DES MOINES — A tale of two Iowas, urban and rural, may be responsible for some unusual midterm election results, even in this state that for years has been proudly politically purple.
Democrats and Republicans both claimed crucial victories in Tuesday’s elections. Democrats flipped two Congressional seats in Iowa, helping give the party control of the U.S. House. Republicans won a hotly contested race for governor and fought off a challenge to their majority in the Iowa House.
So how did Democrats knock off two Republican U.S. House members but fall short in the statewide races?
Conversely, how did Republicans do so well on the state level but lose two Congressional incumbents?
Experts and campaign veterans said myriad factors likely influenced such an unusual outcome, but one recurring theme in their explanations was the divide between the state’s urban and rural voters.
That the state’s urban areas tend to favor Democrats and rural areas tend to favor Republicans is not new. But the phenomenon may be becoming more pronounced.
And that may help explain why Democrats Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne defeated incumbent Republicans in two of the state’s U.S. House races — by loading up on votes in the big cities within those districts — while at the same time Republican Kim Reynolds won a close governor’s race — by loading up on votes in the vast expanse of rural counties outside the state’s largest cities.
“I think a part of it, it’s just part of the urban-rural divide in Iowa and the fact that that contrast is as stark as it’s ever been,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
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Larimer said in congressional districts, Democratic candidates can rack up enough votes in the cities to offset their deficits in rural areas.
For statewide candidates, it is more challenging to accumulate enough votes to overcome losses in all of the state’s rural counties.
“There still in Iowa is a pretty good urban-rural split, and we’re in an age in which starting with the (President Donald Trump) victory that in many ways it is the fundamental division between the parties,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University.
Goldford said Axne was able to defeat Republican incumbent David Young because she drove up her margin in Polk County — beating Young by more than 30,000 votes there — which enabled her to overcome Young’s advantages in rural counties. Axne won by just more than 5,000 votes.
Hubbell fared “reasonably well” in the state’s largest cities, Goldford said, but it was not enough to overcome Reynolds’ advantages in the rest of the state.
Another theory is that Iowa voters sent a message to their various levels of representative government, that they feel the state is headed in the right direction but the federal government is in need of change. That would explain why Iowans voted to keep Republicans in control at the state level but voted out two GOP members of Congress.
Larimer said research suggests voters consider the national economy when voting for federal candidates and consider their state’s economy when voting for state candidates.
“If that research is right, if that’s what voters (in Iowa) were doing, that would make sense that we would see some of these results,” Larimer said.
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Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said while Democrats are disappointed they did not fare better in the state-level races, he is proud of the party’s performance after suffering debilitating losses in the 2014 and 2016 elections.
“We’re still waiting to see how everything shakes out, so I can’t say for certain what happened (Tuesday) to get us that split result, but I will say from where we started two years ago, people said we couldn’t even be competitive (Tuesday), let alone do what we did.”
Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican state party, said Young and Rep. Rod Blum faced historical trends that put them in danger, and beyond that he was pleased how Iowa Republicans competed in the state-level races.
“When we were devoid of that national trend how did we fare?” Kaufmann said. “I feel very good about having come out on top in almost all of those races.”