Iowans will head to the voting booth three months from today on November 6 to vote in one of the most consequential elections in the state’s history. How are each of the major contests shaping up at this stage, two months after the primary and following a relatively quiet summer?
Democrats have been optimistic about the chances of a “blue wave” this year, but many still held on to a good deal of skepticism given Republicans’ dominance of recent Iowa elections. Donald Trump won counties in 2016 that Republicans hadn’t carried in decades. Would things really flip back to blue that quickly?
So far, the answer seems to be yes. And given that we’re just three months out now, all those over-performances in special elections and huge turnouts for marches don’t seem to be a fluke. Democrats continue to break fundraising records, see massive crowds at their events even in rural counties and grassroots groups haven’t slowed down. It’s actually a real possibility that Democrats sweep every statewide race. The big remaining question mark is how effective Republicans’ attacks on all these new Democratic candidates will be. That could still shake things up between now and the election.
Let’s take a quick look at each one.
If you asked many Iowa Democrats what their hopes for the 2018 governor’s race would be just after the 2016 election, most would probably have been happy if the nominee was merely competitive. Now it’s looking like a true toss-up, with perhaps an ever-so-slight advantage to Fred Hubbell right now. Chatter behind the scenes says there’s internal polling that has Hubbell just barely ahead, a troubling sign for incumbent Kim Reynolds.
This will be an immensely expensive race, with both sides running endless TV ads before the vote. Hubbell will be the best-funded Democrat Iowa has ever seen, helping him respond to any attack that Reynolds’ team lobs at him (as he already has). Reynolds hopes the race will be determined by personalities, pitching her own small town roots as reason enough to keep her in office. Hubbell and Democrats aim for the campaign to be a referendum on the problems of the Branstad/Reynolds years. Though Hubbell’s successful businessman persona has the ability to reach swing voters who have turned away from Democrats – exactly why Reynolds has targeted her attacks on it early on.
Reynolds herself has seen unending controversies and negative news coverage of the Medicaid privatization debacle. Even if your family isn’t directly affected by Medicaid, mental health, Planned Parenthood services or union rights, there’s a growing sense that the Reynolds Administration has just been ineptly-run with needless divisive actions. And it’s hard to see how that gets turned around at all between now and November.
The biggest hope for Reynolds – or any of these vulnerable Republicans, for that matter – is that many Iowa voters haven’t yet gotten over their general distaste of the Democratic Party as a whole from recent elections.
1st Congressional District
If Abby Finkenauer doesn’t oust Rod Blum on election night, something has probably gone terribly wrong for Iowa Democrats. The party has been optimistic about their chances of defeating Blum, often ranked as one of the most endangered incumbents in the nation. But Blum has proven a tougher-than-expected candidate in his first two races, giving some political watchers pause in predicting this contest.
Fortunately for Democrats, Blum has done everything he could in the past two years to weaken his reelection chances. He’s drawn multiple, self-inflicted negative news cycles due to his storming out of TV new interviews and running a shady internet company. He’s voted for some of the most unpopular Republican bills. More recently, he’s fully attached himself to Trump and the trade policies that are causing havoc on the rural communities and factory towns in his district. Blum even thanked Trump in person for the trade wars at Trump’s recent stop in Dubuque County, a wildly reckless and dangerous political move.
And Finkenauer has emerged as one of the national faces of the Democratic response to the Trump era. She smashed an Iowa fundraising record with her recent report, has had a near-daily stream of national profiles written on her and seems to have all the momentum in the world for her candidacy. And her messaging around being raised in a working-class family has seemed to fit the district better than the detached, poll-tested ads that Democrats in the past have relied heavily on. The big remaining question is whether enough of those Obama/Trump voters swing back to the Democrats.
2nd Congressional District
Dave Loebsack faces Christopher Peters again, who he defeated by 7.5 points in the Republican wave year of 2016. Loebsack should be fine, and it’s doubtful there will be too much coverage of this race with everything else going on.
