Iowa Senate Primaries To Watch In 2018

While most of the attention will be focused on the governor’s race and congressional primaries for the next two months, key match-ups for the Iowa Statehouse will be decided on June 5 as well. While many primaries for the Iowa House and Senate are lower profile affairs than the heavily-targeted swing district battles in the general election, they still decide who gets elected to the legislature.

In many ways, that’s what make these races more interesting. Candidates running in primaries are largely on their own, competing without the party’s professional help except in very specific circumstances. You end up with more dynamic, authentic campaigns. Of course, it can also result in poorly-run efforts by candidates who would otherwise have a strong profile.

We’ll start off today by looking at the Iowa Senate races with primaries. Later this week or next, we’ll delve into the House primaries (there are a lot more of those).

Senate District 37 – Democrats
Current legislator: Bob Dvorsky (retiring)
Location: Coralville, part of Iowa City, Cedar County
Candidates: Eric Dirth, Zach Wahls, Janice Weiner, Imad Youssif

One of two major Democratic districts with competitive primaries this year, this four-way race features a lot of interesting aspects to it.

Zach Wahls is seen as the prohibitive favorite here thanks to high name ID and residual support from his famous speech about his two mothers in 2011. He will also easily outpace the rest of the field (and most incumbents in the state, for that matter) with his fundraising abilities. Wahls brought in $54,090 over just 11 days when he announced in late December. His campaign also stays very active on social media and Wahls has been working hard across the district to win votes. Wahls, 26, would be the youngest member of the Iowa Senate by a wide margin.

Janice Weiner, a former diplomat, shouldn’t be counted out, however. She has a great resume for the kind of Democratic primary voter that shows up in Johnson County, and being the only woman in a four-person field will certainly help in 2018. Weiner has also been an active campaigner in the race, showing up to lots of local community and activism events. She only raised $5,405 in 2017.

Local Democrats aren’t sure what to make of Eric Dirth, 26, a former Republican who recently switched over to the Democratic Party. A University of Iowa law student who’s worked with environmental law, he grew up in other parts of the state and may not have as many local connections as the other candidates. Democrats have welcomed and nominated former Republicans in other races before (see: Monica Vernon), but that seems like a tough sale for this heavily-Democratic district.

Imad Youssif is a financial adviser who lives in Coralville and ran unsuccessfully for the city council last year. He’s originally from Sudan, just like Mazahir Salih, who made history by winning local office in Johnson County last year. Youssif, however, decided to run right at the last moment before the filing deadline, and will start off significantly behind the other candidates.

In some past years when Democrats didn’t have exciting statewide primaries, turnout for these legislative primaries were largely driven by the local candidates. This year’s gubernatorial contest will provide the impetus for most voters to head to the polls, including some who may not be paying attention to the legislative primaries. That will benefit candidates like Wahls who have well-known names and the money to spend to get their face in front of as many voters as possible.


Senate District 21 – Democrats
Current legislator: Matt McCoy (retiring/running for supervisor)
Location: Des Moines, West Des Moines
Candidates: Claire Celsi, Connie Ryan

For an incredibly valuable legislative seat, it was surprising that only two candidates ended up getting into the race. SD 21 contains some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the state, allowing its senator to become a huge fundraising force for the party if he or she wants to.

Both Claire Celsi and Connie Ryan are well-known in Democratic activist circles. Ryan runs Interfaith Alliance and is a constant presence at the Statehouse and at rallies for pretty much every progressive and social justice issue that the state deals with. Celsi has been heavily involved in public education advocacy since her 2016 race, organizing grassroots efforts and rallies for it.

The primary could come down to geographic lines – Celsi is from West Des Moines and has a large network of volunteers there. She worked with that crew to get Renee Hardman elected to the city council last year. Celsi also ran for House District 42 in 2016 against Peter Cownie, so her name ID among Democrats in half the senate district remains high. She got swamped by Republican spending that attacked her past comments on police and she ended up underperforming the Trump/Clinton margin by 15 points (Clinton won by 9, Celsi lost by 6).

