The Key Iowa State Senate Races To Watch In 2016

While most Iowa news stories focus on the presidential and senate race, every Iowa activist knows the real battle for Iowa’s future lies in the Iowa State Senate races. With a 26-23-1 majority in the Iowa Senate, Democrats can’t afford to lose a single seat. Republicans would love to nab two seats (and get David Johnson back on board) in order to take complete control of Iowa’s government (if they also hold the Iowa House).

Below is Starting Line’s big explainer piece on all of the most important races (we’ll do a House one next week). As I’ve written about all year, Donald Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket is shifting some voter loyalties. Essentially, blue collar whites who previously leaned toward Democrats may vote in higher numbers for Republicans, while suburban, highly-educated voters may abandon the Republican Party this year. For each district, I look at how top-of-ticket could impact the race.

Also included are each candidates’ cash-on-hand from the July finance report. Take these with a grain of salt – the state parties will spend heavily on the targeted candidates’ behalf. It’s still obviously a good sign for a candidate to out-raise their opponent, but it won’t play too much into how much TV time or direct mail the candidates can afford.

I’m separating the races into three categories:

THE KEY BATTLEGROUNDS: These are certain to be the closest senate races, ordered by competitiveness. Both parties will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars here and who wins these will likely determine who holds the majority in the Iowa State Senate.

Senate District 46
Senator Chris Brase (D) vs Mark Lofgren (R)
Location: Muscatine, rural Scott County, Davenport (map)

Democrat: 11,755
Republican: 12,135
No Party: 15,031

Result 12: Brase 53.3%, Hamerlinck 46.6%
Obama 12: 55.7%
Braley 14: 43.7%

Brase: $92,581
Lofgren: $36,198

Presidential Impact:

Mixed. Muscatine is one of those working class Mississippi River towns that could buy in to Trump’s anti-trade message. However, there’s several large Hispanic neighborhoods in Muscatine and a couple of African American precincts in the Davenport side of this district, both of which could be turned out against Trump and Republicans.

The Matchup:

This is Republicans’ best chance for a pick-up win and is therefore the most important legislative battleground in the entire state (in a way, it’s more important to the future of Iowa than the state’s senate, congressional and presidential races too).

Lofgren is a former state representative for Muscatine, ran an unsuccessful race for Congress in 2014 and is very well-known and well-liked in the community. His wife works in the Eldridge schools in Scott County, which connects him to the other half of the district. He hasn’t been too careful with his campaign cash and ran a poor congressional campaign, but he’s a strong candidate and will be heavily supported by state Republicans. Lofgren is a big marathon runner and uses “fun runs” to motivate his very large base of volunteers (Chuck Grassley, an avid runner himself, joined his run this summer). Muscatine itself is a company town, favorable to the “good ole’ boy” club that supports Lofgren, despite the town’s working class nature and union membership.

Brase is a similarly strong candidate with a great profile: he’s a full-time firefighter. His direct mail pieces in 2012 made him look like he was a star in an action movie. Firefighter organizations view Brase as one of their most important races statewide and nationally. Brase scored a great win in 2012, though his opponent Hamerlinck personally imploded a few months before the election. The 12-point negative swing from Obama to Braley (the worst of all the districts in this post) shows how tricky this district can be for Democrats.

Fortunately for the Democrats, their entire legislative ticket out here is strong. The party is very bullish on state house candidates Phil Weise in Muscatine County and Ken Krumweide in Scott County. With all of those candidates and campaigns working together, Democrats should have a very strong turnout operation in this legislative battleground.


Senate District 28
Senator Michael Breitbach (R), Jan Heikes (D), Troy Hageman (Libertarian)
Location: Northeast Iowa – Decorah, Waukon, Elkader (map)

Democrat: 10,695
Republican: 13,826
No Party: 13,321

Result 12: Breitbach 50.0%, Beard 49.9%
Obama 12: 53.7%
Braley 14: 43.4%

Breitbach: $11,807
Heikes: $16,615

Presidential Impact:

Minimal. The northeast corner of the state has a long history of split-ticket voting and supporting the hometown candidate. It’s unlikely voters here will attach the down-ballot candidates to their presidential choice.

