Which Legislative Candidates Stood Out In Fundraising Reports

By Pat Rynard

January 24, 2018

The gubernatorial fundraising totals drew the big headlines from the January 19 fundraising deadline, but there was plenty of other interesting news in some of the legislative filings. Today, we’ll just look at the people challenging incumbents or running for open seats, most of whom are first-time candidates. Later in the week we’ll delve into the full fundraising reports for everyone.


There were a number of surprises and strong performances among this group of candidates. Here’s who caught Starting Line’s eye.

Zach Wahls: Senate District 37 (open seat)
Total Raised: $54,090

Wahls, who came to national fame in 2011 with a speech in the Iowa House about his two mothers, was expected to start out with a big fundraising splash, and he certainly delivered. No other candidate for office this year has as big of a national following as Wahls, which he used to his full advantage in his initial fundraising push. Wahls announced on December 21, so his total haul was accomplished in just 11 days – easily an all-time record for a first-time Iowa legislative candidate.

He had over 1,000 individual donors (which rivals some of the gubernatorial campaigns), with the average donation at $49. He got some important national help from Crowdpac, which helps left-leaning candidates raise money online. He raised so much, in fact, that only 10 other candidates topped his total – all incumbent legislators, most of whom are in leadership.

Wahls is running for retiring Senator Bob Dvorsky’s seat – it covers Coralville, parts of Iowa City and rural Johnson County, as well as Cedar County and the small town of Wilton. He currently faces two opponents in the primary, and more may jump in the race for this reliably-Democratic seat. Janice Weiner, a former U.S. diplomat and seen as his main competition at this point, raised $5,405 for her first report.

Lindsay James: House District 99 (open seat)
Total Raised: $34,101

In the race to replace Abby Finkenauer in the Iowa House, Lindsay James, a Presbyterian pastor and educator, will enjoy a strong financial advantage in the competitive Democratic primary. She pulled in just over $34,000 throughout 2017 and still has $30,450 on-hand. If she continues raising money at that clip, she’ll have a very well-funded campaign for the primary that will essentially determine the next representative for this deep-blue Dubuque district. $40,000 to $60,000 is typically at the high end of what successful candidates in Democratic legislative primaries raise.

That total was also accomplished even though James had only four checks of $1,000 or more – it’s not easy to put together that much with mostly $50 and $100 donations, but James was able to. Only 18 other legislative candidates (all incumbents save for Wahls) raised more during this period.

A three-way Democratic primary has developed for HD 99, with small business owner Pat Cullen getting in the race just this week. Brad Cavanaugh, a Loras College associate professor of social work, raised $13,089 during 2017. That’s a pretty good total for a first-time house candidate as well, it’s just not as much as James.

Vicki Brenner: Senate District 13
Total Raised: $25,517

Retired teacher and business owner Vicki Brenner’s fundraising total would have been impressive enough on its own in her bid to unseat Republican Senator Julian Garrett. But it’s particularly noteworthy considering Garrett only raised $8,065 himself. You don’t often see Democratic challengers in Republican-leaning districts significantly outpacing the incumbent, especially so early on.

Brenner, who lives in rural Madison County, appears to be the only Democrat running against Garrett and has a lot of local enthusiasm behind her run. Scrolling through her contributions list, it seems like half the town of Winterset kicked in some money in one way or another. She also got a lot of donations from the other side of district, Indianola, where she used to work as a teacher.

Karin Derry: House District 39
Total Raised: $16,070

Attorney and community volunteer Karin Derry put up a solid initial fundraising number in her effort to take on Republican Representative Jake Highfill in this Johnston, Grimes and Urbandale-based seat. Donald Trump won this district by five points in 2016 after Mitt Romney won it by 13 in 2012, and it’s one of those suburban districts that Democrats hope will move their way in a big way this year. Derry, a mother of three, seems well-positioned to appeal to the type of independent women that are tiring of the Republican Party. Highfill, however, can be a decent fundraiser when he needs to be. He brought in $24,000 during 2017.

Jennifer Konfrst: House District 43
Total Raised: $25,933

It’s not always easy for candidates making their second attempt at the same seat to be as successful on the fundraising front as they were the first time, but Jennifer Konfrst has more now than she did at this point in her last run. At this reporting period in 2016, she had brought in $21,644 – now she’s at $25,933. She aims to unseat Representative Chris Hagenow, who has $131,338 in the bank to defend himself. Hillary Clinton won this Clive, West Des Moines and Windsor Heights-based district by 11 points, so if there’s even a hint of a blue wave this year, Konfrst could be in a great position to defeat Hagenow. Still, she’ll need to survive another onslaught of negative ads from the well-financed Republican majority leader.

Eric Gjerde: House District 67
Total Raised: $16,326

Special education teacher and volunteer sheriff special deputy Eric Gjerde put up a good total for his first report. He’s running against Representative Ashley Hinson in another suburban district that could be ripe for a Democratic swing in the 2018 political climate, this one based in Hiawatha, Marion, Robins and the north side of Cedar Rapids. Hinson is pretty popular, though, and raised $41,391 in 2017.


A couple other Democratic candidates had noteworthy numbers. Amber Gustafson, the statewide leader for Moms Demand Action gun safety group, brought in $12,839 for her race against Senator Jack Whitver in the Ankeny-based Senate District 19. Retired teacher Mary Stewart raised $11,179 in her bid to take on Senator Mark Chelgren in the Ottumwa-based Senate District 41. She actually out-raised Chelgren, who had $8,035 in contributions, but will now face a Democratic primary with just-announced Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy.

Two house candidates with roots in the party’s activist left (types of candidates that sometimes struggle to raise large amounts of money), Brenda Brink and Jodi Clemons, brought in over $10,000 each. Brink, running against Representative David Deyoe in House District 49 (rural Story County and parts of Hardin County) raised $10,568, compared to Deyoe’s $2,725. Clemons raised $11,906 for her campaign against Representative Bobby Kaufmann in the Cedar County-based House District 73. Kaufmann raised $43,185.



There aren’t a ton of major Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents this year – both because there aren’t many vulnerable Democrats left and because it’s harder for Republicans to recruit solid candidates in a year that looks favorable to Democrats. But two Republican candidates stood out.

Ann Meyer: House District 9
Total Raised: $27,241 (plus a $5,000 loan)

Representative Helen Miller of Fort Dodge doesn’t often have close reelection contests (her closest recent one was in 2010 when she won by 345 votes), but it looks like she has a serious opponent this time. Nursing instructor Ann Meyer put up a strong fundraising total after announcing in May of last year. For a party that will be looking for anywhere to go on the offensive in 2018, this Republican-trending area might be a potential spot so long as Democrats don’t have a wave year.

Meyer’s totals was helped in a big way through a $10,000 donation by Marlys Smith. Meyers serves on the board of the William G. Smith Central Community College Simulation Center – a medical simulation training center named after Marlys Smith’s late husband.

Chris Cournoyer: Senate District 49
Total Raised: $20,497

Democratic Senator Rita Hart would be a tough incumbent for Republicans to defeat even in a favorable year for them, but small business owner and reserve sheriff deputy Chris Cournoyer looks like she’ll have the funds to compete. Cournoyer, a Le Claire resident, is one of a trio of female Republican senate challengers in key Democratic defend districts. She got $5,000 from her parents and another $3,500 from her husband.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 1/24/18
Photos via candidate’s Facebook pages or websites

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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