ELECTION 2020

Mariannette Miller-Meeks leads by 47 votes ahead of recount in House 2 race

Recount all but certain in race for who succeeds Dave Loebsack

The last time an Iowa congressional race was this close, the U.S. had yet to enter World War 1, Woodrow Wilson was president and U.S. troops were sent over the U.S.-Mexico border to pursue Pancho Villa and his Mexican raiders.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa led in the U.S. House 2 race by 47 votes over Democrat Rita Hart of Wheatland.

More than 394,000 votes were cast in the race for who succeeds U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa City, who is retiring after six terms in Congress.

Iowa political and legal experts say it’s anyone’s guess whether that unofficial total will stand.

And Iowans may not have an officially declared winner in the 2nd Congressional District race until after Thanksgiving.

“It’s extraordinary to have a race this close,” said Des Moines attorney and longtime Iowa GOP operative Doug Gross. “And the fact that (the lead) changed a couple of times, I can’t recall that ever happening. It makes you want to be even more careful and check every precinct, which makes it highly likely there will be a recount.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the still-updating unofficial results showed Miller-Meeks with 196,862 votes to Hart’s 196,815.

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On Monday, FiveThirtyEight Politics labeled the open-seat race as likely the closest federal race in the nation this year.

The margin on Wednesday was just 0.02 percentage points.

“I’ve been in some close races, and you generally don’t think a congressional race will come down to that few votes,” said Grant Woodard, a Des Moines attorney and former Iowa Democratic campaign operative.

No Iowa congressional race has been so close and headed to a recount in more than a century, said Leo Landis, state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa.

The tightest Iowa congressional race to come close was the 1916 election of Republican George C. Scott, who won by 131 votes over Democrat T.J. Steele to represent Iowa’s then 11th Congressional District.

Since then, only three state congressional races have come within 500 votes.

The dominance of the Republican Party in Iowa that began in the Civil War era and lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s kept most U.S. House elections in Iowa from being close, Landis said.

“As Iowa became more urban and some farm support moved to Democrats in the Great Depression, U.S. House races became more competitive into the 1960s,” he said.

“As urban communities have grown and rural support has been variable, more and more races are competitive in Iowa, especially those without an incumbent or a person defending their seat for the first time, as in the Hinson-Finkenauer race or the Axne-Young race this year.”

Democrats hold a slight advantage over Republicans in terms of registered voters in the district. However, no-party voters make up a large portion the district’s electorate.

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“And it looks like a good numbers of them went for Miller-Meeks,” said Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

The district also contains nine of Iowa’s 31 “pivot” counties clustered along the Mississippi River that voted twice for Democrat Barack Obama before swinging in favor of Republican Donald Trump in 2016, and stayed with Trump this year. Iowa had the most pivot counties of any state, all of which again backed Trump in last week’s election.

“Given those number of swing counties and pivot counties that again went all for Trump this time, if you’re voting for Republicans and the top of the ticket, chances are good you’re likely to vote for Republicans down ballot,” Hagle said.

The district has been seen as a safe seat for Democrats for more than a decade, up until this election.

“No-party voters like incumbents, but without an incumbent in this race, they were free to go whichever way they want,” Hagle said. “Those pivot counties made it more competitive that would normally be the case.”

Miller-Meeks on Wednesday claimed victory, despite another recount ordered in the tight race, the result of a second discovery of erroneously reported results, in Lucas County, that flipped the lead from Hart to Miller-Meeks. A previous reporting error in Jasper County flipped the race from Miller-Meeks’ favor to Hart.

Hart’s campaign on Wednesday stressed the “vote totals in the race continue to fluctuate, and both Iowa officials and independent news organizations have made it clear the race still is too close to call.”

The Associated Press announced in was suspending its tabulation until general election results are certified by the state on Nov. 30.

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As of Wednesday afternoon, 19 of the district’s 24 counties had submitted certified election results to the Iowa Secretary of State following the official canvass of votes by county election officials on Monday and Tuesday.

Counties are not required to submit their certified results until Monday.

“The process is working as it should,” Kevin Hall, communications director for the Iowa Secretary of State, said. “This could be the closest federal race in the nation this year. We are working with county auditors to make sure every vote is counted and is accurately reflected in the totals.”

And with so few votes between them, political observers and election experts say it’s nearly a certainty that both campaigns will requests recounts.

The campaigns have until 5 p.m. Friday to request a recount paid for by the state because of the razor-thin margin in the race.

While recounts typically seldom change the outcome of a race, “the fact we’ve had a couple of these (lead) changes, means there’s a level of uncertainty in the numbers,” said Gross, an adviser to former Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, and a candidate for governor in 2002.

“When you’re this close, any little change could spell the difference,” Gross said.

Just two votes in each of the district’s 24 counties would put Hart over the edge, based on the unofficial results.

“Usually, a recount never changes the outcome, except when it’s within 20 to 25 votes at the most,” Gross said. “But in this case, it’s hard predicting when you have several hundred vote swings in two precincts that totally miscounted the votes. And I never saw an election change twice after Election Day. We shouldn’t have that kind of flip again, now that counties have canvassed. The odds are with Miller-Meeks ... but 47 votes is well within the range where a recount could have an impact, definitely.”

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Both Hagle, the U of I professor, and Woodard, the former Iowa Democratic campaign operative, said Hart will want to focus on heavily Democratic Johnson County, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans more than 2-to-1, making up for any Republican registration advantages elsewhere in the district.

“Hart will want a recount in Johnson County, hoping to squeeze out more votes there, and Miller-Meeks will want to do the same in heavily Republican counties in the district,” Woodard said. “I can see a recount changing the results, but at the same time, you have to protect that result, too, and squeeze out more if you’re the Hart campaign and protect what you have if you’re the Miller-Meeks campaign.”

Woodard said he anticipates a hand recount in all 24 counties in the district in the coming weeks.

“It’s not going to flip the majority in the U.S. House, but the margin certainly comes closer, and no expense will be sparred by (the political fundraising arms of House Democrats and Republicans),” he said. “I think it’s going to be a pretty wild ride for everyone involved.

“I think recounts will happen in relatively short order, but 50/50 that we’ll know a winner before Thanksgiving.”

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