Capitol Ideas: Election's end brings clarity to questions about Iowa

Would Democrat J.D. Scholten be able to build on his 2018 success to claim western Iowa's 4th Congressional District? Th
Would Democrat J.D. Scholten be able to build on his 2018 success to claim western Iowa’s 4th Congressional District? The Election Day’s answer: no. After winning the race, Republican Randy Feenstra makes his acceptance speech Tuesday surrounded by family at the Hull Public Library in Hull. (Jesse Brothers/Sioux City Journal via AP)

DES MOINES — Last week at this time, I had questions. Now, I have answers.

I wrote there were many unanswered questions heading into Tuesday’s elections, and I highlighted the top five things I was looking for in the results.

Well, the election results are in — for the most part — and now we have answers to those questions.

Q: Just how high will turnout go?

A: I wondered if Iowa might experience record turnout, even during a pandemic. The answer was a definitive yes.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate confirmed that Iowans cast more than 1.7 million votes in this election. That blows away the previous high turnout mark of 1,589,951 set in 2012.

Iowa’s turnout rate: 76 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, according to the state.

And there was a turnout record within the turnout record: More than 1 million absentee ballots were cast in the election, another all-time high for Iowa.

It almost seems counterintuitive. One might think a pandemic caused by an extremely viral disease would cause fewer people to vote. The opposite has been true all year; it was in the primary, too. And a big part of that has been the early and absentee voting. Many Iowans, and Americans nationwide, voted early, many by mail, to avoid having to come to the polling sites on Election Day.

Q. How long will the counting take?

A: As I suspected and wrote here last week, Iowa fared much better than some other states. We knew most of Iowa’s results Tuesday night, while a handful of states were still counting.

There are two main reasons for that.


One, Iowa’s top-of-the-ticket races, for president and a U.S. Senate seat, were not particularly close. The margins in those races were wide enough that it wasn’t important to wait until every last vote was confirmed to call the race. Those races were called reasonably early on Tuesday evening.

Iowa does have one congressional race — the 2nd District — still outstanding because of how close it is.

The other factor that helped Iowa report results quickly Tuesday night was state laws and policies that allowed local elections officials to start processing all those early ballots before Election Day. Because those officials were able to get a head start on the early ballots, they were able to finish counting them by Election Day and have them ready to report.

Q: Which way do the Obama-Trump counties go?

A: One of the major political discussions to come out of the 2016 presidential election was the Obama-Trump counties — counties that went for Barack Obama in 2012 but swung to Donald Trump in 2016. Iowa had 31 Obama-Trump counties, the most of any state, and had some of the counties nationwide that had the highest vote share swings from Obama to Trump.

The question coming into 2020 was whether those counties would remain loyal to Trump. In Iowa, the answer was definitive: They remained in Trump’s corner.

All 31 swing counties in Iowa that went for Trump in 2016 stayed with him this year. And in many of those counties, Trump did even better than he did then.

The question now, moving forward, is whether these counties are Trump counties that Democrats could win back without Trump on the ticket, or if they are counties simply becoming more Republican.

Q: Did J.D. Scholten already max out the Democrats’ 4th District hopes in 2018?


A: Fortunately for Republicans, and unfortunately for Democrats, the answer appears to be a definitive yes.

In 2018, Scholten nearly pulled off what would have been an incredible upset: In a western Iowa district that had 70,000 more Republican voters than Democrats, Scholten came within three percentage points of knocking off Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King, who regularly made news for making incendiary comments viewed by many as racist.

Obviously motivated by that close call, some Iowa Republicans mounted a primary challenge to King. And earlier this year, state Sen. Randy Feenstra knocked out King in the Republican primary.

So the question was whether Scholten, who ran again as the Democrat in the 4th District, could mount a similar challenge to Feenstra, a candidate that appeared likely to be far more palatable to Western Iowa Republicans. The answer was clear: Feenstra defeated Scholten by more than 90,000 votes, or 24 percentage points.

It would appear that 2018 may well have been Democrats’ best shot at winning there. What could change that view is how the district changes in the upcoming redistricting process.

Q: Will Iowa, for the first time in 36 years, toss out an incumbent U.S. senator?

A: The power of incumbency in Iowa prevails again. An incumbent U.S. senator in Iowa has not lost since 1984.

The contest this year between Republican first-term Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield was expected to be competitive. Nearly $240 million was spent on the race as both parties considered it pivotal for control of the chamber.


In the end, Ernst won by 6.7 percentage points, and Iowa’s U.S. Senate incumbents won an 11th consecutive re-election.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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