Iowa’s June 7 primary results provided us with a clearer picture of where the state’s politics are headed as we approach the midterm elections, with some surprises in local races across the state yesterday.
As always, this is not an exhaustive list of every interesting race, just some things that immediately stood out.
Republican Attacks On Public School Only Heating Up
While the failure of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ voucher bill gave public school advocates a brief reprieve this year, Republicans’ war to tear down public education in Iowa is just getting started. Reynolds successfully ousted the Republican incumbents she targeted over their opposition to private school vouchers. We can only expect her and the far-right’s efforts to escalate from here.
Reynolds’ backers are framing this as a win for “school choice,” but anyone who believes that isn’t closely watching the same social media discourse I am. It’s not vouchers or scholarships (of which there’d only be 10,000 under Reynolds’ plan) that’s driving the bulk of emotions and engagements in conservative circles online. It’s fear-mongering over gay kids, ridiculous and false accusations over sexual grooming, and non-existent critical race theory teachings.
The voucher issue is simply a way for Republican voters to express their growing hatred of public schools.
Much of the Republican base now views their local, public school as a den of communist teachings and weird sexual perversions because of the utter garbage they consume 24/7 in their news feeds. And with leaders like Reynolds encouraging the division, this issue is only going to get worse from here—and folks who care about their local schools better start coming up with a better plan to combat it.
Republican State Auditor
Mary Ann Hanusa suffered an embarrassing loss to Todd Halbur, a realtor and former comptroller for the Iowa Alcoholic Beverage Division. Little attention was paid to this race, but Hanusa had the backing of most of the Republican establishment in their quest to unseat Rob Sand.
Will that impact Republicans’ plan to beat Sand? Maybe. Whoever won this primary was going to need an awful lot of outside help in fundraising, and that would have been a easier fit with Hanusa. How Halbur works into the party’s overall plans is yet to be seen, but he could end up getting major financial backing anyway.
Democratic Secretary of State
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller handily won the Democratic nomination to take on Secretary of State Paul Pate, garnering 71% of the vote. Eric Van Lancker, the Clinton County Auditor, ran a more active campaign but Miller may have benefited from past news coverage of his fights with the Trump Administration.
How Franken Pulled Off His Win
Those who hadn’t been paying close attention (national reporters, we see you) to the Democratic Senate primary seemed surprised by Mike Franken’s victory. But many politics watchers in Iowa saw all the momentum swinging his way in the final two months, and his 15-point margin of victory is what happens when it all snowballs.
- Franken made electability a key facet of his race, and his military background has intrigued Democrats since he first ran back in 2020. This time he had more experience as a candidate, raised a lot more money, wasn’t boxed out by some DC groups, and built a pretty impressive grassroots volunteer base.
- The fallout over Finkenauer’s signatures snafu was compounded by the fact that it happened in mid-April, right as most voters were starting to tune into the race. The initial challenge to her candidacy in front of the elections board in March was really only watched by political insiders. But the judge’s decision to remove Finkenauer from the ballot, made as late as possible on a Sunday night, perfectly timed for maximum press coverage the next morning, was a story that “cut through,” as they say, and reached a huge number of Iowa voters with a week’s worth of news stories. To many Iowa voters outside Finkenauer’s congressional district, that was their first impression.
- Finkenauer raised a good deal of money, but only a small fraction of it went to TV ads. While her campaign raised $3.7 million, the Des Moines Register reported she’d only spent about $300,000 on TV.
- Finkenauer’s term limits issue may have been a useful general election topic for TV ads and a way to remind voters of Grassley’s long tenure, but it always felt to me like one of those issues where support is a mile wide but an inch deep—no one is actually deciding their vote on it. I should note that Franken also ran a very general election-like messaging campaign for the primary.
TV Spending Mattered
Why did Franken win most of Finkenauer’s old congressional district, including her home counties of Dubuque and Linn, while Finkenauer captured counties on the edges of the state? Simple: just match up the results map with a TV media market map and you have your answer. Can you take a big guess as to which markets Franken advertised in?
As the Register noted, Franken outspent Finkenauer by more than five times on TV, and it certainly helped in the outcome.
Throughout the race, I also noticed Franken running a clear, more robust digital messaging strategy in Iowa far before the final weeks. That seemed to pay off, too, and bears a follow-up look.
Happy primary day! Here's a look at federal candidates' Facebook engagements ahead of the election.
In Dems' Senate race, Franken has edged ahead of Finkenauer in weekly page engagements last few weeks, but they're still pretty close. Franken has had steady increase in followers pic.twitter.com/iIrwXvAvvR
— Pat Rynard (@patrynard) June 7, 2022
Grassley Escapes Primary Doubts
Chuck Grassley faced some real vulnerabilities as he sought his party’s nomination for an eight term in the Senate, but he largely escaped them on Tuesday night.
While parts of national liberal Twitter wants to imagine Grassley as Trump’s right-hand man in staging a coup, the reality of Grassley in person is much different. He panders from time to time to the fringe ideas now dominating the Republican Party, but he simply does not have the same enthusiasm or rhetoric for them as much of the base does, and the base knows it. There’s also a sense among right-wing activists that he’s simply been there too long and is out of touch, a notion that many general election voters share.