Ryan has more connections on the Des Moines side of the district in many of the very politically active neighborhoods of South of Grand and Waterbury. Plymouth Church’s members may also provide a deep well of support and volunteers for her as well. And the Matt McCoy supervisor primary will help boost turnout in this half of SD 21.

The primary has already gotten a little chippy. Celsi suggested that Ryan wouldn’t be able to both serve in elected office and do her day job at the same time. Ryan pushed backed, calling it an attack on Interfaith and explaining they have a plan for it. Celsi responded by saying she wouldn’t have made the criticism if she’d known it would be made public (she was filling out a candidate questionnaire for an interview).


Senate District 1 – Republicans
Current legislator: David Johnson
Location: Lyon, Osceola, Dickinson, Clay and Palo Alto counties
Candidates: Brad Price, Zach Whiting, Jesse Wolfe

Democrats ran no candidate here for a reason: Republican-turned-independent David Johnson often votes with Democrats in the Senate now, despite representing one of the most conservative districts in the state. So, whoever wins the Republican nomination here will face a one-on-one fight with Johnson, who their party will paint as essentially a Democrat in deep-red Iowa.

Zach Whiting of Spencer, a former Steve King staffer, appears to be the one to beat here. In his late 20’s, Whiting came just 55 votes shy of winning a house primary in 2010 when he was 22. He announced his run way back in August of 2016, looks to be campaigning hard and has a strong social media presence. However, he hasn’t raised a whole lot of money so far ($9,415 despite a year and a half of campaigning).

Brad Price of Spirit Lake, whose family owns several pizza restaurants in Northwest Iowa, announced his run last month and may have gotten encouragement from some leading Republicans in the state. He should have the personal money and fundraising connections to put together enough of an effort if he wants to.

Jesse Wolfe of Emmetsburg, the chair of the Palo Alto Republicans and chair of the 4th Congressional District Republican committee, should have lots of connections with party activists. He’s on the far edge of the district, however, and may not be as well-known in other areas of it. Wolfe announced in February.

The interesting aspect of this primary is that since Republicans no longer have a gubernatorial race, turnout for this senate district may be driven largely by these three candidates (though farmers here will also come out for the Secretary of Agriculture race). Who works the district the hardest and who can send out the most mailers will probably win.


Senate District 41 – Democrats
Current legislator: Mark Chelgren (retiring)
Location: Ottumwa, Fairfield, Davis, Van Buren counties
Candidates: Ed Malloy, Mary Stewart

Whichever Democrat wins this primary will have the party’s full backing for an expensive race to flip this Republican seat held by Mark Chelgren for the past eight years.

Ed Malloy is the mayor of Fairfield and announced his run in January. He’s been looked at by Democrats for several years as a potential candidate for higher office and has already won elections in the second-largest town in the district.

Mary Stewart is a former educator and retired administrator for Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa. She’s been a leader in the Wapello County Democrats for many years and most of the activist base there has coalesced around her. Stewart had a head start in organizing, getting into the race last summer, raising $11,179 in 2017.

Two other Democrats initially running in this primary bowed out, leaving the Malloy/Stewart match-up. Geographic bases of support will also likely have a big impact here. Ottumwa is the major population center of this district, but Fairfield is very liberal and showed in the Phil Miller special election how an energized turnout there can overcome other areas of the district.

Still, Stewart is likely the front-runner here thanks to her Wapello base, education background and being the only woman in a two-person race during a year where Democratic voters really want to see more female candidates.


Other primaries

There are a couple other senate primaries on the ballot, but none of them are very competitive. Brett Nelson, a perennial candidate who never wins many votes, filed in the Republican SD 19 primary against Jack Whitver. In former Senator Bill Dix’s SD 25 seat, Chad Buss also got on the Republican primary ballot along with Annette Sweeney, who is the nominee for the special election. Sweeney will easily dispatch Buss in June. And Daniel Cesar jumped into the SD 41 Republican primary with Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the party’s high-profile recruit to run to replace Chelgren. Miller-Meeks will win that one handily.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 4/9/18

1 Comment on "Iowa Senate Primaries To Watch In 2018"

  • Iowa Senate District 41: Nothing against Ed Malloy, but this is Mary Stewart’s year and race to win. She will represent all of the district well!

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