A Democratic Iowa House Majority (Part 1): Des Moines Suburbs

By Pat Rynard

September 4, 2018

For many Iowa Democrats, retaking the Iowa House majority is the top priority this year second only to the governor’s race. And if Governor Kim Reynolds is able to hold on to Terrace Hill, controlling one of the legislative chambers will be essential to halting Iowa’s descent into red-state status and further far-right policies.

To win back the House, Democrats need to pick up a net of ten seats to get out of their current 59-41 minority. That’s no easy task even in a good year. The party has recruited a strong slate of candidates, many Republican incumbents opted for retirement, fundraising has been impressive and outside groups have pitched in. Democrats have enough opportunities to pick up what they need, but there’s always a few races that go sideways, and it’s not clear yet whether enough districts that went hard for Donald Trump have snapped back yet.

Over the next several days, Starting Line will look at different regions of the state where competitive House races should determine control of the chamber. I originally planned on doing this all in one post, but the first five Des Moines suburb races alone took up a lot of time and words. So, I’m going to break the districts into several different categories, which we’ll roll out about once a day. Those are:

Des Moines Suburbs
Eastern Iowa Suburbs
Rural Exurb Districts
Blue Collar Districts
Rural Districts
Ones To Watch/Wave Districts

For each district, we’ll look at a number of pieces of information, including past presidential performances and registration numbers. Comparing the Trump/Clinton and Obama/Romney numbers give an idea of the range possible for each party, as well as recent trends.

One interesting piece of information I’m including is the number of newly-registered Democratic voters in each district since the June primary. Democrats saw a big jump in registrations between June and July. This can show where Democratic enthusiasm is particularly strong this year.

We’ll also see the cash-on-hand for each candidate. I didn’t take the extensive time necessary to go back and add up every candidate’s fundraising totals from the past four or five reports. The cash-on-hand totals is good enough, as most candidates haven’t spent much yet in the cycle anyway.

See the end of each story for the party’s overall prospects and chances in each region.

Des Moines Suburban Districts: 5 Pick-Up Opportunities

Democrats’ best prospects lie in the Des Moines suburbs. They could get half of what they need for a majority from the Polk and Dallas County races alone if the positive Democratic trends in higher-educated regions continue. Trump appears to be deeply unpopular here, and voters in the Des Moines media market were much more clued in to the unpopular Republican legislation passed at the Statehouse than elsewhere in the state.

These races have also been a popular destination for out-of-state groups and potential 2020 candidates looking to help Democratic down-ballot races. Jason Kander’s Let America Vote organization flooded several of these campaigns with door-knocking interns over the summer, hitting Democratic doors for turnout so the candidates could focus on persuasion voters.

Fred Hubbell’s spot on the top of the Democratic ticket helps here, as his successful executive image has crossover appeal with business Republicans and independents in the suburbs.

Here’s a look at the five highly-competitive seats Democrats could pick up.


HD 43 (Open R Seat) – Jennifer Konfrst (D) vs Michael Boal (R)

Location: Windsor Heights, Clive, West Des Moines
2016 Presidential: 53% Clinton, 41% Trump
2012 Presidential: 51% Obama, 48% Romney
Registration: 7,820 Dem, 6,834 GOP, 5,546 Ind
Registered Ds Primary Change: +588

Konfrst: $51,257 COH
Boal: $3,697 COH

All the signs point to Democrats picking up Majority Leader Chris Hagenow’s former seat. Hagenow beat a quick retreat to a redder district in Dallas County earlier this year when faced with a rematch with Jennifer Konfrst, a Drake University professor, in much different circumstances. Konfrst lost in 2016 by just three points after getting inundated by negative TV ads, but the political winds are dramatically different this time.

Only four other House districts in the state saw a bigger increase in registered Democrats after the primary. Republican support is collapsing here in the Trump era. And Konfrst, already well-known from her previous run, has raised more money than nearly every other Democratic challenger. She’s well-positioned to respond more quickly this year if hit with ads from the GOP, but the question will be if she even needs to.