Fortunately for Grassley, his MAGA competition in state Sen. Jim Carlin ran an inept campaign that couldn’t get the basics down. What Carlin was saying during the primary was right in line with what’s motivating Republicans online these days—he simply couldn’t figure out a way to get that message in front of enough of them.
Had Carlin pulled 35%, or maybe just kept Grassley under 70%, there’d be more focus today on Grassley’s underlying vulnerabilities. They still certainly exist, but Grassley at least avoided a national political news cycle with his 73.5% to 26.5% victory.
Initial results show 195,355 votes in Republicans’ Senate primary and 156,589 votes in Democrats’ Senate contest. That’s a good omen for Republicans, but not a cataclysmic gap for Democrats.
For comparison’s sake to past non-presidential year primaries, 105,183 Republicans turned out in 2018 (a bad year for them) and 162,633 showed up in 2014 (a good year).
Democrats saw 182,736 voters turn out in the 2018 primary, while they had just 72,411 in 2014.
These aren’t perfect comparisons, as for each year, there were a varying number of competitive statewide primaries. But overall, Republican enthusiasm seems high while Democratic motivation is down from their 2018 numbers, just not dramatically so.
On Democratic Side, A Lack Of Trends
One of the best Iowa political trivia bits from 2018 was that there was only a single Democratic legislative primary where a man faced a woman and the man won—that was Zach Wahls. In every single other race, women swept their male competition. This came near the start of the #MeToo movement and carried on from the women’s marches in response to Trump’s election.
There wasn’t an overarching theme like that this time around.
The wins by gender in Democratic primaries were largely split this year. Sometimes the candidates with a more diverse background won, sometimes they didn’t.
Adam Zabner won a three-person Iowa City House primary. Izaah Knox prevailed two-to-one over Grace Van Cleave in the Des Moines-based SD 17. Austin Baeth came out of the six-person field with a surprising nearly-50% of the vote in a hotly-contested primary for the new Des Moines House seat. Molly Donahue narrowly pulled out the win for Marion-based SD 37. Mary Madison should be the new legislator for West Des Moines’ HD 31.
The Democratic bench in the Iowa House and Senate will be even more diverse after the 2022 elections, though for the most part that was due to many diverse candidates running.
Well, One Trend
Democratic voters have a lot of trust in doctors and medical experts following the coronavirus pandemic, and it seemed to help boost both Baeth and Megan Srinivas to wins in competitive Polk County-area races. While Kathleen Figaro didn’t have a primary out in Scott County, Democrats view the Bettendorf doctor as one of their top recruits for 2022.
We typically see the candidate pool change to reflect major national events or political moments. There were a lot of veterans who stepped up to run after the Iraq War, more women candidates during the #MeToo movement, and now health care professionals from the pandemic. Perhaps we’ll see a lot more educators run for office next cycle following Republicans’ incessant targeting of public schools.
Here’s a lesson that should have already been learned by now, especially on Des Moines’ South Side: it’s dangerous to go too negative in a local race where lots of people in the community know each other.
Such was the case in Megan Srinivas’ drubbing of Eddie Mauro, who has now faced his fourth Iowa campaign loss in as many cycles.
Maybe Srinivas was already on her way to a win Tuesday, but her 63.5% to 36.5% victory was one of the more eye-popping results from the night. The race got extremely contentious in the final stretch, with some Democratic and labor groups going so far as to call on Mauro to drop out of the race after a member of his team shared personal information on Srinivas on Twitter from her voter registration records.
Mauro’s team could simply have said, “hey, she recently moved into the district,” and kept it at that—that’s a pretty regular critique in campaigns, though I’m not sure how salient it would have proven. But instead, they couldn’t help themselves and went way overboard in trying to make the point about Srinivas, crossing the line into personal harassment and running messages that could be taken as insinuations about a woman of color.
Hardball tactics might work against statewide candidates that local voters have no personal connections to, or toward members of the other party in hyper-polarized years, but doing it in a local primary is often just begging for backlash.
Chickenman’s Return Thwarted
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that former legislator Mark Chelgren, known in Iowa circles as “chickenman” for his mostly-naked bike riding with chicken attire (don’t ask), lost the primary for the rural HD 26 outside of Ottumwa. Austin Harris, the recent campaign manager for Mariannette Miller-Meeks, won 55% to 45%.
But here’s a prediction: this could be the site of another Reynolds endorsement in future years.
Polk County Attorney Race
Kimberly Graham pulled off the win in the three-way race to replace John Sarcone, who’s been in the office since the 90s. Graham centered her bid on criminal justice reform, but it was a resonant message paired with a very well-executed and well-funded campaign that could be a model for progressive courthouse candidates in the future.
Her effort to reform the Polk County justice system will be a big story to watch going forward. One concern, though, is that Reynolds and other anti-local control Republicans may be watching too.
by Pat Rynard
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us here. Also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.