The Key Races To Volunteer In During The Last 3 Weeks

Hillary Clinton will get to 270 electoral votes with or without Iowa. It’s time for Iowa Democrats to look out for their own and make sure our state doesn’t become the next all-GOP controlled Wisconsin or Kansas.

Democrats hold the slimmest of margins in the Iowa Senate, and are facing an all-out campaign advertising onslaught from Republicans. Outside money is pouring in for legislative GOP candidates and incumbents – far more than in previous years – and some within the party believe Democrats could get outspent three-to-one in some of the swing districts.

Losing one Democratic-held senate seat without picking up any others would likely lead to a peculiar 25-24-1 situation in the Senate, with David Johnson, the former Republican, remaining an independent. Democrats would remain in control of the majority and set the schedule and debate, but would have a tough time getting anything passed that Johnson isn’t on board with. Losing two seats would give Republicans the majority; losing three would give them that and an ability to override Johnson on the couple of issues he disagrees with them on. As we wrote last night, the consequences would be dire.

Because of the way the legislative map is drawn, Democrats’ hopes look decent for the Iowa House, though they still have to run the tables on a myriad of pick-up opportunities to net eight for the majority. It’s not outside the range of possibilities that Democrats take the House, but lose the Senate, though it would come down to some unique circumstances.

Many of these races will come down to just several dozen or a few hundred votes. In 2012, one senate race was lost by 17 votes. One was won by 126. A combined difference of just 247 votes in three districts denied Democrats a tie in the House in 2012. Had 200 votes in a fourth district gone the other way, Democrats would have won the House outright.

Picking up a handful of extra absentee ballots during a canvass shift could make all the difference. Contacting your friends and relatives living in a swing district could be what puts a Democrat over the top. There’s a lot you can control and influence in these smaller races – take it from someone who’s run a lot of them.

Every cycle – including this one – labor unions, women’s organizations, statehouse staffers and other issue advocacy groups send in groups of volunteers to the key swing districts to knock out a bunch of canvass packets. What’s more rare is your rank-and-file Democratic volunteers making trips out on their own. Most of them are focused on their local races, but it’s very likely many would head out to these districts if they had a better idea of which are the most important.

That doesn’t always get communicated to the base because the party doesn’t want to give up too much information on their targets, but also because they don’t want to upset the candidates who aren’t being targeted. I don’t really give a shit, so I’ll list out the districts I see as key to maintaining or capturing the majority.

One caveat, however, to cut down on the angry emails I get from candidates whose races I don’t list: first and foremost, folks should volunteer for the candidates who inspire them. But for those who want to volunteer strategically in the final weeks, here’s my best suggestion of where to go (there are many other close races as well – these are just the closest ones):

Northeast Iowa

Reelecting Senator Brian Schoenjahn is the top priority in the final weeks. His district covers Independence, Oelwein and Waverly. Schoenjahn, an EMS volunteer, has been one of the Senate’s staunchest supporters for better mental health services. If you’re a former Sanders supporter, the House candidate in the Waverly side of the district, Teresa Meyer, was endorsed by the Our Revolution group.

Two House seats in the Northeast corner of the state are also crucially important, and Democrats’ best senate pick-up opportunity is here as well. Representative Patti Ruff is in the Clayton and Allamakee county district and candidate Pat Ritter is in the Decorah-based one, while Jan Heikes runs against incumbent Senator Mike Breitbach. Absentee requests are really lacking in Patti Ruff’s counties – it’s always been difficult to get enough volunteers for the spread-out rural towns in the hills of Clayton County. Any extra carloads of volunteers there to knock out a small river town would be a big help. Plus it’s beautiful up there this time of year.

Finally, third on the priority list up here is Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm’s district, where you can also help out House candidate Tim Hejhal in the open seat that covers Worth, Mitchell and Howard counties.


You get the biggest bang-for-you-buck here. Senator Chris Brase and House candidates Ken Krumweide and Phil Wiese could all have the closest races in the state on Election Day. Krumweide is on the Scott County side of Brase’s district, while Wiese is on the Muscatine side. Brase was Republicans’ early top target and they recruited a well-liked former legislator to challenge him. Brase is also a firefighter and has some of this year’s best Iowa ads.


The Ken Rizer seat is a key swing district that Democrats could take and hold onto if the suburbs start trending away from Republicans for years to come. Teacher Molly Donahue could use some extra helping hands to pick up all the absentee ballots in the Marion district – they have one of the highest Democratic request rates in the state. This also covers Liz Mathis’ district, though it’s starting to look like she’s going to roll over Rene Gadelha. You could also hop over to some of the rural Linn County towns of Central City and Center Point to help boost educator Dick Whitehead over Louie Zumbach.

Polk County

There’s a lot of local races here that Democratic volunteers have been working hard on for over a year. If I had choose one to go do an extra shift or two in, it’d be Jennifer Konfrst’s. Knocking off the House GOP Majority Leader would be a major coup, but Konfrst needs the extra boots on the ground to counteract the massive spending on personal attack ads that Hagenow is throwing at her. This is also one of the districts where you get the feeling that Trump’s 2005 tape could swing a lot of voters away from the Republican Party.


Regardless of where every volunteer ends up in the last three weeks, they should try to at least spend a couple shifts working for down-ballot legislative candidates. Even those who don’t win can put up enough of a fight to distract Republicans from other areas.

There’s a lot of important races out there this year, but none more important to the future of Iowa than these legislative swing races. There are many Democrats unhappy with the direction of Iowa policies over the past six years. But it pales in comparison to the dystopian hellscape that would have resulted had Senate Democrats not held back the tide of crazy Republican legislation passed through the Iowa House.

Go win some legislative districts. 20 more days.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 10/19/16

9 Comments on "The Key Races To Volunteer In During The Last 3 Weeks"

      • Does the absence of races in western part of the state mean good things? I am especially concerned with Mike Gronstal. I now live in Burlington, but grew up in Council Bluffs. Any sense of how his campaign is going? Thanks

        • Gronstal still has a pretty tough race, especially with the demographics of Council Bluffs being favorable to Donald Trump. I just see the other ones I listed as slightly closer

  • Good work, Pat. Anyone interested in mixing in some voter contact with great fall leaf-looking in NE Iowa can contact me using the information on my website.

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