Sidelined Democrats envision Iowa House win

The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Democrats believe it’s their turn this fall to flip control in the Iowa Capitol.

If they do — and it’s a tall orders — it will be thanks in part to a two-year fundraising effort that has been strong but falls short of the record numbers posted in 2015 and 2016, when Republicans gained their majority in the Iowa Senate.

Democrats feel a majority in the Iowa House is within their grasp in November’s elections, even though they go in at a nine-seat disadvantage. There are 41 Democrats in the House, so they need to flip 10 seats to gain a majority.

With many Republican retirements, the potential for a national wave of support for Democratic candidates and what the party considers encouraging trends in special statehouse elections these past two years, Iowa Democrats believe they can overcome the disadvantage.

If they do, it would end Republicans’ complete control of the state lawmaking process at the Iowa Capitol. The GOP for the past two years has occupied the governor’s office and held majorities in the House and Senate.

“It’s a realistic goal,” said Iowa Rep. Mark Smith of Marshalltown, the Democratic leader in the House.

Such an undertaking will require resources, and Democrats say their fundraising has been strong. Smith said House Democrats outraised their GOP counterparts in the first quarter of 2018, and now go into peak campaign season on equal financial footing.


“Our candidates are motivated and knocking on thousands of doors and raising money,” Smith said. “I’m proud of the work our candidates have done.”

Linda Upmeyer, the Republican House Speaker from Clear Lake, said Democrats will not be able to “buy Iowans” in the election.

“Republicans are running on a positive record of results while Democrats are focused on hyperbole and doom and gloom,” Upmeyer said in a statement. “Our team has shown time and again that we know what it takes to win tough campaigns and that will be reflected this November.”

If Democrats manage to flip the Iowa House, they will do so with far fewer resources than Republicans collected before they flipped the Iowa Senate in 2016.

Thanks in large part to big-money contributions by individual donors, then-Senate Republican leader Bill Dix raised a staggering $2 million in 2015 and 2016. When Dix raised nearly $530,000 in 2015, the Republican Party of Iowa said at the time that was a state record. He raised another $1.5 million in 2016.

Smith has raised roughly $230,000 in 2017 and 2018, according to state records.

Campaign donations to legislative leaders are critical because leaders share those resources to help their party’s candidates get elected.

Individual campaign reports, on the other hand, do not tell the complete story because candidates sometimes direct fundraising instead directly to the state party.

And Smith needs not beat Dix’s record fundraising haul; he and his fellow Democrats need to secure only enough resources to put together a campaign that helps them flip the 10 seats.

“The fundraising is great,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, a Democrat from Mason City. “I really think people are seeing that’s what it takes.”

Democrats also had a successful candidate recruitment period, and Smith said Republicans will be forced to spend money to defend seats that they have not in the past, theoretically leaving fewer resources for the most competitive races across the state.

And Iowa Democrats are not fighting the fundraising battle on their own. Outside groups are involved as well.

Emily’s List, for example, has endorsed a number of Democratic statehouse candidates. And that endorsement comes with some financial assistance. The organization supports female candidates in favor of abortion rights across the country.

The new group Flip It Iowa has been supporting Democratic statehouse candidates as well. The group was designed to mobilize people in solid Democratic districts in order to provide financial support to candidates in other, more competitive districts.

The biggest donors to Smith have been unions, which typically are supportive of Democratic candidates. AFSCME Council 61, the largest public employee union in the state, has contributed $20,000 to Smith this year, and the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO donated $10,000.

The top individual donor to Smith over the past two years has been Lynette Rasmussen, who cut a $10,000 check in 2017. Rasmussen is general counsel at The Rasmussen Group, a heavy construction company.

Edward Friedman, a physician in Redfield, gave $5,000 this year.

Janet Petersen, leader of the Iowa Senate Democrats, raised roughly $57,200 in 2017. Because she is not currently up for re-election, she has not been required to file a campaign fundraising report this year.


Control of the Senate is not considered in play this year, as Democrats face a challenging election road map. All of the Iowa House seats are up for election, while half of the Senate seats are.

In addition to their fundraising, Democrats feel momentum is on their side in the campaign, and they point as proof to recent statehouse special elections.

Although Republicans kept control of all three seats they held going into the special elections, the Democratic candidates in each case fared far better in the special election than the Democratic candidate did in the 2016 election.

That movement has given Democrats hope that the political winds are shifting in their direction, although elections experts have cautioned against relying on special election results to predict future general election outcomes.

“Based on the results we’ve seen in special elections so far, we are playing offense this cycle,” Smith said.

And there is the potential for that “blue wave.”

For months, national polling has suggested voters are leaning more toward Democratic candidates this election cycle, which could portend gains for the party in this fall’s elections. Like their counterparts in Iowa, federal-level Democrats feel they have a chance to gain a majority in the U.S. House.

If that comes to fruition, it could also help Iowa Democrats down the ticket.

Smith said House Democrats feel that up for grabs are as many as a dozen suburban seats — the kind of districts where President Donald Trump typically is most unpopular — and a half-dozen seats that are held by Republicans or open in districts that Democratic President Barack Obama won in 2012.

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