Iowa Democrats are eager to set their sights on the future following yet another poor election showing in 2020, one that saw the party again fail to win the top statewide race on the ballot. To get that effort moving, they’ll need candidates to take on Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sen. Chuck Grassley for the two top-of-ticket races, and the fields for Democrats’ primaries are likely to develop quickly now.
Things got started with Dave Muhlbauer’s announcement for the U.S. Senate last week. June and July will likely see several campaign kick-offs from prominent Democrats who have been planning statewide efforts for months. The delay of redistricting to this fall may put some candidates’ plans on hold, however, as they wait to see how certain congressional districts look following the redrawing of the lines.
The Democratic base is extremely fired up to take on Reynolds, even though all are aware of the difficult national head winds that Democrats have faced in the state since 2010. Grassley is viewed nationally as a safe Republican seat, but he may yet decide later this year against running for reelection, creating a very rare open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa. Most potential Democratic candidates can’t wait that long to launch a Senate bid, so we should see more names hop in for that seat soon.
So far this year, Starting Line has heard rumors and chatter of nine different Democrats considering runs for the top two statewide races, in addition to the obvious public musings of people like Rob Sand and Cindy Axne. This analysis will stick just to them — it’s not intended as a list of every Iowa Democrat who could make a good candidate, just the prominent ones who are or were at least seriously thinking about it this cycle.
Several on the list are coming off of recent defeats in 2018 and/or 2020, but such is the reality of the Democratic bench in Iowa. Fortunately for the party, there are many younger leaders and new faces that have risen up in just the past four years, giving Democrats some real options and hope for the future. There’s also better diversity both in backgrounds and geography among the Democrats considering 2022 bids, making it unlikely the ticket is filled with all white men from Polk County.
Here are the Democrats to watch for possible runs for governor or the Senate in 2022, in alphabetical order:
The most important piece of Democrats’ 2022 puzzle centers around what their last remaining federal elected official decides to do. Axne’s victory in 2020 gives her the argument that she’s survived the worst of Democrats’ troubles, and her team has pointed to her over-performance in some rural counties that she’s traveled to extensively. Both Reynolds or Grassley (Axne has indicated she’s open to either race) are much stronger candidates than David Young was, though Axne would likely start with strong national Democratic support and an active volunteer base in the Des Moines suburbs.
Axne’s decision may not come until after the delayed redistricting is completed this fall. Some question why Axne would run statewide in an uncertain year than go for reelection in a district that should only get more blue. However, it’s not a guarantee that the 3rd District does so — losing Dallas County while not picking up Story County is a real possibility for the Des Moines-based seat.
Chatter has increased in recent weeks that Democrats’ 2018 secretary of state candidate could be eyeing a run for governor in 2022. A small business owner and voter rights advocate, DeJear is extremely well-liked by the Democratic activist base in Iowa. Since her run in 2018, she’s stayed active, chairing Kamala Harris’ caucus campaign, headlining many Democratic Party events, and speaking out on voting issues — she’s also the party’s representative on the state’s redistricting commission.
DeJear’s potential strength in a Democratic primary shouldn’t be underestimated. She surprised with her 51% to 49% win in the 2018 primary against Jim Mowrer, who was already well-known in half the state from his previous congressional runs. DeJear put up two-to-one margins in Eastern Iowa in Johnson and Scott counties, as well as sizable victories in Dubuque and Linn. For Democrats looking for a candidate who can excite the base and boost turnout, DeJear could be a convincing option.
After some weeks of quiet planning, news reports confirmed last week that Finkenauer is planning a run for the U.S. Senate. Such a move was a potential for the second-youngest woman in Congress before her reelection defeat in 2020, which was perhaps the biggest Iowa surprise on election night (including in Ashley Hinson’s camp, we hear). But her profile and appeal to the kind of blue-collar voters that left the party for Donald Trump still makes her a strong statewide candidate. Finkenauer outperformed most of the rest of the ticket in her 1st District race, and she would also bring a solid fundraising base to the table in a cycle where national Democrats may otherwise be wary of competing in Iowa.
She may yet end up in a rematch with Hinson in 2022, who is thought to be preparing her own Senate run while Grassley freezes the field with his indecision. One question is whether we’ll see Finkenauer campaigning in the more fiery persona she’s put out through her Twitter feed since the Capitol insurrection, or if there will be a backslide into safe, poll-tested talking points that have hampered Iowa candidates lately.
