ELECTION 2020

Democrats believe Iowa House in reach

GOP campaigns aggressively to keep trifecta control

(File photo) The House chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines in 2018. (The Gazette)
(File photo) The House chambers in the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines in 2018. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — For the past four years, Iowa’s lawmaking process has been under total Republican control.

Democrats failed to regain a seat at the table in 2018 when Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds won the election, continuing GOP control of the Iowa House, Iowa Senate and the governor’s office.

Iowa Democrats’ next-best opportunity is upon them: this election’s race for majority control of the Iowa House.

Republicans hold 53 seats and Democrats 47 in the House. And Democrats believe they can win enough House races across the state to regain a majority they have not held since 2010.

“I would say I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Rep. Todd Prichard, from Charles City, leader of the House Democrats. “We know that the House is definitely in play, and we know that we’re competitive. Our candidates are running great campaigns in districts across the state where we have to win if we want to be in the majority. We’re cautiously optimistic, but it’s a competitive environment.”

The House majority likely hinges on roughly 20 races across the state.

House Democrats gained a net six seats in 2018 — narrowing Republicans’ edge in the chamber from 59-41 to 53-47 — and they feel they can finish that job in 2020 and retake the majority.

They have targeted a number of open-seat races in districts where registered voters are politically balanced, plus some Republican incumbents who may be vulnerable for various reasons.

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House Republicans, however, contend they are not only defending their incumbents, they also are campaigning aggressively in Democratic-held districts. If Republicans flip any Democratic seats, that would make it that much more difficult for Democrats to take the majority.

“This is why it’s so hard to regain a majority when you’re the minority. Because you can have good targets, you can have good opportunities, but if you lose one of your own, all of a sudden, man, it is a much bigger lift,” Craig Robinson, a Republican consultant, said during recording of the latest episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS. “And again, Republicans are on the offensive in some of these areas with really good candidates. And so you flip one of them, you make that chore of regaining the House even more difficult.”

Some of Democrats’ top pickup opportunities are in the same kind of places they made many of those gains in 2018. Their biggest gains two years ago came in the Des Moines suburbs: Democrats flipped five seats there, leaving only two Republicans among the 14 lawmakers representing Polk County.

The district perhaps most poised to flip to Democrats in this election is in the Cedar Rapids and Marion suburbs.

The District 67 has been represented by Republican Ashley Hinson, who this year is running for Congress. Now it is an open-seat race, and Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in the district.

Republican Sally Ann Abbott is running against Democrat Eric Gjerde in District 67.

Another suburban seat in play is in the northern Des Moines suburb of Ankeny. Democrats flipped the southern portion of Ankeny in 2018, but Republican John Landon held on in the north side. This year, Democrats believe they will be able to defeat Landon; he is being challenged by Democrat Andrea Phillips.

Democrats also have targeted Republican incumbents in Scott County: a suburban-style district in Bettendorf, represented by Gary Mohr, and a suburban-rural district represented by Ross Paustian.

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“The recipe is sort of what we saw last cycle in these suburban seats,” Prichard said. “It is a similar recipe” this year.

Democrats also are targeting open-seat races where Republicans retired from the House: in Council Bluffs, Muscatine and rural Linn County.

And they hope to claim a Republican-held district that includes Decorah, a race that in 2018 was decided by just nine votes and included a legal challenge over uncounted absentee ballots. The same candidates will rematch in this year’s race: Republican Michael Bergan and Democrat Kayla Koether.

They also have targeted Republican incumbent Jeff Shipley in a southeast Iowa district that includes Fairfield. That will be another rematch: Shipley is being challenged by Democrat Phil Miller.

“I’m really proud of the hard work our incumbents and the people that we’ve recruited to be challengers,” Prichard said. “These are the caliber of people that we want to represent us and set the policy for the future of the state. These are the people that can lead us into the next decade. I’m excited to work with this group of people, and I’m excited about what we can accomplish. I’m really hopeful. … These people give me hope. They really do.”

Pat Grassley, the House speaker and leader of the House Republicans, said they will not only defend their seats, but are campaigning aggressively in Democrat-held districts as well, especially where other Republican candidates have performed well, like President Donald Trump in 2016 or Reynolds in 2018.

Republicans are not yet ready to concede all of those suburban Des Moines seats they lost in 2018, they like their chances in an open-seat race in swingy northeast Iowa, and they believe they can flip a seat after a state representative flipped on them.

Rep. Andy McKean, who had established a record as the longest-tenured Republican to serve in the Iowa Legislature, switched parties in 2019, becoming a Democrat.

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Republicans feel they can defeat McKean and win back the largely rural district in Eastern Iowa’s Jackson and Jones counties. McKean, now a Democrat, faces Republican Steven Bradley, a dentist from Cascade.

Democrats have a slight voter advantage in the district, which has an unusual recent history with party-switchers. Before McKean, the district was represented by Republican Brian Moore, who had previously run as a Democrat for the Iowa Senate.

Republicans also have targeted Central Iowa Democratic incumbents in Newton and Indianola and like their chances for an open seat in northeast Iowa’s Fayette County.

“We’re playing offense in so many races that we have not in the past several elections. This is a much bigger picture than just flipping four races,” Grassley said. “This is not just about Republicans being on defense. We’re playing more offense in this election than — it goes back years.”

Some of Grassley’s optimism stems from the different ways the political parties have managed campaigning during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are exceptions, generally, Republican candidates resumed door-to-door, in-person campaigning while Democrats have opted to avoid those in-person conversations and focused on making phone calls and distributing literature.

Political science experts say studies show in-person conversations are the best way to persuade people to vote.

But some candidates have been apprehensive about holding those in-person conversations during the pandemic. Public health experts recommend people maintain at least 6 feet between each other in order to avoid potentially spreading the virus.

Prichard, who also has been targeted by House Republicans’ offensive, said it is up to the individual Democratic candidate whether they campaign door-to-door and interact with voters.

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“I haven’t been door-knocking, but I have been walking the neighborhoods, dropping literature and talking to people when I felt safe doing that. But I’m in a different situation in my rural district than some people are in more urban areas,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, yeah, we would absolutely be campaigning the way we normally do, and that’s with the shoe leather and knocking on doors. But we’ve just had to make those adjustments for public safety and for the safety of our candidates and staff, too. We don’t want to put anybody in danger.”

Republicans said they are door-knocking responsibly during the pandemic, by knocking and then standing back at least 6 feet while talking to prospective voters.

“There’s a safe way that you can do things you just have to be smart about it,” Grassley said.

Pat Rynard, publisher of the liberal Iowa Starting Line website and a former Democratic campaign worker, expressed concern that Democrats’ hesitation could cost them votes in critical statehouse elections.

“I’m a little concerned about it because I think Democrats are not getting some of those drop-off voters (who are) less likely to vote if you don’t actually go to their doors,” Rynard said during the “Iowa Press” recording. “I think there is probably a way that you could have come up with that would have been safe, and they haven’t done that.”

Early voting has already begun in Iowa for the general election. Election Day is Nov. 3.

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