The Matchup:

Breitbach skirted in to the State Senate with a mere 17-vote victory margin in 2012. He’s Democrats’ top target in 2016 (possibly the only real hope of a pick-up) and this district is the second-most important in the state, necessary for Democrats to offset a potential loss elsewhere. Don’t let the 3,000 Republican registration advantage fool you – this is the swingiest of swing areas in Iowa, and Democrats do well here in presidential elections.

This race could play out like 2012 – Heikes is from one side of the district in Decorah like John Beard was, while Breitbach is from the other side in Clayton County. Breitbach ran 10 points ahead of Romney in Clayton County in 2012; Beard ran 3 points ahead of Obama in Winnishiek. Heikes really needs to turn out Winnishiek big and by a better margin than Beard. The Libertarian candidate doesn’t look too serious – he may take a few votes from his Calmar hometown in Winnishiek and hurt Breitbach among frustrated Republicans in other parts… or he could take some young Bernie voters’ support from Luther College. Who knows.

Democrats are touting Heikes as one of their strongest recruits, a hardworking candidate with good community connections. She’s worked in the mental health and social services fields, giving her unique experience on one of the topics that Iowans are most concerned about at the state level this year.

Breitbach enjoys the helpful coincidence of having the same name of a popular Dubuque-area restaurant owner – another benefit of a candidate with a big family in the region. But his lagging in the money race can’t make many Republicans very confident. He’s notably kept a very low profile during his first term in office.


Senate District 32
Senator Brian Schoenjahn (D) vs Craig Johnson (R)
Location: Waverly, Independence, Oelwein (map)

Democrat: 10,415
Republican: 11,329
No Party: 16,876

Result 12: Schoenjahn 53.2%, Johnson 46.7%
Obama 12: 53.7%
Braley 14: 43.7%

Schoenjahn: $14,529
Johnson: $18,251

Presidential Impact:

Minimal. Like SD 26 and 28, this area of the state both splits its tickets a lot and has been favorable to Obama despite the very white populace.

The Matchup:

Schoenjahn drew a weak opponent in 2012, but has a real fight on his hands in 2016. Johnson ran against Bruce Bearinger in 2014 for the House and came within 250 votes of victory in the Democratic side of the district. That was in a Republican wave year, of course, but if Johnson is able to come close to replicating that percentage on that side of the senate district, he’ll have a real opportunity to defeat Schoenjahn. Johnson has a lot of local connections from his varied work background in manufacturing, insurance and farming.

Schoenjahn himself is one of the hardest-working Democratic incumbents out there, often knocking doors in every community multiple times a year, even in non-election years. The district is at the center of Iowa’s economic and mental health debate. The state closed a children’s psychiatric unit at the mental health facility in Independence this year, and locals worry about more layoffs for the rest of the institution after Branstad’s other forced closures. The district has also suffered from several factories shutting down as well, including two Tyson plants in Independence and Oelwein and a Terex crane plant in Waverly.

Craig Johnson also enjoys a coincidental namesake advantage: a different Craig Johnson was a popular KWWL meteorologist for 23 years. Maybe that’s Republicans’ secret strategy for winning in Northeast Iowa: recruit candidates who voters will mistake for other local popular people. Perhaps they should look for a Norma Borlaug to run against Wilhelm next time.

The cash-on-hand situation is not what it should look like for an incumbent like Schoenjahn, but this district will see more than plenty of outside spending to make up the difference.


Senate District 26
Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm (D) vs Waylon Brown (R)
Location: North Iowa – Charles City, Osage (map)

Democrat: 11,151
Republican: 11,933
No Party: 16,296

Result 12: Wilhelm 50.2%, Bartz 49.8%
Obama 12: 55.6%
Braley 14: 47.0%

Wilhelm: $58,577
Brown: $7,258

Presidential Impact:

Minimal. Trump might do better in lower-income New Hampton, but overall this area of the state has defied national demographic voting trends. Howard and Mitchell counties were among Obama’s top ten whitest counties in the country to vote for him.

The Matchup:

There’s a big drop-off in competitiveness between this race and the three above it. One of the toughest legislative battleground in 2012 (Wilhelm won by 126 votes), Wilhelm has a little bit more breathing room this year, not having to beat yet another incumbent Republican. She’s won two knock-down-drag-out races and is a tough campaigner. Democrats enjoy organizational superiority in Northern Iowa with some particularly strong county parties.