Republican attorney Michael Boal, son of former Representative and Chief House Clerk Carmine Boal, hasn’t put together enough money to adequately introduce himself to voters. With so many other seats to defend, it’s entirely possible Republicans have already written off this district. TV ads in the Des Moines market aren’t cheap, and a lot of those is probably what it would take to hold on to HD 43.

As long as Konfrst and her team keeps doing what they need to do between now and November, she should be getting sworn in as a legislator come January.


HD 44 (Open R Seat) – Kenan Judge (D) vs Anna Bergman (R)

Location: Waukee, West Des Moines, Clive
2016 Presidential: 48% Trump, 45% Clinton
2012 Presidential: 57% Romney, 43% Obama
Registration: 7,028 Dem, 9,698 GOP, 10,876 Ind
Registered Ds Primary Change: +689

Judge: $100,857 COH
Bergman: $21,035 COH

This is exactly the kind of seat that would never have been on the map in the pre-Trump era, and its toss-up status now is one of the big reasons Democrats have a shot of retaking the House. Add to that Democrats’ candidate that perfectly fits the district and Republicans’ flawed nominee, and you have all the makings of a blue flip in a former Republican suburban stronghold.

Kenan Judge is as good of a recruit as you can get: great bio, fundraising ability and community connections. He worked his way up from a butcher at Hy-Vee to company vice president. His campaign tag line plays off the familiar Hy-Vee jingle: “A helpful smile that will work across the aisle.” He’s sitting on a $100,000 war chest, breaking all kinds of fundraising records in his previous filings. Most importantly, he’s the kind of Democrat that suburban Republicans could consider voting for: a friendly, well-connected local businessman that doesn’t come off as overly-partisan.

Republicans, meanwhile, have Anna Bergman, a young attorney who has already won an election in Waukee before for the city council. She has also courted her fair share of controversy in her short time in politics. She trails Judge significantly in fundraising, but still has enough for a competitive campaign, and Republicans will spend heavily to defend this open seat. Much of her fundraising, however, is largely due to a peculiar $20,000 donation routed through a LLC shell operation.

Bergman has quite a few detractors from her past workplaces and college. But she does have one thing going for her: the amount of media attention she got from getting fired from the Iowa School Board Association for penning a positive op-ed about Governor Reynolds that used her title with the organization. Despite the actual circumstances around it, Bergman can use that to paint herself as a sympathetic martyr for her beliefs.

The district itself is fascinating. The fastest-growing area in the state, Democrats are making huge gains here, and not only because of Trump. The 689 new registered Democrats after the primary was the second-largest increase in a single district for the party in Iowa. There’s a lot of apartment complexes bringing in younger, more Democratic voters. But the district also has many upper-income neighborhoods, where even if voters there may not like Trump, they can still get reminded of why they didn’t vote for Democrats – taxes – for so many years.


HD 42 – Rep. Peter Cownie (R) vs Kristin Sunde (D)

Location: West Des Moines
2016 Presidential: 51% Clinton, 42% Trump
2012 Presidential: 50% Obama, 49% Romney
Registration: 7,493 Dem, 6,797 GOP, 5,999 Ind
Registered Ds Primary Change: +588

Cownie: $48,603 COH
Sunde: $28,967 COH

Much like the HD 43 Konfrst/Boal seat, this West Des Moines-based district is one where Democrats are quickly picking up steam (they even had the exact same 588 gain in registered voters). Unlike HD 43, this seat has a well-known, well-funded incumbent.

Defeating Peter Cownie will be not be simple. The Cownie name is a popular one in Des Moines, and the Republicans dropped over $350,000 to fend off his last challenger. Whether Republicans go all-in like that again to save Cownie this year is an open question. He’s typically one of the House’s best fundraisers, but his totals this year have been so-so for someone with so many great donor connections.

It might be harder for the GOP to find things to attack Democrats’ candidate this year, communications professional Kristin Sunde. She’s largely a newcomer to politics, spured to run by her experience with the state’s DHS and Medicaid system with her foster children. Despite not running a campaign before, she’s had good fundraising reports and should be a top priority for the party.

West Des Moines has a growing Democratic activist base, one which is eager to rack up some more local victories. Cownie also took a lot of votes these past two legislative sessions that are far outside the district’s ideological bent. Like in many other places, it was easier for voters to back a familiar name when the Statehouse had split control between the parties and Republicans’ far-right agenda never got passed. Now that it’s real, Cownie’s time in the House may soon be running out.


