Sizing Up the 3rd District Race: Which Democrats Will Run?

While the race for the Iowa’s Democratic-leaning 1st Congressional District has captured headlines and excitement recently, the race for the 3rd District has been a quieter affair. That won’t last for long, as multiple Democrats are considering a challenge to freshman incumbent Republican David Young. The 3rd district contains 164,642 registered Republicans compared to 153,230 Democrats, along with another 162,163 No Party voters. Democrats path to victory will be a hard-fought one, and several names have emerged. How will they stack up in a Democratic primary?

The Front Runner

Matt Mccoy
Matt McCoy (legislative photo)

State Senator Matt McCoy has long eyed a run for higher office, specifically the Des Moines-based congressional district, and this may be his chance. Not up for re-election in 2016, he’d have a free pass to run and not lose his Senate seat. Well-known around the state from being the Legislature’s only openly-gay member for a time, he finds himself best positioned for fundraising and primary voter support.

McCoy raised some serious money before in his high-profile State Senate campaigns where opponents attacked his sexual orientation, and he maintains connections with national donors that would likely love to see him run for Congress. He also keeps close ties with Iowa’s business community from his work on the Senate Commerce Committee. He enjoys bases of support in the South Side, South of Grand crowd and gay voters, all of which turn out heavily in Democratic primaries. McCoy should perform very well in Polk County, where a whopping 66% of registered Democrats live in the 3rd.

The bigger question for McCoy and Democrats is how well he’d fare in the general election. Is a Des Moines-centered candidate the best person to appeal to the rest of the district’s voters in Dallas County, Council Bluffs and southwest Iowa? Will some Democrats hold his backing of Payday loan companies against him? Regardless, Matt McCoy would certainly start out as the front-runner, though perhaps not an insurmountable one.


The Rematch

Staci Appel
Staci Appel (campaign photo)

Young’s opponent in 2014 hopes for a rematch on more favorable electoral terms in 2016. Staci Appel confirmed to Starting Line that she is still “strongly considering running, we’re just working through numbers and still finishing out the 2014 paperwork.”

“I think we ran a great campaign, it just was a bad year nationally for Democrats and there was a lot of things out of our control,” she says of her last race. “I like my chances much better with a Democratic presidential at the top of the ticket.”

Democrats certainly will see better turnout in 2016, and Appel could particularly be helped by Hillary Clinton leading the ticket. A Clinton campaign would surely target turnout of younger female voters, which would give Appel a major boost in her race.

However, the main concern donors and activists will be asking about is whether that’s enough. Appel lost by just over ten percentage points in 2014. 2016 will be better, but will it be that much better for Appel to win? Her success in the primary will hinge on that question, both to donors and national organizations. EMILY’s List backed her significantly in 2014 – they’ve already announced they’ll be behind Monica Vernon in the 1st. Will they have enough resources – or the willingness – to go big in two Iowa races?


The Underdog

Desmund Adams
Desmund Adams (via

Some believe that the best profile for a candidate to win the 3rd would be a well-known Dallas County Democrat with a business background, which could offset Republicans’ advantage in the Des Moines’ suburbs. Desmund Adams could fit that profile as a Clive businessman who runs an executive recruiting firm. He’s the first out of the gate with an exploratory committee, telling Starting Line he’s been traveling the district for over a month, including to Pottawattamie County several times.

Adams pitches himself as a person who was a high school dropout that earned a GED, later going on to graduate from Drake University and law school, and became a businessman and entrepreneur. Adams stressed that he’s still in the very early states of developing a message and said, “It really, truly is all about the people. We need leadership that’s going to listen … and collaborate and work toward a progressive future.” He believes he may present a unique candidacy that voters are interested in, saying he’s “A fresh perspective and a fresh voice that can understand both sides of issues – both employee and employer, management and owner.”

Adams ran for State Senate in 2012, at first against incumbent Pat Ward, but she died several weeks before the general election. That set up a special election against Charles Schneider, with Schneider winning the Republican-leaning West Des Moines/Waukee/Clive/Windsor Heights seat.

The real question for Adams is whether he can raise the money to mount a competitive challenge to the more established names. He raised over $40,000 for his state senate bid, which wasn’t bad for a non-targeted race. But he’ll need a lot more funds to finance an all-out Congressional campaign in order to compete with the likes of McCoy and Appel.


The Dark Horse

Nathan Blake
Nathan Blake (via Twitter)

There’s another name starting to get passed around by central Iowa Democrats unsatisfied with the current potential field: Nathan Blake. An Iowa Assistant Attorney General and recently-appointed Des Moines School Board member is seen as a rising star in Polk County. He impressed local Democrats with his strong run for Senate District 17 in 2014. He hasn’t publicly expressed interest in the 3rd, but a number of Democratic insiders may press him to consider this race or another high-profile contest.

His young family, Hispanic heritage, and work in the consumer protection division of the AG’s office present an attractive potential candidacy. He has no old baggage that could trip him up. He too is from Des Moines, but in a general election he’d stand to do well among young independent-leaning families in Republican places like Ankeny and Waukee.

Like Adams, he also raised a little over $40,000 for his race, though that was just for a primary. Blake has some national connections through old campaign friends and could probably pull in serious cash from attorneys around the state. Attorney General Tom Miller helped him extensively in his last run. He likely couldn’t match McCoy or Appel, but he could certainly raise enough to put together a legitimate campaign.


The Wild Card

Chet Culver
Chet Culver (official photo)

The Register reported in January that former Governor Chet Culver may consider running for Congress – but in the 1st District. Culver, who currently lives in West Des Moines, pointed out how his past family ties to Cedar Rapids and McGregor in northeast Iowa give him connections to the eastern Iowa district. Running in the 1st, however, presents obvious challenges. Even with those ties, a move to Cedar Rapids or elsewhere solely to run for office could look awkward. His family might nix the idea. Monica Vernon is already running a strong campaign in the 1st, while the 3rd remains relatively open right now. And labor still hasn’t forgotten Culver’s veto of a collective bargaining bill passed by legislative Democrats in 2008. The unions are important in Polk County, but even moreso in the 1st District.

So why not run for the 3rd? Culver clearly desires a return to public office, with D.C. seeming like a more natural fit for him. The registration numbers in the 3rd aren’t as good as the 1st, but it’s still certainly doable. He could raise the funds. Culver won the 2006 gubernatorial primary in part thanks to his former U.S. Senator father’s large rolodex of donor contacts in the D.C. and Virginia area. He could likely tap into that network again to finance a Congressional run.

Still, it’s not like there’s a wellspring of support calling for another Culver run. Many Democrats don’t remember his term as Governor with much fondness. It’s possible for Culver to sooth over some of those old hard feelings, but there hasn’t been much movement on that front yet. And who would run his campaign? Culver is a very determined individual, so no one should doubt his chances. It’s difficult to predict how he would fare, but entry into the race would upend all expectations.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 3/30/15

1 Comment on "Sizing Up the 3rd District Race: Which Democrats Will Run?"

  • I’d like to see the Dems implement a real grassroots effort that tries to reach and challenge the younger voters. They feel abandoned and fail to realize the importance of their vote. This should be a great challenge for the dems. You reach them, you win. In order to reach them, you need to go where they go, online. Find the local pages that are usually generated in small communities, Dubuque has a few…Scandubuque, dubuque can we talk. There is a lot of misinformation from the crackpot right. This in my opinion is where you’re losing the battle. Thanks for letting me rant.

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