116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s suburbs and areas around urban centers are a major political battleground for the state’s legislative elections in November.
Most of the contested statehouse races are happening in Iowa’s suburbs and outside metro areas, which will decide the makeup of the next General Assembly.
Republicans are focusing their campaigning on inflation, high gas prices and social issues in schools — hoping a national trend of suburban voters moving to the Republican Party holds true in Iowa.
Democrats are keeping the focus off of federal politics, as they grapple with a president who holds historically low approval ratings in the state. Many Democrats in the suburbs are focusing attention on Iowa issues, namely abortion rights in the state and support for public schools.
“Federal politics in Iowa, the U.S. Senate race, and even Cindy Axne’s race, is not going to be as important as the governor’s race, as the Iowa Legislature’s race,” said Bryce Smith, chair of the Dallas County Democrats. “Because now we’re seeing that the decisions around reproductive freedoms and roles like that are going to be left up to states at this point.”
The focus from both parties reflects what’s on Iowa voters’ minds, according to the latest Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll. Sixty percent of respondents said inflation was a critical concern, followed by gas prices and abortion rights, both at 54 percent.
Republicans see this year as a potential “red wave,” hoping to capitalize on record-low support for Biden and inflation pains to bring undecided voters into their tent. In the same Iowa Poll, just 23 percent of overall respondents had a favorable view of Biden. For Democrats alone, approval was at 71 percent.
In organizing voters in suburban areas, Dallas County Republicans Chair Kelly Koch said inflation and gas prices are big concerns. She said voters connect those issues with national Democrats, helping the Republicans campaigning in the state.
“We catch the crap coming from D.C. and we lock it into what we're doing here and it's just more ammunition. … (Biden is) just giving us gift after gift after gift for these campaigns,” Koch said.
With public opinion on abortion rights on their side, Iowa Democrats are putting the issue at the top of the list when campaigning, especially in suburban areas.
The latest Iowa Poll found that 60 percent of Iowans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 34 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Democrats in Scott County are trying to connect with less politically active voters to persuade them to vote for Democrats who will protect abortion access, county party’s Chair Matt Trimble said.
“The Supreme Court decisions that are rolling back freedoms that we thought were guaranteed has made so many seemingly unimportant interactions you have with voters even more important,” he said. “That they know they've got people who care about their own personal freedom, their own rights, their own access to public services that are really at stake.”
The June court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, which overturned the federal right to an abortion and allowed states to regulate abortions, made people who may not be active in politics care about state elections, party leaders said.
“I think a lot of people, especially suburban women, kind of took that for granted in a way of saying, ‘That’s the law of the land, that can't be changed,’” Smith said. “And now they're saying, ‘Wow, my voice is important. I need to speak up.’”
Schools are also proving a central dividing line for both parties in the suburbs. Running on frustration around social issues and COVID-19 protocols in public schools, conservative-backed candidates won seats in 2021 to school boards in Johnston, Ankeny and other areas.
Koch said candidates are organizing around those issues again this year. State Sen. Jake Chapman, an incumbent Republican who was drawn into the same Dallas County district as Democratic Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, led the charge last year against what he called “obscene” materials in school libraries.
The concerns led both the House and Senate to pass versions of bills that would require schools to post classroom and library materials online. But neither of the bills became law.
In an interview in early July, Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann said beyond the economy, school curriculum and parents’ involvement was a major driver toward Republicans in the suburbs.
“If I had to name one other issue that’s driving things appearing to go our way in the suburbs … is this whole idea of parents having the final decision-making power with their kids in terms of what they learn, what they don’t learn,” he said.
Democrats are focusing on school funding in campaigning, party leaders said, skewering Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to provide public school funds to families to send students to private schools. The issue split Republicans in the June primary, with many Reynolds-backed candidates winning over candidates who were opposed to the measure.
“Teachers are fed up,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said in a July news conference. “ They're sick of the attacks on them. They're sick of the attacks on their students. And they've had enough and so I think that you're going to see this voucher issue continue to unite Democrats.”