Welcome to the second installment of “Let the States Decide”. Last week I discussed the Minnesota Senate, which is the best opportunity for Democratic to gain a trifecta. This week I’ll be discussing a state where Democrats have a good chance of breaking a Republican trifecta during the 2020 elections, and that’s the Iowa House of Representatives.
The current composition
Republicans have a 32-18 majority in the Iowa State Senate. Given the size of this majority combined with the fact that half of the seats are up this year, the Democratic path to the majority is essentially non-existent. Similarly, the Governorship isn’t up until 2022. Therefore, their only way to take away Republicans’ full control is to take the majority in the State House.
The Republican majority in the Iowa House of Representatives is notably smaller at only 53-47. Democrats need to net just 4 seats to gain the majority, and there’s a clear path for them. One Republican representing a Clinton district is vacating her seat to run for Congress and several more districts were decided by very narrow margins in 2018.
Many may argue that the chamber is a tossup. But as the title of this article suggests, I still have yet to come around to that conclusion. That’s not to say that it’s not a realistic target opportunity for Democrats. They have a very realistic chance. I believe they would be wise to spend generous amounts of money on this chamber.
But is the Iowa House of Representatives a 50/50 chance? Not yet.
Highly competitive seats
There are a total of six main Republican seats which Democrats should hope to flip. The most likely of these is the 67th district. Based in Linn County and containing the northern suburbs of Cedar Rapids, it is a rare case of a Romney-Clinton district in Iowa. Hillary Clinton won it by 1.4 points and incumbent Ashley Hinson is making a bid for higher office, leaving the seat vacant. 2018 Democratic nominee Eric Gjerde is running against Republican Sally Abbott. Gjerde came within 4 points of Hinson in 2018. Now he’s hoping to use the open seat environment, and the fact that he’s massively outraising Abbott, to win. Given the close partisan lean of the district, a Democratic victory is not a guarantee, but it is a must-win for Democrats if they want to take control of the chamber.
The 55th district in northeastern Iowa is another key target for Democrats. Although it’s mostly rural, it contains the small but reliably Democratic city of Decorah. The result is a competitive district that voted for Donald Trump by 7.1 points. In 2018 the race was so highly contested that Republican incumbent Michael Bergan won re-election by just nine votes. Now Kayla Koether, the same challenger, is running for a rematch against Bergan. Koether has shown impressive fundraising numbers and should be cautiously optimistic about her chances.
The 82nd district, like the 55th, is based in rural Iowa and was decided by a small number of votes (in this case thirty-seven) in 2018. However, unlike the 55th, the 82nd was held by a Democratic incumbent, Phil Miller, who was defeated in 2018 by sauerkraut salesman Jeff Shipley. This year, Miller is running for a rematch against Shipley and is hoping to use his experience in the district to win. The district is rural at heart but it does contain the Maharishi International University, which doubles as a world-renowned Transcendental Meditation training center. This makes Fairfield and surrounding areas a dynamic unlike anywhere else in the country, not the least of which because it’s heavily Democratic. Despite this though, the district still gave Donald Trump a 21-point lead. Because of this, Miller will have to rely on fundraising and heavy crossover support.
In the Omaha metro area, the 16th district is a top opportunity for Democrats. Containing half of Council Bluffs, this district has a retiring Republican incumbent, Mary Ann Hanusa. Democrat Jennifer Pellant is running and she’s hoping to take advantage of the close nature of the district and the open seat environment to push her over the top. Republicans are running Brent Siegrist, who represented the area from 1984 to 2002 in the Iowa House of Representatives. Siegrist could be able to use his experience and credentials to hold the seat, but (and you may be noticing a common theme here) relatively weak fundraising may hold him back.
Based in Muscatine in southeastern Iowa, the 91st district is a top pickup opportunity. Although Trump won it by 6.1 points, Barack Obama won it by double-digits. Therefore, Democrats could bring back some Obama-Trump voters in order to win this district again. Additionally, the Republican incumbent, Gary Carlson is retiring, leaving the seat open. Running to take his place are Democrat Kelcey Brackett and Republican Mark Cisneros. This is looking like a tossup race at the moment, but Brackett appears to have fairly strong fundraising totals. This, along with potential working-class support, may push him over the top.
