The best feeling in the world is waking up in a calm, almost zen-like mood on Election Day after a very long campaign. Campaign staffers know what I’m talking about — it’s when you know you have all your get-out-the-vote shifts filled, the call/walk packets are ready, every last hour is planned out. Basically, you’ve done all you could, the plan is set up, and all you have left to do is execute it.
It’s how Democratic candidates, campaigns, activists and volunteers in Iowa should feel today on what is hopefully the day that puts an end to our four-year national nightmare.
For all the anxiety and hand-wringing over the past several years, Iowa Democrats up and down the ballot have ended this cycle in a good place, with many hard-fought campaigns on the cusp of victory and others in down-to-the-wire races once thought out of reach.
No one can predict anything with certainly in this bizarre 2020, but there’s certainly reasons for Iowa Democrats to feel optimistic heading into tonight. Their early vote numbers are 120,000 more than Republicans. Their current total is at 87% of total Democratic turnout from 2016. Most polls still show tight statewide races.
Yes, it’s still possible there’s an unexpected surge of Trump supporters who didn’t even show up in 2016, or that late deciders overwhelmingly head home to the Republican Party.
But barring any major surprises and as long as Democrats don’t let up today, Democrats are on track to hold all three of their congressional seats. There’s a very real chance they will pick up enough seats to flip the Iowa House and end the GOP trifecta. And the Senate race is likely to be far closer than that flawed Des Moines Register poll that freaked everyone out showed it to be. Joe Biden may yet return Iowa to the blue column — if not, it’ll be close enough that down-ballot Democrats across the state are lifted up.
It’s important to remember where we started.
After Trump’s nine-point win in Iowa in 2016, many thought that Iowa was headed for red-state status. Fred Hubbell came much closer in 2018, but his loss was a crushing one that kept Republicans in full control of Iowa government. Some even predicted that Iowa wouldn’t be competitive at all in 2020, that we’d be forgotten, though that always seemed an odd analysis given that Democrats won three of the state’s four congressional districts in 2018.
Joni Ernst’s reelection was never supposed to be this close. I myself worried early in the cycle that this was going to be one of those races where the Democrat is only trailing by five or six points in a few polls around the primary, everyone gets excited for a while, but then Ernst pulls away and wins by ten points. Instead, it’s Ernst who has lagged behind Greenfield for much of the second half of the year, the polls only really tightening right at the end.
And, oh yeah, the Iowa Democratic Party went through a major shake-up after the Iowa Caucus, and everyone nationally hated us for a while.
There were all the ingredients for this to be a disappointing cycle for Democrats, but through sheer determination and perseverance, the party is in about as strong a place they could be on Election Day.
Small-dollar donors and solid candidates have Democrats contesting a huge number of Iowa House seats, nearly all of which they’re outspending the Republicans in, a new and welcome development. With all the other wild things happening this cycle, the legislative races haven’t gotten as much attention, but their results tonight are the most important of all campaigns to Iowa’s immediate future. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats may pick up enough seats to put them in a good position to flip the chamber after redistricting.
On the congressional race front, Cindy Axne has easily held off David Young’s comeback attempt — her win tonight should demonstrate how strong a political force she is in Iowa. Abby Finkenauer appears poised to extinguish Ashley Hinson’s rising star after running a smart, disciplined campaign. And Rita Hart should retain an open Democratic seat that Republicans had high hopes for this year. Even J.D. Scholten’s final margin could be very surprising.
In the Senate race, it really should be pointed out how mistake-free of a race Theresa Greenfield ran. Especially when you compare it to Ernst’s constantly bungling and gaffe-prone candidacy. That’s no easy task for a candidate who’s never held public office that suddenly finds herself in one of the most high-profile, most expensive races in the entire country.
Greenfield stuck to her compelling personal story that dovetails with a key issue for older Iowans. Her campaign has kept Ernst on the defensive throughout the race, while giving Ernst no real screw-ups to latch onto. Ernst has had to resort to desperate race-baiting in her final TV ads, while Greenfield has stuck to the core issues she started her campaign on.
Her aggressive debate performances were probably the clearest sign that Greenfield understood what she needed to do to win in a political time where Republicans will do and say anything. Maybe some folks could quibble with little strategy decisions here or there, or why not run this ad instead of that ad, but by and large Greenfield’s campaign was a disciplined, well-funded effort that didn’t let themselves get pushed around and kept their message focused on the issues important to Iowans.
The only thing that personally gives me pause is the unknown impact of Democrats halting door-knocking efforts while Republicans carried forward with it. Voters aren’t going to give Democrats a pat on the head for it (if they even notice) and there are parts of the Democratic base out there that you need to talk to in-person to turn out. Hopefully, with unprecedented voter enthusiasm this year, the effects will be negligible.
So, while everyone still needs to spend every last minute getting every potential friend and neighbor to the polls, you can certainly do so with a clear mind, knowing Iowa Democrats did a whole lot of things right this year in the most important election of our lifetime.
by Pat Rynard
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