Government

Tuesday primary will reveal results of unprecedented campaign season

Coronavirus pandemic prevented Iowa Senate, House candidates from meeting voters face to face

Michael Franken, Kimberly Graham, Theresa Greenfield, Eddie Mauro and Cal Woods appeared individually at the beginning o
Michael Franken, Kimberly Graham, Theresa Greenfield, Eddie Mauro and Cal Woods appeared individually at the beginning of an online forum April 19 for Iowa Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate. A very unusual campaign season — in which the coronavirus pandemic forced candidates to forego in-person events in favor of virtual interactions — will culminate with Tuesday’s primary election. (Screenshot via The Gazette)

In this unprecedented primary election, all we have are questions.

Only when we have Tuesday’s results will we start to have some answers.

Iowa’s statewide primary election includes competitive races on the Democratic side in the state’s U.S. Senate race and on the Republican side in U.S. House Districts 2 and 4. Election Day is Tuesday, but it will be no ordinary Election Day. As with so many things during this global coronavirus pandemic, we are swimming in uncharted waters.

It has been a primary campaign unlike any other, and the election itself will be just as unique. That makes it difficult to have a feel for what the results might look like.

Let’s start with the incredible fact that turnout is already triple what it was four years ago, and we haven’t even made it to Election Day.

Because of the pandemic, elections officials statewide have encouraged voters to vote early by casting an absentee ballot by mail.

Consider that message received.

As of Friday, Iowans had requested more than 487,000 absentee ballots. And the 336,529 already returned is more than triple the number of ballots cast in the state’s 2016 U.S. Senate primary.

What kind of impact that type of turnout will have on those competitive races is anybody’s guess and one of the more interesting things to watch when the results are reported Tuesday. Does that abnormally high turnout help the favorites and perceived front-runners, or does it allow underdogs or lesser-funded candidates to close the gap?

This was a unique campaign season, with candidates mostly unable to hold public events. The virus made it nearly impossible to have in-person interactions with voters, so the candidates were forced online to virtual forums. Typically, candidates with more money can use that advantage to hold more public events, run TV ads and build their organizations, thus reaching more voters.

Was that advantage nullified by this campaign?

So many questions, so few answers. And Tuesday’s results will only begin to provide answers.

These are significant races, too.

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Democrats are deciding which candidate to put up against Republican freshman incumbent U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. That race should start out competitive and likely will receive national attention, as forecasters believe it is a key contest in the national race for control of the U.S. Senate.

Western Iowa Republicans are deciding whether to unseat one of their own in nine-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve King, who faces a well-funded challenge from state Sen. Randy Feenstra.

And Eastern Iowa Republicans are picking a candidate to run in an open-seat race — in a district won by President Donald Trump — after the retirement of seven-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack.

It has been an election campaign without comparison. Starting Tuesday night, the results hopefully will help us better understand its impact.

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

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