Democrats Flip Local Suburban Seats Across Polk County

Photo: Matt Blake and Bridget Montgomery celebrate their election to the Urbandale City Council.

Democrats’ efforts to turn the Des Moines metro’s suburbs blue made a big leap forward last night with the election of many progressive candidates to city councils and school boards across Polk County.

Johnston, a formerly deep-red Republican suburb, now has a majority-Democrat city council. Democrats picked up two Urbandale City Council seats, as well as one in Ankeny.

In all, Democrats flipped 13 city council and school board seats in Polk County.

Although most municipal elections in Iowa are technically nonpartisan, the ideology and partisan background of the actual candidates running obviously make a difference. The Polk County Democrats, under new leadership after younger leaders stepped up and took the reigns after Donald Trump’s 2016 win, got much more involved in the local campaigns than county parties typically have in the past.

The results were quite noticeable, and should have impacts for local and state government for many years to come.

More progressive leadership on local governing bodies will obviously move policy conversations to the left on things like affordable housing and climate issues in the Des Moines metro.

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Longterm, city council seats can often be good places to launch runs for the state legislature, as one Johnston Democrat already on the city council, Rhonda Martin, is doing. Earlier this year, Martin launched her campaign to challenge Republican state Sen. Brad Zaun, whose once-safe seat is now a top target for Democrats. Both Iowa House seats within Zaun’s district are held by Democrats, and now, as of last night, Democrats have added to their ranks several other local officials.

Aside from the party victories, many other important milestones were accomplished last night.

Suresh Reddy will be the first Indian American elected in Johnston — he won a city council spot. The Urbandale City Council has a woman on it again with Bridget Montgomery’s election. The West Des Moines School Board and the Ankeny School Board both have their first African American members now, while Johnston elected a Latino to the city council for the first time.

A robust absentee ballot effort aimed at registered Democrats appeared to have boost turnout significantly.

Polk County Democrats Chair Sean Bagniewski pointed to the numbers of absentee ballots cast as of noon yesterday. They showed a dramatic increase in Democratic ballots cast over pre-Trump years.

Among the numbers of Democratic absentee ballots cast Bagniewski posted were:

2015: 15
2017: 36
2019 (noon): 349

2015: 3
2017: 189
2019 (noon): 266

2015: 11
2017: 41
2019 (noon): 222

West Des Moines
2015: 12
2017: 131
2019 (noon): 301

Those jumps in numbers showed the significant difference a professionalized, well-organized effort can have in low turnout elections.

There were some disappointments for Democrats, most notably in West Des Moines where Ryan Crane and Erin Cubit fell short against well-funded opponents. That suburb had been one of the first to shift quickly in Democrats’ favor, but work remains to be done there.

Des Moines Mayor

We have a runoff for the top job in Des Moines. Former state Sen. Jack Hatch came within about 200 votes of outpacing Frank Cownie, the longest-serving mayor in Des Moines history. Because neither hit the 50% mark (both were around 43%), the contest will go to a December runoff. Many in Des Moines politics expected Cownie to prevail, but Hatch has been running a strong campaign with heavy advertising on issues like water quality.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 11/6/19

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