Trump Turnout Hands Iowa Dems Another Blowout Loss

By Pat Rynard

November 4, 2020

If Republican campaigns are being honest with themselves, even they were not predicting this massive of a victory on all electoral levels last night in Iowa.

Republicans will not only maintain full control of state government, they will significantly expand their majority in the Iowa House. Joni Ernst has dispatched Theresa Greenfield. Cindy Axne may be Democrats’ only remaining member of Congress. Abby Finkenauer lost and Rita Hart’s contest is so close we may not know for days who won.

The losses in the Legislature were stunning. Democrats failed to flip every single seat where both sides engaged in, suffered surprise losses in the Des Moines suburbs, and got wiped out in Southeast Iowa. Mary Gaskill in Ottumwa lost. Jeff Kurtz of Fort Madison was defeated. Jeff Shipley is somehow headed back to the Statehouse after saying no one had really died of COVID-19.

There were warning signs even before polls closed in Iowa at 9:00pm.

Rural counties in Indiana and Ohio were seeing not just improved or stable margins for Donald Trump, but increases in Trump’s raw vote by 10 to 15 percent. Here in Iowa, poll workers in rural precincts said they were seeing many new young first-time voters — in small towns, those aren’t young progressives.

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It was clear that Democrats were in for a horrific night not soon after polls closed when Polk County showed first-term state Rep. Heather Matson losing. Neither party thought that race was close, and this was in one of the suburban Ankeny seats where Democrats had improved significantly in the Trump years. If Iowa Democrats were somehow losing ground in the suburbs, there was no hope elsewhere. Karin Derry also lost her Johnston-based seat, but at least there Republicans thought Eddie Andrews had a shot at a sneaky upset.

They just kept losing after that.

Aside from the aforementioned Southeast Iowa seats, Democrats came up short with Ankeny’s Andrea Phillips, Scott County’s Marie Gleason and Jennifer Kakert, rural Linn County’s Christian Andrews, Northeast Iowa’s Jodi Grover, incumbent Andy McKean, Decorah’s Kayla Koether, and Council Bluffs’ Jen Pellant. State Rep. Scott Ourth was defeated in Warren County by over a thousand votes. Lonny Pulkrabek lost to Bobby Kaufmann by 20 points after outspending him four-to-one in the final weeks.

Only suburban Cedar Rapids’ Eric Gjerde flipped a red seat.

On the Senate side, Democrats lost Rich Taylor and saw Tom Courtney fail to win back the Burlington-based district — both were in blowouts. Only Sarah Trone Garriott flipped a western Des Moines suburbs seat, but even that was extremely close.

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It will take time to sift through all the data, but the biggest takeaway seems clear: a massive wave of new voters came out to support Trump and down-ballot Republicans on Tuesday. Yes, Joe Biden and Democrats improved their vote totals in some areas — he’s currently winning 754,000 votes statewide to Hillary Clinton’s 653,000 in 2016. But Trump right now has 890,000 votes, compared to his 800,000 four years. He’s winning by about eight points at the moment.

Whatever new gains Democrats made with swing voters or by turning out progressives who stayed home or went third party last time was completely eclipsed by Trump’s expanded base.

Trump appears to have turned out an even larger contingent of angry, frustrated new voters that are mad at the world and want to burn things down. Whether it was due to blowback to COVID restrictions, outright racism in response to racial justice calls, or just anger at the so-called “elites” that Republicans attacked in campaign ads, Trump once again activated a new electorate that didn’t use to engage in politics.

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We’ll try to get into more of those reasons more in-depth later on, but many Democrats theorized in phone calls last night that Iowans “wanted to get back to normal” after the pandemic, and in those voters’ eyes that was done by voting for Republicans.

Again, it was utterly backbreaking for Iowa Democrats to actually lose ground in the suburbs, the one area they’ve seen significant improvement in recent years. At least the losses in rural and blue-collar Southeast Iowa makes sense in the broader Trump narrative. But to unexpectedly lose legislative seats there points to a far deeper problem with the Iowa electorate for Democrats than any initial, simple take.

The longterm consequences from tonight will likely be in what doesn’t happen in the next few weeks. Had this been a successful or just a more even result for Democrats, you would have seen several top possible challengers to Kim Reynolds or for Chuck Grassley’s Senate seat start to make moves before the end of the year. Instead, it’s much more likely that Democrats’ new bench — which was trimmed down some yesterday — will wait until sometime next year to decide if a statewide run in this Iowa is even worth it.

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For the future, it’s possible that Democrats can bounce back in Iowa if Trump loses, leaves the national scene and his base of new voters removes themselves from politics. If they stay engaged and stick with Republicans, there is simply no chance for Democrats to break GOP control of the Iowa Statehouse or to win a top statewide race.

We’ll have more analysis possibly later today, but we’re all very tired right now.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 11/4/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

  • 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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