3rd Congressional District
David Young has had a terrible spate of bad news recently, making the congressman who typically avoids controversy look much more at risk of losing his seat than previously thought. In the past month, multiple prediction outlets have moved the 3rd District to “toss-up” status, Cindy Axne put up a huge 2nd quarter fundraising report, Trump’s tariffs are causing hardships for Young’s Republican base and Axne put out an internal poll showing her four points ahead. Internal polls should always be taken with a grain of salt, but Young and the NRCC hasn’t responded with any of their own, and Young’s recent behavior certainly makes it seems like he’s seeing the same worsening match-up numbers.
Young has come out hard against Trump on the tariffs, criticizing the leader of his party in a way that most Iowa Republicans have not. He faces a difficult – and perhaps impossible – balancing act in a district where he needs both strong turnout from hardcore Trump supporters and to not lose many suburban, independent-leaning voters. Given that Axne, a small businesses-woman from West Des Moines, perfectly matches the kind of swing voter in the Des Moines suburbs, Young is starting to look like he’s in real trouble here.
Still, this race should be extremely close come November, and could be one of those districts that determines whether Democrats retake control of the House.
4th Congressional District
Every election cycle, Democrats find a way to convince themselves that maybe, just maybe, this will be the year they defeat Steve King. Well, this maybe, just maybe, is that year (no, really!). There’s the potential for a blue wave, which could improve Democrats’ margins enough in deep-red counties in Western Iowa that victories in Ames and Sioux City could theoretically carry J.D. Scholten. King continues to post terrible fundraising numbers. Trump’s trade wars could depress Republican turnout in the rural 4th District. And Scholten, a non-politician former baseball player who’s run a creative campaign, fits the exact kind of profile that you could see a surprising upset come from.
Still, it’s the 4th District. The race was moved to “Likely Republican” from “Safe Republican” by Sabato’s Crystal Ball rankings recently, and that feels about right for right now. But don’t be surprised if this race suddenly looks pretty close a month out from the election.
All three of the Democratic challenger candidates for statewide offices have impressed activists and racked up good fundraising totals this year. Rob Sand probably has the best chance of the three of defeating the Republican incumbent. He has a huge fundraising advantage over State Auditor Mary Mosiman and has kept up a steady public presence with campaign events and press hits.
Deidre DeJear faces a somewhat tougher race in her run against Secretary of State Paul Pate. DeJear seriously out-raised Pate in the most-recent report, but Pate still has more cash-on-hand and the ability to self-finance to some extent. Pate also gets the benefit of incumbency by getting much more free press the closer it gets to the election thanks to his role of running it all. That’s a little different than Mosiman, who mostly gets press mentions when there’s something wrong going on in state government spending. DeJear, however, is starting to get national attention for her run and activists in the state seem the most excited for her candidacy by far.
Tim Gannon has been building real interest for his race. Incumbent appointee Mike Naig looked weak when it took four ballots for him to win the party’s nomination at convention. Naig also has the difficult task of explaining the President’s tariffs to hurting farmers. Republicans typically do well in the secretary of agriculture race, but it’s shaping up to be a much more difficult seat to hold this year. Both Gannon and DeJear’s races feel like toss-ups right now, and Democrats probably end up winning at least one, if not both, of them.
The best place for activists to focus their time this year may be in the multitude of swing districts where Democratic house candidates have opportunities to flip Republican seats. The party needs to pick up 10 districts to win control of the chamber, no easy task. But a blue wave in the suburbs could give Democrats between five and eight wins in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities metro areas. After that, you have to look to places like Decorah, Waukon, Muscatine, Eldridge and Boone to fill in the remainder.
Starting Line will have a full write-up on the House races in the next week or two.
This summer, Senate Democrats lost two popular incumbents in swing districts that they could have penciled in as relatively easy victories earlier this year. Now they’re playing defense in way more districts than they’re on offense, having to spend money in many of their own seats. Fortunately, the Sioux City district is pretty much guaranteed to be a pick-up for Democrats. The party was never going to win the six seats they need to retake the majority in just one cycle due to the map, but they do need to pick up probably at least three districts to have a hope of winning it all in 2020.
We’ll also do a full piece on this in a little bit, as well.
by Pat Rynard