Iowa Democrats Fill 94% Of State Legislative Races

If Democrats needed one more sign of just how energized their voters are for the 2018 election, they got it on Friday evening at the end of candidate filings for Iowa state offices. Democratic candidates have stepped up to compete in 94% of all state legislative races, a major coup for the party who sees a potential blue wave year coming in November. They also have candidates in every statewide race, while Republicans left Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller and State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald without opponents. See the entire list here.

It also improves significantly on past years’ performances, where many Republican incumbents got left uncontested – mostly in deep red seats, but also in some borderline competitive ones. Compare this year’s numbers to the previous three cycles (caveat: past years’ stats include the number of candidates on election day – some were nominated later in that cycle through special nominating conventions):


Senate Ds: 23/25
House Ds: 95/100
94% overall


Senate Ds: 20/25
House Ds: 89/100
87% overall


Senate Ds: 19/25
House Ds: 77/100
77% overall


Senate Ds: 22/26
House Ds: 81/100
82% overall

November is still a lifetime of political news cycles away, and the massive wave election year for Democrats may or may not happen. But if current trends from special elections and the Virginia races hold, the party out of power could be poised to pick up a significant number of seats in the Iowa Legislature. That only happens, of course, if you have candidates in all those competitive and marginal seats.

It should also provide a boon to Democrats’ top-of-ticket candidates. More local candidates mean more Democrats knocking doors and turning out voters in every area of the state, including Republican-leaning places the statewide campaigns may not have the resources to fully cover. Extra volunteer bases come into play – a state house candidate’s nephew may not be interested in volunteering for a gubernatorial nominee, but he’ll go knock doors for his uncle.

And it boosts Democratic turnout overall – perhaps a marginal voter isn’t excited by the party’s congressional candidate, but the local state senate candidate was her former teacher, so she’ll turn out for him and then also fill in the ballot for the other Democrats since she’s there anyway.

Senate Democrats only missed out on two seats, but one of those it’s politically smarter to not have a candidate for. Independent Senator David Johnson of extremely-conservative Northwest Iowa’s SD 1 often votes with Democrats in the Senate since leaving his party last year over Donald Trump. A Democrat will never have a chance of winning that district, but Johnson’s reelection would continue to deprive Republicans of a vote on key issues – not having a candidate there means most Democratic voters will go for Johnson.

The other seat missing a Democrat is Jason Schultz’s SD 9, a deep-red district in Western Iowa. They did, however, find someone for SD 5, the Fort Dodge-based Western Iowa seat that swung hard for Republicans lately.

Four of Democrats’ five missing House seats are in Western Iowa, though they did fill a significant amount of heavily-Republican districts west of I-35. It would’ve been nice to have a challenger to Speaker Linda Upmeyer, but House Democrats will be plenty happy with 95% district coverage.

And as another sign of overflowing enthusiasm, Democrats have so many primaries for House seats that there are actually 113 Democratic candidates overall for Iowa House districts. There are four- and three-way Democratic primaries even in some deep-red districts. House Democratic staffers’ phones may be ringing off the hook with all the candidates contacting them for advice and organizational help.

It should also be noted that parties can still nominate a candidate for empty districts via special nominating convention over the next few months. Obviously, starting that late in the cycle is a big hinderance, but it’s better than nothing.

On the Republican side, things do not look as good. They filled only 20 of 25 senate districts and 75 of 100 house districts. Overall, that’s 76% coverage compared to Democrats’ 94%.

Republicans have left over half of incumbent House Democrats without an opponent, giving those representatives free time to raise money and/or go knock doors in swing districts. And Republicans also have 13 open seats due to retirements, with 20% of their members deciding to call it a day this year (12 are retiring – there’s 13 technically open seats since Representative Chris Hagenow is moving west to an open seat in Dallas County).

The failure to challenge Attorney General Miller is a bit of a surprise. Even though the longtime incumbent will likely never be beat, up-and-coming Republicans have used losing races to Miller as a stepping stone to bigger things. Current acting Lt. Governor Adam Gregg challenged Miller in 2014 and Governor Terry Branstad’s former chief legal counsel Brenna Findley ran against him in 2010.

Starting Line will have a lot more coverage of filings and interesting candidate observations in the days to come. Now that the filing period is over, we’ll also start delving into some the key state legislative primaries.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 3/17/18

3 Comments on "Iowa Democrats Fill 94% Of State Legislative Races"

  • Wow. My math is probably off, but – So, overall, 24% of Iowa’s state races are uncontested, then? That seems huge! And of that, only 4% are uncontested by Dems as opposed to 20% uncontested by Repubs? Perhaps they can read the writing on the wall So, this could be a wave year for Dems, but I ask, from my naivete, why can’t Dems do this ALL the time? And, ideally, why can’t we contest 100% of those races?

    • So why not all the time? A couple reasons. Just like for Republicans this year, if it looks like it’s going to be a good year for the other party, serious candidates who could raise real money will often pass on running in competitive districts. Because why spend all your time for a year asking your friends and family for lots of money and to volunteer, and to spend all your personal time and put your name out there where you’re going to get attacked… just to get beat when the other party sweeps the election? It’s a tough ask to make.

      Western Iowa districts also present a tough recruiting problem for Dems. In many of those places there’s just a limit to really engaged Democrats or Democratic-leaning community leaders. Those areas are also so culturally Republican that perhaps some business owners may be afraid to run if they’re worried local Republicans will be upset with them and they’ll lose business. And since Western Iowa house races are up every two years, you cycle through most of the engaged Dems out there who are willing to stick their necks out for a losing race pretty quickly.

      Long story short, Dems could always do a better of recruitment (and they did a spectacular job this year), but the political realities of the campaign cycle sometimes limits the pool of people in each district that might even be open to an ask to run.

      • Thanks, Pat. Decent explanation. The old saw still applies, though (whether it is a smart one or not, I’ll leave it to the reader), you can’t win if you don’t play.
        I agree; this has been a banner year, and there are a couple races near me that make me glad (sort of) that I don’t live in those districts. Several good-to-great candidates for the same seat.

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