Staff Columnist

The year of the split-ticket voters

Iowans swung for Republicans at state level, Democrats at federal level

Voters fill in their ballots Tuesday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Legislature in 2017 eliminated straight-ticket voting, which helps account for the purple results of the election. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Voters fill in their ballots Tuesday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Legislature in 2017 eliminated straight-ticket voting, which helps account for the purple results of the election. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

What the heck happened last Tuesday?

The recent elections seemed to have something to make everyone mad. High turnout and record-breaking campaign spending delivered scattershot results, difficult at first glance to glean an overarching election storyline.

Voters in Iowa ousted Republican U.S. Reps. Rod Blum and David Young, in favor of Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne in heavily targeted swing districts. They also delivered U.S. Rep. Steve King his tightest re-election ever in his heavily Republican district.

Conversely, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds narrowly fended off Democrat Fred Hubbell, her well-funded and well-connected challenger. And voters chose to send Republican majorities back to the Iowa House and Iowa Senate in Des Moines, securing the party’s state government trifecta two more years.

Republicans kept two other statewide executive offices, while Democrats held on to two statewide seats and picked up another, with State Auditor Mary Mosiman losing to Rob Sand. Democrats also had high hopes for young first-time candidates for agriculture secretary and secretary of state, but they fell short.

The national election landscape was dotted with both triumphs and heartbreakers for each party. Democrats picked up U.S. House seats to gain control of the chamber and picked up governor’s seats, but not as many as some hoped.

And not to be forgotten, Iowa Libertarian Party members hoped to capitalize on their new official party status with a full slate of statewide and federal candidates, but gubernatorial candidate Jake Porter fell short of the 2 percent needed to maintain party status. The organization will revert to a non-party political organization.

Among the winners, there were few decisive mandates. Among four U.S. House races and six statewide races, only one candidate — Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, running without a Republican opponent — achieved more than 55 percent.

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It was much easier for commentators to characterize Iowa’s last midterm elections in 2014, when Iowa Republicans outperformed expectations in state and federal races. Still, a closer look at this year’s numbers reveals some insights.

Unofficial results show Reynolds won by about 40,000 votes over Hubbell, while Democrats running for Congress collected about 50,000 more votes than their Republican opponents, a swing of nearly 90,000 votes.

Those figures suggest a significant portion of voters split their ballots between parties, and I say that’s a positive sign. Iowans voting in this election were not as motivated by sheer partisanship as I suspected.

The disparity in state and national results may also be a sign some voters are displeased with President Donald Trump and the congressmen who carry out his agenda, but they aren’t taking their frustration out on state policymakers.

You also can thank the elimination of straight-ticket voting for Tuesday’s purple results. The option to check a single box to vote for one party in all races was nixed by the Legislature last year. I applauded that change because I think straight-ticket voting encouraged lazy voter habits, though the long-term effects remain unclear.

Despite the sharply partisan rhetoric consuming state and national politics, Iowa’s political middle still exists. Republicans and Democrats alike are right to celebrate their victories, but they all would do well to remember the ticket-splitters who decided this year’s elections.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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