The final Democratic target is the 37th district. This is the only district on this list that’s based in the Des Moines metropolitan area. Although heavily suburban, the district has shown Republican-leaning tendencies. Trump won the district by 8.3 points and it has been getting closer in recent years. After incumbent Republican John Landon faced a close race in 2018, he’s now going up against Andrea Phillips. This is looking like a tough target for Phillips, but given her outstanding fundraising, it’s likely to be a nail-biter.
On top of the six that I mentioned, a few more targets exist. In western Iowa, the 9th and 47th districts, based in Fort Dodge and Boone, respectively, are ones to look at. Both came close in 2018 and have a chance to flip this year. In eastern Iowa, nearby to the heavily Democratic cities of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are the 73rd and 95th districts. And outside the city of Davenport, the 92nd and 94th district look like longshots but also very real targets.
Highly competitive seats
I’ll be talking about two districts in this section, but one is objectively a better flip opportunity, and that’s the 64th. Democratic incumbent Bruce Bearinger, who got through the primary, decided to drop out, leaving the seat open. Democrats replaced him on the ballot with Jodi Grover while Republicans are running Chad Ingels. Ingels is considered a top recruit, but like other Republican candidates, lags behind Grover in fundraising, despite Grover having only a few months to raise money. Overall, I’d give Ingels the edge, but it remains close.
The second target that is worth mentioning is the 58th. Andy McKean was elected as a Republican in 2016 in 2018 but switched parties in 2019 due to opposition to Trump. McKean is now running as a Democrat against Republican Steve Bradley. Democrats hold a registration advantage in the district but it still remains heavily Republican electorally at Trump+20.6. Some Republicans may be angry at McKean for leaving the party, but he will be sure to have some crossover appeal, probably enough to keep the seat. Still, Republicans have their hopes up, and there is a real possibility to flip the seat back.
On top of the two districts mentioned, there are eleven more that were won by Trump in 2016 and held by Democrats. However, many of them are either unopposed or have incumbents who have typically won their races by double-digits and are considered safe. However, there are some incumbents who remain who may be vulnerable. The 38th and 39th districts in the Des Moines suburbs and the 60th in the Waterloo suburbs flipped to Democrats in 2018 by narrow margins. Longer shots include the 14th, the 26th, and several more.
Path to Victory in the Iowa House of Representatives
Last week I singled out one district in the Minnesota Senate which I thought was the tipping point seat. In the case of the Iowa House, it’s much more difficult to say. Democrats need to net four seats to take control of the chamber but only three to tie it and deprive Republicans of the chamber. The latter is arguably a more important goal as Republicans control the Senate and Governor’s office.
Past flipping the 67th, their path to victory can be achieved through any combination of the five other seats listed above. The equation is made more complicated when considering the Republican advantage in the 64th. The five seats are similar in terms of candidate qualilty and fundraising, but differ demographically. Therefore the path to victory will depend largely on the where Democratic strength comes from. They could put more focus on flipping back Obama-Trump voters, or driving up the numbers in the suburbs.
Republicans should, in theory, have a comfortable advantage in Iowa. Many of the Democratic targets are very Republican-leaning and failed to flip in 2018, which was a good year for Democrats nationwide. However, Republicans appear to be sleeping on the job. Aside from poor fundraising, very few candidates have proper campaign websites or social media presence. Democrats are going on the offensive and taking advantage of the apparent Republican weakness.
The Iowa House of Representatives: What’s at Stake
Republicans losing a trifecta in Iowa could have major consequences as they aim to pass their agenda. Under Republican rule the legislature has passed several laws, most famously the heartbeat bill, which was ultimately struck down. If Republicans again try to pass a similar law, it would depend on whether they have control in the Iowa House of Representatives. The elections also come during Republican efforts to open the economy in the midst of a COVID-19 spike in the state. This has proven to be a divisive issue and will be sure to hinge on these elections.
We have little information about many of these races, but it will definitely be worth keeping updated with each race. In the coming weeks, we might have a better idea of which way the chamber may lean.
Until then, I’ll be attempting to give a rundown of each state competitive state legislative chamber. Next week I’ll be covering the Arizona Legislature, both chambers of which are expected to be competitive. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.