Brown seems like a perfectly nice guy and has a decent profile for the district: a farmer, small business owner and Farm Bureau local leader. He did lose a race for mayor of St. Ansgar, which is a little concerning. And to use a Trump phrase, he seems a little “low energy,” at least in his ads.

Or maybe he’s not. Brown claims to have knocked 20,000 doors in the district since launching his campaign last year. I’m not sure how he’s counting it, but I oversaw this district and those kinds of numbers are practically impossible. There just aren’t enough concentrated neighborhoods in this very rural district to rack up those numbers, unless you’re hitting every door and mostly leaving literature. On his Facebook page, he claims 15,000 doors on July 13 and 20,000 doors on August 19. That comes out to 147 doors/day. That might be theoretically possible in an urban district, but in a district with Charles City, New Hampton, Osage, Northwood and Cresco as your major metropolitan areas, it seems suspect. But hey, I could be wrong. And if so, Brown has a real shot at pulling off a big upset in Northern Iowa by meeting that many voters. But my gut tells me Wilhelm is in a very strong position for reelection. [edit: they insist Brown is past 21,000, so there you go. I’d be interested to figure out if it’s all doors they’re knocking or just targeted. Because knocking every door has its own problems.]


Senate District 34
Senator Liz Mathis (D) vs Rene Gadelha (R)
Location: Marion, Hiawatha, Robins (map)

Democrat: 13,077
Republican: 13,449
No Party: 15,004

Result 12: Mathis 61.3%, Flood 38.6%
Obama 12: 51.8%
Braley 14: 45.7%

Mathis: $138,305
Gadelha: $56,318

Presidential Impact:

Favors Democrats. The highly educated, middle and upper middle class areas of Marion and Hiawatha are exactly the types of places Democrats look to pick up suburban female voters disgusted by Trump. Clinton will likely win this district by a far larger margin than Obama did in 2012. The only problem is that both Mathis and Gadelha can personally appeal to that demographic.

The Matchup:

This is the race everyone is talking about, though Mathis probably won’t end up as close as some of her Democratic colleagues further up the list. Republicans badly want to defeat Mathis, seen as one of Democrats’ few compelling future statewide candidates. Expect them to spend heavily to define her as “Bad News Liz,” a dig on her former career as a long-time TV anchor.

But do they really have a hope of defeating Mathis? She’s extremely well-liked and has near-universal name ID. She won her special election in 2011 by a 12-point margin, then crushed her non-serious opponent in 2012 by 23 points. She’s also led the high-profile Senate effort on Medicaid privatization oversight, a huge concern for Iowans this election.

Gadhela, however, is a scrappy, motivated opponent who Iowa Republicans say has run one of the best local campaigns this year. She’s worked closely with fellow Republican Ashley Hinson, another former TV newscaster, who is running in one of the senate district’s house races. Together, the two aim to blunt Democrats’ advantage with suburban female voters on the topics usually good for progressives – Gadhela is a former teacher and current school board member.


THE DISTRICTS TO WATCH: These races will likely see heavy spending from both sides, but I do not believe the incumbents are at a real risk of defeat just yet. Situations here could easily change over the next two months, but they’re further down on the likelihood of switching party control right now. Also listed in order of competitiveness.


Senate District 8
Senator Mike Gronstal (D) vs Dan Dawson (R)
Location: Council Bluffs (map)

Democrat: 10,378
Republican: 9,908
No Party: 11,532

Result 12: Gronstal 55.3%, Riggenberg 44.6%
Obama 12: 54.4%
Braley 14: 44.0%

Gronstal: $578,699
Dawson: $4,660

Presidential Impact: Favors Republicans. The west end of Council Bluffs is tailored-made for the Trump phenomena: poor white and working-class neighborhoods. Pottawattamie County was one of Trump’s best on caucus night. The Republican candidate Dan Dawson’s law enforcement background might be well-suited to appeal to those new Trump voters.

The Matchup: Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal has been Iowa Republicans’ white whale for a number of cycles. They thought they stood a chance in 2012 with former Air Force Colonel Al Riggenberg, but he turned out to be a poor candidate and lost by more than 10 points. Republicans upgraded in candidate quality when they chose Chief Warrant Officer Dan Dawson in the primary over second-try Riggenberg.

Dawson, 37, is casting himself as a fresh face to Gronstal, who Republicans are framing as “34, No More,” referring to the many years Gronstal has served in elected office. Dawson’s a veteran in the Army Reserves and has seen tours of duty in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He works in law enforcement like his father, and is a DCI agent in the Major Crimes Unit. That’s a great profile, but he still has an uphill battle.

