What Happened: Stories From The Ground In Iowa’s 2020 Election

An October Trump parade in Western Iowa

By Team Starting Line

November 4, 2020

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican in Iowa, the way races played out up and down the ballot Tuesday night was surprising. 

The “blue wave” Democrats were counting on after four years of President Trump was in fact a red one that swept through the Des Moines suburbs and former union strongholds in Eastern Iowa. Both sides projected confidence heading into Tuesday, but it seems fair to say few predicted this exact outcome.

Given the margins by which Republicans won the vast majority of counties in the state, today Iowans are questioning how much longer they will hold their swing state status.

As of Wednesday evening, Democrats hold only one of the state’s four U.S. House seats. (The Associated Press has not called a winner in the open contest for Iowa’s 2nd District, where only 282 votes separate the candidates.) 1st District Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer lost reelection, and Republican Randy Feenstra won in Western Iowa.

And in the Iowa Legislature, Republicans expanded their majority in the House, adding six seats for a 59-41 majority. Coming into Election Day, Democrats had charted what they thought to be a winnable path to control the chamber.

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While President Trump and Sen. Joni Ernst winning here is disappointing for Democrats — though not entirely surprising — their margins of victory are eye-opening.

Trump carried Iowa on Tuesday night by 8.2 percentage points, 53.1% to 44.8%. Though Joe Biden earned 103,911 more votes in 2020 than Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump expanded his support by 95,303 votes, winning 53% of the vote compared to the 51% he got four years ago. And despite a hard-fought race between Theresa Greenfield and Ernst — a race that appeared neck and neck until Tuesday — Ernst won by 6.6 percentage points.

“I’ve really been fixated on the fact that Iowa has obviously changed, but I’m not quite sure how,” said Laura Blanchard, a teacher from Burlington who is active in the Des Moines County Democrats.

Blanchard said she was “really surprised by the margin” of former state senator Tom Courtney’s loss in Senate District 44 (13.6 percentage points) and Fort Madison Rep. Jeff Kurtz’s nearly six-point defeat was “a shock to the system.”

“I’m not so sure Iowa is a purple state anymore,” she said.

Kurtz, like Courtney and other Iowa Democrats for federal and state races, did not knock doors or hold events for much of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Kurtz, who described himself on Wednesday morning as “shell-shocked,” thinks his lack of in-person campaigning, coupled with highly misleading ads run by the Republican Party of Iowa, was significant in his loss.

“The fact that we tried to be responsible and do things over the phone, I don’t think that worked well,” said Kurtz, who in 2018 was elected in Lee County’s House District 83. “Republicans were knocking doors; I didn’t think that was a good idea.”

Even Gary Folluo, a Keokuk Democrat and longtime public servant in Lee County, was unseated from the board of supervisors on Tuesday.

“Quite frankly, Southeast Iowa turned completely red last night,” Kurtz said.

A mild-mannered retired locomotive engineer, Kurtz was left wondering whether his demeanor was a hindrance at a time in American politics when the president of the United States, and many of his allies and supporters, thrive on hateful rhetoric and partisan division.

“I think a lot of people vote in anger,” he said. “They’re mad about a whole lot of things. They’re mad about the COVID. They’re mad about the fact that people aren’t making decent wages down here, and they wanted a change. They swept us all out. From what I see — my god, I’m not going to get on Facebook anymore — it’s toxic. Some of the things I read on there — people are mad.”

“I’m not a mad guy,” Kurtz said. “I’m not an angry guy. They’re going to vote for people who feed that anger.”

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In nearby Davis, Jefferson and Van Buren counties, freshman Rep. Jeff Shipley secured another term. The Republican with a Libertarian bent was rematching Democrat Phil Miller, pulling away with a two point lead, by 170 votes. In 2018 he only won by 37. 

Miller campaign volunteer Erin Smith said she thinks Miller’s lack of ground game contributed to his loss. Shipley, who has stated and maintained a position of skepticism toward the pandemic, was very active with door knocking and events throughout the district, Smith said.

By contrast, Miller didn’t campaign in-person. 

“Shipley didn’t care about COVID and so he got to run a ground game. On our side there was a lot of caution, there was a lot of being more concerned about protecting people and those who were working for the campaign and protecting the people we were talking to, protecting voters,” she said. 

“I really think that if people would have connected a face to a name with Phil Miller, if we had been able to actually meet people and actually have some get-to-know-you events that were not cancelled because of COVID, I really think that Phil would have come out ahead.”

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In Burlington, Republican Tim Goodwin credited his ground game and connections in the community for helping to hold the Senate District 44 seat held by retiring state Sen. Tom Greene. Goodwin, his wife and a part-time staff member knocked more than 7,000 doors between the conclusion of the June primary and Election Day.

In Des Moines County, the district’s largest, Goodwin outperformed President Trump by 300 votes and won the county with 55%, an unheard of feat, particularly in a county that once was known for its unbreakable Democratic support.

While knocking doors of independents and “soft” voters on both sides of the political spectrum, Goodwin said two issues were paramount: law and order and kids in school.

“100% support for law enforcement,” Goodwin said. “That was very evident from when we started knocking doors in July. Law enforcement support in Southeast Iowa was a big deal. And No. 2, they wanted their kids back in school full-time (in person). They were OK with mask mandates, all the safety precautions, but they wanted the kids back in school.”

