetent, little-known GOP candidates in the 2020 state legislative races.

Here’s my first take on both parties’ best pickup opportunities. What appear to be competitive state House seats may shift over the coming year, depending on candidate recruitment and incumbent retirements, so Bleeding Heartland will periodically return to this topic.

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