Many Democrats looking for a solution to the party’s rural woes look at retired Admiral Franken’s biography and see a potential winner. Raised in deeply conservative Northwest Iowa, Franken served in the Navy in top roles all around the world for four decades. The retired three-star admiral has since moved back to Sioux City.
Franken came in second place to Theresa Greenfield in the 2020 Senate primary. There weren’t many chances for Franken to really introduce himself to Democratic voters that cycle, between the Iowa Caucus sucking up all the attention through January, then the pandemic shutting down in-person campaigning after that. But Franken was still able to raise nearly a million dollars for that effort, a solid total for a first-time candidate up against someone who had the endorsements of most of the national Democratic groups.
He’s been discussing another run in 2022 with Democrats in Iowa and nationally as he makes up his mind. Influencing that decision could be whether groups like the DSCC plan on picking a candidate early in the primary again.
Every single cycle since she won a tough special election to a state senate seat in 2011, Liz Mathis’ name has been highly touted as a possible statewide candidate. Each time she’s taken a pass on the opportunity. Chatter, however, ramped up in January and February of this year that Mathis was seriously considering a run against Reynolds, though that talk had died down in recent months. Mathis did announce last week that she had retired from her job at Four Oaks, possibly opening her time up for other ventures.
Though it’s been some years now since she was an anchor on KCRG, Mathis still enjoys near-universal name I.D. in the Cedar Rapids TV market. She has a record of winning over suburban voters, the type that Democrats hope to maximize their new inroads with, and Mathis has occasionally voted with Republicans on a few notable bills in the Senate.
The former Crawford County supervisor was the first Democrat to announce a statewide bid this cycle, a smart move considering he starts with little name recognition among activists outside of Central-Western Iowa. Muhlbauer impressed with his introductory video, which looked to recast what it means to be a rural Democrat. In his initial forays around the state, Muhlbauer has generated interest from some progressive activists.
The other major decision yet to come is whether Sand decides to take on Reynolds in 2022 or run for reelection to the state auditor job. He’s used his current position to take on government fraud, abuse and corruption, and Sand has been one of the party’s top voices in holding Reynolds accountable for questionable uses of federal relief funds and other fiscal management issues.
Sand has built a large following among mainstream Democrats in Iowa through his frequent use of social media (and some detractors), and he may provide some hope in a top-of-ticket candidate breaking from some of the mundane campaign strategies often pushed on Iowa candidates by national committees. Originally from Decorah, supporters also see Sand’s rural background and bow-hunting hobby as a bridge to rural voters distrustful of Democrats.
Given how Democrats have fared in Iowa lately, many candidates may find it much more difficult to raise national money in 2022, especially for those not starting with a large network. That shouldn’t be an issue for Sand, who was one of the party’s best fundraisers in 2018 and can turn to family for some large donations in Iowa’s no-limits state races.
The man who nearly toppled Steve King in 2018 has kept his options open heading into the 2022 election. While two consecutive congressional losses in a row isn’t the usual launching pad to a top-of-ticket statewide run, Scholten remains a popular figure among Iowa Democrats, in part due to his insights on rural campaigning. He also retains a large email list from those runs against King to pull from for fundraising boosts.
Many in the party wish more Democratic candidates would campaign like Scholten’s go-everywhere approach, showing up in even tiny rural towns to bring the party’s message directly to skeptical voters. Democrats might simply decide to stick with the man who’s already skilled at that grassroots approach for another cycle in a Senate run.
An announcement of a run for governor from Waterloo state Rep. Ras Smith could come any day now. He’s been laying the foundations of a statewide campaign since early this year — traveling the state for small events, developing policy proposals, putting out professionally-produced videos, and assembling staff and advisers for a team.
Smith impressed Democrats early on since his arrival at the Statehouse in 2017. He helped lead the legislative efforts following the George Floyd murder in 2020 to produce an extremely rare bipartisan bill that addressed a few policing issues.
Throughout his quick rise in Iowa politics, Smith has won over respect and support from all corners of the Democratic Party and the progressive left, a difficult task these days.
Were he and Sand to face off for the nomination, it’d also be quite the test of hunting skills: Smith enjoys hunting turkey.
by Pat Rynard