As the official filing season has begun for Iowa state and federal races, news of legislator retirements and candidate announcements have shaken up the forming 2020 battleground map. Several of the developments should benefit Democrats’ hopes of retaking the Iowa House and denying Republicans two more years of total Statehouse control.
To flip the Iowa House, Democrats need a net gain of four seats this November. They have promising targets in the few suburban districts that Republicans still hold; Democrats picked up seven seats in 2018 as suburban voters fled the party of Donald Trump. There will also be a few vulnerable seats for Democrats to defend.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the new developments in the fight for control of the Iowa House from this past month.
Decorah Rematch – HD 55
Kayla Koether is back for round two against Michael Bergan after falling a mere nine votes shy of victory in 2018. She may have actually won that race, but the Republican-led House rejected an effort to count about 30 late-arriving absentee ballots that should have been counted after the date they were sent was determined by a mail barcode system.
The Northeast Iowa district, based in Decorah, has long been a swing seat. It’s probably Democrats’ best chance at winning back a rural district, in part thanks to the progressive activist core in Decorah. Koether also has a strong and authentic rural background that helped her compete here in 2018, even with Bergan being very well-known in Winneshiek County. Bergan has already filed for his reelection.
Koether became a popular name among Democratic activists across the state as they closely watched her legal battle to get the voters’ ballots counted in the aftermath of her race. She’ll likely get significant fundraising help this time around from donors across Iowa and nationally. Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer has also shown a particular interest in helping in Koether’s race.
2016: 50.6% Trump, 43.5% Clinton
2018: 50.7% Reynolds, 46.0% Hubbell
Louie Zumbach Retires – HD 95
The rural Linn County district could emerge as a top pick-up opportunity for Democrats now that Republican incumbent Louie Zumbach announced this past week that he’s retiring. Democrat Christian Andrews, a public works employee in Mount Vernon, is running again after challenging Zumbach in 2018. Andrews got an early start on his second bid in 2019, and already raised $14,978 last year, a solid amount.
While Republicans have held this rural seat since redistricting in 2012, most of the races have been competitive, and as the Cedar Rapids exurbs extend out into the county, it should get more favorable for Democrats. The Zumbach name is a strong one in rural Eastern Iowa (Dan Zumbach is the state senator for the area), so it’s very helpful that he isn’t running this time. It’s not clear yet who the Republicans will nominate instead.
Zumbach defeated Andrews by 54% to 46%, though it was still seen as a strong performance for Andrews, who didn’t get the full resources of a targeted campaign as Democrats focused on suburban seats in 2018. Fred Hubbell came within four points here in 2018, a marked improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 10-point loss in this district in 2016.
2016: 51.6% Trump, 41.9% Clinton
2018: 50.6% Reynolds, 46.6% Hubbell
Sioux City Switch – HD 14
Democratic state Rep. Tim Kacena announced in late January that he would not seek a third term in the Iowa House. A day later, former Democratic state Sen. Steve Hansen launched his campaign to return to the Legislature. Hansen served in both chambers of the Statehouse from 1987 to 2002. He’s played a prominent role in the community in recent years as the director of the Sioux City Public Museum.
House District 14 covers the western side of Sioux City, the most Democratic part of town. Still, Trump came surprisingly close to carrying it in 2016, and Kacena won by just 250 votes then. In theory, this could have been a target for Republicans with the right candidate, but Hansen is very well-known throughout Sioux City and should put this one out of reach for the GOP, letting Democrats focus their attention on other seats.
2016: 47.7% Clinton, 47.3% Trump
2018: 50.7% Hubbell, 47.0% Reynolds
Mark Smith’s Successor – HD 71
State Rep. Mark Smith isn’t slowing down any as he retires from the Iowa House this year — he was just elected as the new chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. But that still left his Marshalltown-based seat open in a year that Republicans could try to make a serious run at flipping it.
Last week, Sue Cahill, a teacher in the Marshalltown school district for over 20 years, announced she would run as the Democrat in the district. She already has electoral success locally, as she currently serves on the Marshalltown city council. Tony Reed, the executive director of the Central Iowa Juvenile Detention Center, is the Republican candidate.
While Trump came close in the usually-Democratic town, Hubbell put some real distance between himself and Reynolds in the midterms. The Latino vote is important here.
2016: 48.0% Clinton, 46.6% Trump
2018: 52.6% Hubbell, 45.4% Reynolds
by Pat Rynard