The biggest problem here is 1) Gronstal works his district incredibly hard, knocking well over 10,000 doors each cycle he’s up and 2) the Omaha media market is prohibitively expensive for challengers. Would the Iowa Republican Party put hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV to knock off Gronstal when they stand a better shot at winning the Eastern Iowa districts? The problem with Gronstal is he’s the Majority Leader – knock off his caucus members and he’s not as big an issue for Republicans.

The wild card here remains with Trump’s impact on the ballot. Dawson could still achieve a stunning upset if he’s able to tap into the voter anger of Council Bluff’s poor and blue collar voters and swing a lot of former Democrats his way.


Senate District 30
Senator Jeff Danielson (D) vs Bonnie Sadler (R)
Location: Cedar Falls, Waterloo (map)

Democrat: 12,396
Republican: 12,636
No Party: 14,372

Result 12: Danielson 51.0%, Reisetter 48.9%
Obama 12: 53.1%
Braley 14: 47.4%

Danielson: $157,502
Sadler: $9,088

Presidential Impact:

Favors Democrats. The upper income areas of Cedar Falls lie in Danielson’s district and could be a lighter shade of red this year with Trump on the ballot. UNI’s large student population will once again prove key here. As each generation of young voters grows more and more progressive, the UNI-area precincts will get that much bluer – they just have to turn out.

The Matchup:

After a razor-thin win in 2008, Danielson cracked the code of this swing district by focusing heavily on the student vote at UNI. His success this year could be helped by the uptick in political activism on campus in recent years – NextGen Iowa has a particularly strong group there that could tangentially help local Democrats. Danielson is taking the race very seriously and has a lot of funds to be creative with.

Sadler’s poor fundraising is problematic given Danielson’s big cash-on-hand lead, and also because Cedar Falls should be a good area for Republicans to fundraise in. But she seems like a candidate with a good biography, a vice president of a medical company and served on the Black Hawk County Board of Health.


Senate District 36
Senator Steve Sodders (D) vs Jeff Edler (R)
Location: Marshalltown, Tama (map)

Democrat: 10,832
Republican: 11,590
No Party: 13,938

Result 12: Sodders 54.0%, Jech 45.9%
Obama 12: 53.5%
Braley 14: 43.5%

Sodders: $42,950
Edler: $20,175

Presidential Impact:

Mixed. Trump might run better in economically-depressed areas of Tama County. But Democrats can boost turnout of Hispanic voters in Marshalltown and Meskwaki voters at the settlement in Tama. The Clinton/Trump dynamic might be a wash here.

The Matchup:

Sheriff’s Deputy Sodders is a great fit for this conservative-leaning area of Central Iowa. He won’t have as easy of a time as he did against perennial oddball Jane Jech in 2012, but his opponent, farmer Jeff Edler, doesn’t seem like a giant-killer at the moment. Democrats are sounding increasingly confident about this race.

Edler’s a hog farmer on his family’s farming operation, recruited by Branstad and Dix for the seat. He has some networks in the community with his role as president of a local energy cooperative. He seems like a very conservative candidate, having set up his own private home school operation with his family. He’s also likely to get a lot of support from the NRA and other gun rights organizations.

This is another race where I just plain don’t believe the door numbers they’re touting. One day Edler claimed to knock 406 doors in 7 hours. That’s 58 doors/hour… uh huh.


Senate District 48
Senator Dan Zumbach (R), Scott Peterson (D), Brian Cook (Libertarian)
Location: Mt. Vernon, rural Linn County, Delaware County, parts of Jones County (map)

Democrat: 10,701
Republican: 12,870
No Party: 15,537

Result 12: Zumbach 50.8%, Willems 49.1%
Obama 12: 51.9%
Braley 14: 42.5%

Zumbach: $42,568
Peterson: $10,189

Presidential Impact:

Minimal. Maybe the exurbs of Cedar Rapids will be more favorable to Democrats, but its unclear. Well-educated Mt. Vernon could turn even more Democratic, but the town already goes around 70% for the party.

The Matchup:

Democrats’ second-best chance of a pick-up. They’ll likely decide in a couple weeks whether they should go all-in on this district over SD 28, or they may feel comfortable about other districts that they can invest significant TV time in both.