HD 39 – Rep. Jake Highfill (R) vs Karin Derry (D)

Location: Johnston, Grimes
2016 Presidential: 49% Trump, 44% Clinton
2012 Presidential: 56% Romney, 43% Obama
Registration: 7,229 Dem, 9,661 GOP, 8,512 Ind
Registered Ds Primary Change: +470

Highfill: $7,077 COH
Derry: $41,366 COH

Another part of the Des Moines suburbs that wouldn’t typically be a battleground, Jake Highfill may be at greater risk of defeat this year than he realizes. Democrats are gaining ground in Johnston in both registrations and activism. And they have a strong candidate in Karin Derry.

A local attorney, Derry has emerged as one of Democrats’ stronger fundraisers this year. A mother of three, she fits the profile of the suburban district better than Highfill, who faced multiple primaries after his surprise win in 2012. And Derry has a strong volunteer base and social media presence, helpful for a district with a lot of knockable doors.

The cash-on-hand number is deceptive, as Highfill sent a $30,000 chunk to the state party recently. Usually that’s what safe incumbents do to help out their party committee’s general fund to go to swing districts, but Highfill could face his toughest general election race yet this year. Still, he’s proven resilient in past years, winning with 57%, 59% and 55% in the last three cycles.

This is one of several districts where we’ll find out whether Republicans and conservative-leaning independents who are fed up with Trump are willing to vote for Democrats in local races.


HD 38 – Rep. Kevin Koester (R) vs Heather Matson (D)

Location: Ankeny, Saylorville
2016 Presidential: 50% Trump, 43% Clinton
2012 Presidential: 49% Obama, 49% Romney
Registration: 7,064 Dem, 7,294 GOP, 7,107 Ind
Registered Ds Primary Change: +413

Koester: $16,636 COH
Matson: $29,320 COH

The other Polk County 2016 rematch is in Ankeny. Heather Matson is taking another swing at Kevin Koester this year, hoping that Ankeny starts to move to the left like the other Des Moines suburbs have this year. This time she has a better fundraising advantage over Koester, plus she’s better-known in the district following her previous run.

The big question here is whether things have changed enough since 2016. Matson ran a strong race then, but still came up nine points short to Koester. Ankeny didn’t shift in favor of Democrats nearly as much as the party hoped, nor as much as other areas of the metro did. And this district isn’t all Ankeny, taking in the Republican-trending Saylorville as well (though it also has some North Side Des Moines precincts that could turn out better in 2018).

But what has changed is the Republican legislature’s impact on education-focused suburbs like Ankeny. This is where young families move to in order to send their kids to good schools, and Republicans’ actions on education, collective bargaining, Planned Parenthood and healthcare led to strong backlashes for the incumbents at town hall forums last year. Someone like Matson, whose young family looks like much of the district, seems well-positioned to take advantage of those concerns.


Des Moines Suburbs Prospects

It’s entirely possible that Democrats sweep all five of these races in an anti-Republican year. Their candidates have strong profiles, are working hard and have all raised significant money.

Konfrst is obviously the most likely pick-up. Indeed, if she loses, something terribly wrong has probably happened for Democrats across the state.

After that, it’s a mix. Judge is running for an open seat, but it’s traditionally a more Republican district than the others. Sunde has a district that is very good for Democrats’ top-of-ticket, but she faces a strong incumbent. Both Matson and Derry need good Democratic turnout and an anti-incumbent mood to oust their opponents.

The Des Moines suburb races feel like they’ll fall together for Democrats if it is a good year for the party. And nabbing four to five pick-ups here is essential for a majority because it allows for some losses in tight races in tougher areas of the state or where Republicans have stronger candidates.

Even better, if higher-educated voters continue to abandon the Republican Party in the era of Trump, these are districts that Democrats should be able to hold in 2020 during Trump’s reelection.

Two other districts could flip if the blue wave is especially large: Ankeny’s HD 37 and Altoona’s HD 30. We’ll discuss those races in a later post.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 9/4/18

  • 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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