Government

Whither Iowa's crowded Congressional primaries?

“I voted” buttons lie in a bowl on the voting machine in Coralville. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
“I voted” buttons lie in a bowl on the voting machine in Coralville. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Each of Iowa’s four congressional races in 2020 is expected to be competitive, as is the state’s U.S. Senate race.

It was easy to look at those races a few months back and imagine competitive primary races with large primary fields in those races.

And yet, for the most part, that has not materialized.

This all comes with the concession that Iowa’s primary elections are still 11 months away and there remains plenty of time for these races to fill with candidates.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that most of these races have not yet drawn an overwhelming amount of interest from potential candidates.

The congressional races in Eastern Iowa’s 1st District and central Iowa’s 3rd District are perennially competitive. Democrats flipped both seats in 2018, and both parties will work hard and invest significant resources to win them in 2020.

And yet the Republican primary fields in those districts thus far are relatively quiet.

Ashley Hinson, a state legislator and former local TV anchor, is running in the 1st District. So is Winneshiek County farmer and businessman Thomas Hansen.

In the 3rd District, former congressman David Young is running for a chance to return to office. He is the only officially announced candidate, although state legislator Zach Nunn is considering a run and has been conducting a “listening tour” of the district.

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Those at least make for competitive primaries. But in 2014, five Democrats ran in the 1st District primary and seven Republicans ran in the 3rd District primary. Granted, those were both open-seat races.

Iowa’s 2nd District race became an instant tossup when U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack announced his plan to retire.

An open-seat race in a district held by a Democrat but won by Donald Trump — open the candidate flood gates, right?

Nope.

The Democratic field has largely cleared for Rita Hart, a former state legislator and candidate for lieutenant governor who has been endorsed by Loebsack, state Auditor Rob Sand and a long list of prominent Iowa Democrats. The only other Democrat running is Newman Abuissa, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation.

Republicans are not exactly flocking to the 2nd District race, either. In fact, as of Friday, there was no official candidate in the race.

Bobby Schilling, a former congressman from just across the Mississippi River in northwest Illinois who now lives in Iowa’s 2nd District, is widely expected to run.

More Republicans may join the race. Previous two-time candidate Chris Peters has ruled it out, but previous three-time candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks has not.

But as of now, the 2nd District GOP field is bare.

The hottest primary action thus far has been in a race with an incumbent. Go figure.

In western Iowa’s conservative 4th District, three candidates have lined up to challenge Rep. Steve King. The challengers are state legislator Randy Feenstra, county supervisor Jeremy Taylor and former mayor Bret Richards.

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King, who frequently comes under fire — including from this within his own party — over his comments on policies such as immigration, in 2018 eked out a victory by just 3 percentage points over Democrat J.D. Scholten in the heavily conservative district. That has emboldened the field of GOP primary challengers.

But the Democratic primary in the 4th District is, as of Friday, non-existent. No Democrats have announced a run, even though Scholten came so close to pulling off the impossible last year.

Likely, 4th District Democrats are waiting for Scholten to decide whether to mount another challenge. If he decides not to run, we may see multiple Democrats jump into the primary.

If Scholten does run again, however, other Democrats very well may stay away and we could have yet another in a long list of quiet congressional primaries.

In Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, a Democratic primary has formed in the race to challenge first-term GOP U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. But it has come with a finger on the scales.

Three Democrats are running in the primary: Des Moines real estate businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, Des Moines businessman Eddie Mauro and Indianola lawyer Kimberly Graham. But many Democrats have endorsed Greenfield — including the national Democratic Party organization that supports candidates for the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps in the coming weeks and months, some of these quieter primary races will become more crowded. For now, though, the fairly low level of interest from candidates has been surprising.

But fret not. At least we still have those roughly two dozen Democrats running for president.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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