State Rep. Heather Matson’s Nov. 3 loss of her Ankeny-based House seat signified a stunning reversal in Democrats’ fortunes in suburban Iowa and was a sign of how far the party has to go to break full Republican control of state government.
The freshman legislator won her southern Ankeny and Saylorville seat in 2018 when Democrats flipped six GOP-held suburban seats—momentum that was forecasted to continue throughout the state’s metro areas this year. Instead, Matson trailed her Republican opponent Garrett Gobble by less than a point in a race not considered competitive by either party and was just one of seven seats that Republicans flipped this year.
In a conversation about a week post-election, Matson highlighted President Donald Trump’s popularity among a larger suburban electorate, she and her Democratic counterparts’ interest in keeping their races local in the face of their opponents’ tendencies to nationalize them, and how COVID-19 could have impacted her contentious fight.
This is the edited conversation.
What are your initial thoughts, post-race? This was a surprise. How are you feeling at this point?
I think how I’m feeling is just a little sad. You can’t serve and then not win and not feel some kind of sadness about it. And I wish I could put into words what my feelings are. I think it’s disappointed. Disappointed is the strongest feeling. Just because I know that I have done a good job as a legislator, and the truth is that legislators are chosen by elections. You can’t control the decisions of voters, you can only do your best effort in making sure they know the work that you’ve done, and sometimes you can get that message out and sometimes you can’t. And it’s a fact of life that that’s how our democracy works.
I’ve been talking to people, and a lot of them have said that a lack of door-knocking and retail politics made a huge difference in this race. Is that something you would agree with?
I think that it’s human nature to second guess every single decision. And I think it’s certainly up for debate. Especially in a race this close. 159 votes is less than one percent. And so it’s debatable, absolutely, but what I think is really important to recognize is when you are in a global pandemic, you have to make decisions outside of a traditional field strategy. And it’s not like Democrats as a whole have completely changed our field strategy for everything moving forward. It was having to make really tough choices. And I think it’s really, it’s entirely possible to be frustrated by the outcome and debate the decision all day, but the truth is that I can sleep at night because I put people’s health and safety first. And it’s unfortunate and it’s frustrating that this is the outcome because of a pandemic, because it’s hard.
I wanted to get into the back to school topic too. I know that it had been very contentious in the suburbs, in Ankeny [many parents wanting their kids in school]. Do you think that debate contributed, partially, to these right-leaning trends in the suburbs? Do you think people want to continue with open policies? How much did this debate contribute to people’s decisions this election?
I think that this race, in particular, there were a lot of different factors that went into it and I would certainly say that’s one of them. Do I think it’s the overarching factor? I don’t. I think that the overarching factor is that we had a surge in Trump voters. But it is absolutely true that it is a contentious issue, not just in my town but in a lot of them. And may that have affected some of the margins? That’s totally possible. But I also know, if we dig into the numbers, Trump got almost 500 more votes than my opponent. So there was a huge drop off. So when we’re talking about 159 vote difference and there was 105 vote drop off to me—and other than Biden I outperformed every other Democrat on the ticket? There are so many different factors and I think when you have a race that is that close, it’s every little piece plays a part and throw a global pandemic into it, and this is where we end up.
The suburbs saw a surge in Trump voters. Why, from afar, was there this momentum for Democrats in 2018, why has there been this retraction to the right? In your talking with voters and in your analysis, what can you make of all that?
I don’t think that it’s just that suddenly things are moving right. I think that there’s a lot of different factors. This election was a huge turnout election. And there were almost, just as an example, over 4,000 more people voted in this district in 2020 than they did in 2018. And I also got 1,700 more votes in 2020 than I did in 2018, so it wasn’t that Democrats didn’t show up, or that there wasn’t higher turnout among Democrats, it was that as a whole, the entire electorate was bigger.
I think it was something like 75% voter participation in the state this year. Which is amazing. So the question is really, and there’s no way of really knowing right now—are the folks that turned out this year, that have been unexpected, and that turned out for Trump, will they stay engaged moving forward? Will they continue to show up in 2022 and 2024 or is it very much tied to the identity of a person who will no longer be on the ballot? And that we don’t know.
But I don’t think it’s a totally true statement to say that suburban voters just suddenly shifted everything. I think it’s just people that for some reason have never felt compelled to participate, did so. And I’m always going to cheer for more people voting. I want strong voter participation. I think I also want every voter to have the information they need and take the time to learn about everyone on their ballot, and I don’t know if that’s what happened this time or not. I don’t think any of us know if that’s what happened this time or not.
In lieu of door knocking, I know you were doing phone banking. What were you hearing a lot from your constituents? Do you think identity politics were really being played out in this election more than usual? What could you garner about what was really on the ballot this election?
You know, I think that just when I would get people at the doors, when I got people on the phones, they were willing to engage in a really thoughtful conversation. And I had some really great talks with people who were Republicans, right-leaning no-party, who were voting for me. Because they either knew me before or got to know me in this phone call and knew that I am able to listen and learn and really engage on a different level. It was kind of across the board on issues. There was no just one thing, and I think what’s especially true in legislative races is that it comes down to making personal connections, and whenever I could get somebody on the phone, I think I made that personal connection. It’s just being local.
Do you think the things that happened in your race were similar to the other suburban seats that were lost for Democrats? Do you think your race could be emblematic of what happened with the statehouse this election cycle?
Certainly, without digging into all of the numbers, based on what I’ve read and heard it seems it really was just a straight-up Trump surge in districts all across the state. And that’s especially tough for local candidates who work really hard to keep the issues localized. To talk about what’s happening in our community and be a voice for our community. It’s weird because it’s not like I think that every race was nationalized, but we made, I think, in talking to so many of our Democratic candidates for the House, everyone was focused on the uniqueness of their communities and how they would be good representatives of their communities. And certainly not running on the national Democratic ticket. And I think had there not been a Trump surge from the other side, I think there would have been some different outcomes.
The Republicans, on the other hand, aligned themselves on the coattails of Trump a lot of the time. I’m wondering if they made it nationally focused, and if that made the difference.
Yeah. I don’t think this election in the state of Iowa, especially when we think of the Legislature, I don’t think it is a vindication of the policies that Republicans have been doing. I think that they, quite frankly, rode the coattails of Donald Trump. And I think it goes back to what I said before—those coattails aren’t going to be there in 2022 and 2024. What will that be? Who knows?
Do you have any idea if you would rejoin the ticket in 2022 or do you have any idea what you’d want to do next?
I think that my family and friends would say that I really need to take some time and rest because I’m not great at that—so I’m making a concerted effort to go take the advice of family and friends and learn how to take a break. I think that public service is in my bones and there are so many challenges that we still face as a state. And it’s incredibly important that voices continue to be heard and it’s too early to say what I will choose or not chose to do in 2022, but I know that I’m not going anywhere in the grand scheme of being a voice for my community, that’s for sure.
by Isabella Murray
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