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Particularly during the summer of racial justice protests, some of which turned violent in larger cities, Goodwin said “that really resonated with Southeast Iowa residents down here in a way that was positive for me as a Republican candidate.”

Up in Allamakee County, at-large Waukon City Council member and GOP strategist John Ellingson said that law and order was also a big selling point in Northeast Iowa. 

“From the people I’ve talked to, came from: we watched the riots, we watched the anti-police, anti-government stuff take place and very nearby. In Wisconsin and Minnesota. And when you talk to Republicans, that’s what you hear,” he said, which includes some in Postville’s Latino population.

Biden’s underperformance with Latino voters sounded a national alarm on Tuesday night, and Ellingson said he’s been noticing a right-leaning trend with this voter bloc for a while. 

“There’s a high frustration and a high intolerance for the disrespect for establishment and law enforcement. That’s a huge motivating factor with the right… I was just at a house where a bunch were legal and eight or nine were illegal and they’re all Trump supporters. They don’t like the riots and the stuff they see on TV.”

But Ellingson said that Trump and COVID-19 also made the heavily red voting trends in the area predictable. 

“It was pretty apparent that there was a big pro-Trump push,” Ellingson said. “COVID had a lot to do with it. While our governor is not super popular, you look at Minnesota and you look at Wisconsin and watch what those governors did to the schools and their economies. And I just had two conversations with people today and they both brought up to me, ‘Well, we don’t really care for our governor, but boy are we happy we have her compared to Walz or Evers.’”

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Ellingson said that people in Northeast Iowa were happy with the way Reynolds responded to COVID-19, which includes open businesses and schools with no mask mandates, despite calls from local Democratic candidates for more prevention across the state. These party-line stances may have been the deciding factor in the race where Decorah’s incumbent Republican Rep. Michael Bergan’s had an eight-point win over Democrat Kayla Koether, he said, despite large Democratic spending in the race. 

“[Koether] was a little critical of COVID, of the Governor’s response,” Ellingson said. “Decorah went with a city-wide mandate for masks. And there was a lot of kickback. Our restaurants are doing OK over [in Waukon] because of everyone who comes from Decorah. And Decorah has some extra rules that their restaurants are struggling with. A lot of restaurants aren’t serving very many people, so they’re coming up to neighboring counties.”

“I think any other year, Kayla would have done OK.”

Another huge loss for Democrats, Finkenauer’s two-point defeat by Republican Ashley Hinson, was also a little surprising for Ellingson, who suspects a lack of ground-game contributed to the flipped seat. 

But the most surprising loss for Iowa Democrats on Tuesday came from the Des Moines suburbs, where first-term state Rep. Heather Matson lost her suburban Ankeny seat after it flipped in 2018. In another Ankeny contest and also one of the most expensive of House races, Republican state Rep. John Landon defeated Democrat Andrea Phillips. Karin Derry also lost her Johnston-based seat as well. 

Randy Richardson, a former teacher and Iowa State Education Association director said he was working on Matson’s campaign and was hearing promising things throughout the cycle. He’s now left confused on how her defeat was possible. 

“I was pretty much caught off-guard on it. We knew that from what we had done with polling, that name recognition was the issue. And outside of that, we were getting lots of favorable stuff coming back to us saying they were supporting her. I wrote a letter to all the teachers in the district and asked them to support her,” he said.

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Richardson is actively involved with Iowa Educators for a Safe Return to school, a popular and active Facebook group in opposition to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ COVID-19 education policies. Education and COVID-19 were the most hot-button issues this election cycle for the area. 

“The idea that suddenly we lose something like three seats in suburban Des Moines, that was a surprise to me. I don’t have any explanation. The only negatives that I heard from anybody was, I had a couple people when I was doing phone calls who just said, I’m a Republican, and my being a Republican comes before being a teacher,” Richardson said. 

“I don’t have any real explanation on why they would support a party that has done nothing for them on this.”

In Waterloo, a Democratic stronghold with a large Black population, community members reacted to the state’s overwhelming red turnout. Though the area stayed blue itself, some thought Democrats took minority voting blocs for granted across the state. 

“I believe we took the minority vote for granted again. The Democratic Party does a poor job of spending money in the minority communities early in the process. Then in the eleventh hour they contact the community leaders to throw a Hail Mary. For some reason they find it hard to pay Black and Brown people to work the urban areas early and often,” said Dennis Henderson, Broadlawns Medical Center Program Coordinator. 

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Henderson also theorized that Democrats didn’t do a good enough job at explaining their positions and messaging about police brutality. 

“We let the Republicans control our narrative. No one took the time to explain what ‘defund the police’ meant — I believe ‘defund the police’ was a poor choice of words,” he said. 

For community influencer Nia ShinDigg, Waterloo’s choices in this election at least proved successful on the local level in electing Democrats. Incumbent Sheriff Tony Thompson handily fended off a challenge from former Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka, who faced criticism over how his department treated people of color.

“I’m just glad that Waterloo made the right choice when it came to our local election,” she said. “For the most part, Democrats won.”


By Elizabeth Meyer, Isabella Murray and Rachelle Chase
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.

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