DES MOINES — Competitive congressional races will be as common next year in Iowa as Casey’s pizza.
Though so much attention is focused on the presidential race as Democratic hopefuls traverse the state, Iowans will face intriguing choices down ballot, too, as all four of the state’s U.S. House races are up for election in 2020.
Having heated races in all four districts is not typically what has happened over the last decade. Two of them routinely are competitive, but the other two have been much less so. This time, each is shaping up to be a free-for-all.
The 1st and 3rd districts will be as competitive as ever thanks to the politically balanced makeup of the voters in those districts.
Both districts are represented by freshman Democrats who took the seats away from Republican incumbents in 2018 — Abby Finkenauer of Dubuque over Rod Blum in the 1st, and Cindy Axne of West Des Moines over David Young in the 3rd.
What makes 2020 unusual is the addition of competitive races in the 2nd and 4th districts.
The 2nd District, currently held by Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa City, has been relatively safe for Democrats. But Loebsack is retiring from Congress and not seeking re-election.
Within minutes of the congressman’s announcement, an editor for a national political forecasting publication moved the race from “likely Democratic” to ”toss-up.”
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And the 4th District historically has been very safe for Republicans. But oft-embattled Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of Kiron won in 2018 by just 3 percentage points after making a series of statements supporting white supremacy and white nationalists.
Both seats promise to be competitive this cycle, giving Iowa even more politically intense campaigns from river to river and border to border in a presidential election year.
The national forecasters see the same thing coming. The Cook Political Report has Iowa’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts rated as toss-ups, and the 4th District “likely Republican.” Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has the 1st and 2nd as toss-ups, the 3rd as “leans Democratic” and the 4th as “likely Republican.”
“This is going to be one of the most active election cycles,” said Troy Price, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “So many races, so many different opportunities here on the ballot. I think it’s going to be a really exciting time.”
Exciting but daunting. Much work lies ahead for the parties as they must go all-in on all four races.
“Yes, it’s exciting. But at the same time, as chair of the party, I’m just going, ‘OK, let’s take a look at these resources and sharpen the pencils,’” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the state Republican Party.
The logistical challenges seem likely to increase for the state parties. With four races that could go either way, no stone can go unturned, no voter can go left uncontacted in any of the state’s 99 counties.
Price and Kaufmann said planning has already started.
Kaufmann said he expects help from the Trump presidential campaign and coordination with GOP U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, who also will be on the 2020 ballot.
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Kaufmann said he wants to help build one of the most efficient Republican campaign operations in the country. The state party is at full capacity with its field staff and is training workers, he said.
“It’s changed a lot of planning. It’s changed a lot of strategic initiatives in terms of where we’re going to place offices,” Kaufmann said.
Price said Democrats already have hired organizers in each congressional district, which is earlier than most campaign cycles. And he said Democrats will be able to build off the seemingly endless string of visits by Democratic presidential candidates by tapping into voter engagement.
“There’s a lot of energy within our party, a lot of excitement within our party at all these levels,” Price said. “These caucuses are going to allow us to build more infrastructure, get more people activated, get more people identified that we can reach out to.”
The opportunities and challenges vary for the two major parties.
Democrats were on the offense in 2018 when they flipped two seats to gain control of three of Iowa’s four U.S. House seats. This year, they will be largely on the defensive: they will have to defend two first-term representatives and win an open-seat race — in a district won in 2016 by Republican President Donald Trump — in order to keep it in Democratic hands.
“Iowa gives us three strong opportunities to pick up Democratic-held seats. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts all present very solid chances for Republican pickup,” said Bob Salera, with the Republican Party’s organization that works to elect GOP U.S. House candidates. “We’re confident with the way the socialist Democrats have overstepped since taking over the House, Iowans will be ready for new Republican leadership in all three districts, and we look forward to having a strong candidate to provide a clear contrast to the socialist Democratic agenda.”
Republicans must attempt to bounce back from their losses in the 1st and 3rd districts in 2018 despite many of the same issues — health care chief among them — driving the national conversation. And they must do so in a presidential election year, during which voter turnout historically improves in Democrats’ favor.
“Republicans clearly haven’t learned the lesson of 2018 because they are continuing to put forth candidates in Iowa who support ending protections for people with pre-existing conditions and who have chosen to stand with big pharmaceutical companies instead of lowering health care costs for families,” said Brooke Goren, with the Democrats’ national U.S. House campaign organization. “With health care on the ballot yet again in 2020, Iowa voters are energized and deeply motivated to re-elect Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, who have been listening to their concerns and fighting to get real results for working families in Congress.”
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A closer look at the races:
Iowa’s 1st Congressional District Race
Incumbent: Abby Finkenauer, Democrat (one term)
Possible challengers: Republicans Ashley Hinson and Rod Blum
Forecast: Finkenauer in 2018 defeated Blum, who had served for two terms. Hinson, a state legislator and former local TV news anchor, has declared her candidacy. Blum has not yet ruled it out. Finkenauer will have to again win in a district that in 2018 was carried by Trump.
Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District Race
Possible challengers: Democrat Rita Hart and Republicans Bobby Schilling, Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Bobby Kaufmann
Forecast: Hart is a former state senator who was the running mate of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell in 2018. Schilling is a former congressman from just east of the Mississippi River in northwest Illinois. He has moved to Iowa and is making moves that suggest he is likely to run. Miller-Meeks unsuccessfully challenged Loebsack in the past. Kaufmann is a state legislator and the son of Jeff Kaufmann. Christopher Peters of Coralville, who twice unsuccessfully challenged Loebsack, announced on Facebook he won’t run in 2020 but is “not ruling out a campaign in the future!”
Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District Race
Incumbent: Cindy Axne, Democrat (one term)
Possible challengers: Republicans David Young and Zach Nunn
Forecast: Young has officially declared to try to reclaim the seat, while Nunn is holding a town hall tour while he considers a run. Axne defeated Young in 2018 by a close margin, and Republicans feel in 2020 they can boost turnout in areas where Young did well in 2018, perhaps closing that gap.
Iowa’s 4th Congressional District Race
Incumbent: Steve King, Republican (nine terms)
Possible challengers: Democrat J.D. Scholten, Republicans Randy Feenstra, Jeremy Taylor and Bret Richards
Forecast: Scholten nearly accomplished the unthinkable in 2018, coming within 3 points of King. He has not yet decided whether he will run in this race or perhaps challenge Ernst in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race. King isn’t even guaranteed to be his party’s nominee: he faces a primary challenge from three Republicans. Feenstra got off to a strong start with a big fundraising haul.