Did Iowa's special election have a special result? Maybe not

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By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

It would seem to be the special election heard ’round the world.

But as pundits attempt to forecast the next presidential election and control of Congress based on just over 7,000 votes cast in three southeast Iowa counties, at least one is urging caution.

On Tuesday, Democrat Phil Miller won a special election in the Iowa House’s 82nd District. The seat became vacant with the death of state Rep. Curt Hanson. Miller, a veterinarian, defeated Republican Travis Harris and two others.

The political takes came in hot and heavy for one reason: Democrats won a Trump district.

The Democrat, indeed defeated his Republican opponent by 9 percentage points in a district that went for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 by 21 percentage points.

Democrats pounced on the result, proclaiming a change in the political headwinds. And not just local Democrats.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement about it.

“The tide is turning against Trump and Republican lawmakers,” Perez declared.

Democrats nationally are recovering from consecutive devastating elections in 2014 and 2016. They are hopeful the 2018 races will start to reverse that trend.

But there are many reasons to be cautious about declaring Miller’s victory a harbinger of future results.

Iowa’s 82nd District encompasses all of Davis and Van Buren counties, and the western half of Jefferson County, including the cities of Fairfield and Maharishi Vedic City. The district’s partisan voter registry is fairly balanced; its active registered voter population is 35 percent Republican, 33 percent Democrat and 31 percent no-party, according to the most recent data.

While Trump won the district in 2016, so did Hanson, who was unopposed. Hanson also won the seat comfortably in the 2012 presidential election year, and scored a narrow victory in the 2014 GOP wave year.

Predicting election results based on a statehouse race is dangerous, said University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer.

“Those are local races. Those are a lot more about personal politics and do you know the person running,” Larimer said. “So I think projecting down to that level, to say that that’s an indication that the president’s party is going to have widespread trouble in 2018, I think I would be much more cautious about doing that for that kind of race than for a federal race.”

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net

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