Incumbent Senator Dan Zumbach is well-entrenched in his Delaware County home where practically everyone knows the Zumbach name. But do voters like that name so much they’re willing to vote for two of them? Voters in HD 95, the Linn County part of the senate district, can vote for the Double Zumbach – Louie Zumbach will be right underneath his cousin Dan on the ballot as the Republican house candidate. It’s unclear if that’ll have a big effect or not.

Peterson is the former mayor of Mt. Vernon and the full-time city attorney for Johnson County’s North Liberty. In a perfect case of local Iowa politics, Peterson was defeated in his reelection race for mayor of Mt. Vernon because voters were angry about the new roundabout on Highway 30. A few years later, locals got used to the roundabout, decided it was a good idea, and many wrote in to the local newspaper to express their regret for voting against Peterson.

He’ll likely bring in 70% to 80% of the Mt. Vernon/Lisbon vote, but will need to work particularly hard on the doors in the rest of the district to cut into Zumbach’s support. It can be done – Nate Willems came very close in 2012 and outperformed his average in the rural precincts he did drive-and-drop door-knocking.


Senate District 42
Senator Rich Taylor (D) vs Danny Graber (R)
Location: Keokuk, Fort Madison, Mt. Pleasant (map)

Democrat: 12,648
Republican: 10,593
No Party: 13,187

Result 12: Taylor 50.6%, Kruse 44.6%
Obama 12: 52.5%
Braley 14: 42.8%

Taylor: $12,189
Graber: $1,212

Presidential Impact: Favors Republicans. Keokuk might be the perfect place for Republicans to make inroads into an angry, frustrated, poor white populace.

The Matchup: 

After a relatively competitive race in 2012, Taylor is probably in the clear for 2016. Graber has raised little money and Republicans have many other more tempting targets to focus on. Graber also hails from Mt. Pleasant, same as Taylor, so it’ll be harder for him to take away hometown votes from the Democrats had they recruited a Lee County challenger. Graber does not appear to be a current target for Republicans. Still, who knows how big an impact Trump will have blue collar voters in Taylor’s district.


LANDSLIDE WATCH DISTRICTS: If Clinton or Trump take a dive in the final weeks and one party sees a wave election, these races could surprise with some serious upsets.


Senate District 4
Senator Dennis Guth (R) vs Susan Bangert (D)
Location: Northern Iowa – Algona, Forest City, Estherville (map)

Democrat: 9,778
Republican: 14,824
No Party: 14,898

Result 12: Guth 52.8%, Jennings 47.1%
Obama 12: 45.0%
Braley 14: 35.8%

Guth: $14,828
Bangert: $5,322

Presidential Impact: Favors Republicans.

The Matchup:

An increasingly good district for Republicans, but Guth is a Tea Partier known locally as “Goofy Guth,” and for good reason. He underperformed Romney by 12 points in Kossuth County, the district’s population center. Had Democrats recruited someone far earlier in the cycle, this one might be in closer reach. But Democrats have won in this part of the state before – former Senator Jack Kibbie represented part of it and Democrats Dolores Mertz and John Wittneben represented parts of it in the House. If Trump really implodes down the stretch, watch for Bangert to possibly put this rural district into contention. Bangert herself is a speech/language pathologist and has worked with the mental health and Medicaid issues personal. She has strong support in her hometown of Forest City where her husband was a long-time police chief and lived in Algona for a time as well.


Senate District 44

Senator Tom Courtney (D) vs Thomas Greene (R)
Location: Burlington (map)

Democrat: 13,958
Republican: 10,644
No Party: 13,069

Result 12: Courtney 56.9%, Bourn 42.9%
Obama 12: 56.9%
Braley 14: 46.5%

Courtney: $28,683
Greene: $17,890

Presidential Impact:

Favors Republicans. Democrats should keep a very close eye on their voters in Southeast Iowa, where working class whites and union members might flip to Republicans this year.

The Matchup:

Courtney is probably fine, but this part of the state could be problematic for Democrats in 2016. His opponent, Tom Greene, is a local pharmacist and past school board president and seems like a serious contender. Greene’s raised a very respectable amount of money for someone unlikely to be targeted by the state party.


Make it all the way to the end? Congrats! You are either very committed to Iowa politics or didn’t have much to do today.

by Pat Rynard
Posted 9/6/16

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