With ballots outstanding and recount possible, Iowa U.S. House 2 race remains a question mark

Iowa 2nd Congressional candidate State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Ottumwa, speaks to reporters during an election
Iowa 2nd Congressional candidate State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Ottumwa, speaks to reporters during an election night watch party, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, at the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort in Riverside, Iowa. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)

Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks pulled off what appeared a photo finish late Tuesday night in a tight race for an open southwest Iowa U.S. House race. But it is not over, there are thousands of ballots outstanding and a recount is still possible and likely.

Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa secured a razor-thin, 282-vote lead over Democrat Rita Hart of Wheatland, flipping counties that voted for President Donald Trump but backed retiring seven-term Democratic incumbent Dave Loebsack in 2016.

» LIVE RESULTS: Up-to-the minute results for this race, other Iowa races and the presidential election

The 24-county Iowa 2nd congressional district, which includes Scott, Clinton, Muscatine and Louisa counties, is one of 31 House districts Trump won in 2016 that is represented by a Democrat in 2020.

Hart amassed an early lead in early voting and a large margin in heavily Democratic Johnson County, with nearly 70 percent of the vote. But Miller-Meeks prevented Hart from racking up big margins needed in other large, traditionally Democratic counties in the district, including Scott and Clinton counties, while carrying rural, swing counties to the southwest that Loebsack secured in 2016, including Muscatine County.

Hart carried only four of 24 counties -- Scott, Clinton, Johnson and Jefferson counties -- according to unofficial results. Meanwhile, five of the seven counties that voted for Trump but backed Loebsack in 2016 swung for Miller-Meeks, according to unofficial results.

Miller-Meeks campaign focused much of its attention, including door knocking and media buys, in Scott, Clinton, Muscatine and Des Moines counties.


“It’s the biggest population part of the (district), it also happens to be where my opponent is from so I think it’s makes sense to have a concentrated effort in that area,” Miller-Meeks told reporters an hour before polls closed Tuesday.

“I think we’ve run an extremely good campaign,” Miller-Meeks added. “We were, I think, very concrete on the issues we were running upon. We had a good ground game, given that we’re in a pandemic.”

Both campaigns are waiting until the official canvass to declare a winner. Hart’s campaign said it will continue to monitor outstanding ballots as votes continue to be counted. The Associated Press had yet to call the race Wednesday.

According to the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, as of Wednesday morning there were about 12,500 outstanding absentee ballots sent to voters in the district that had yet to be received by county auditors.

“Ballots are outstanding and over the coming days we will ensure that Iowans’ voices are heard and that remaining votes are counted,” Hart for Iowa campaign manager Zach Meunier said in the statement. “Iowa election law is incredibly clear that absentee ballots postmarked by the day before the election and received by a county auditor by (noon on) November 9, 2020 must be counted.”

Miller-Meeks campaign, however, said it is confident the results will stand.

“Our campaign has received and tallied votes from every county auditor, double checked those totals and compared them with the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office,” the campaign said in statement Wednesday. “We are confident Dr. Miller-Meeks’ winning margin will stand. Questions about a recount are premature until 24 county election boards meet across the congressional district for their official canvasses next week.

Iowa does not require automatic recounts. Any candidate may request a recount, or any voter. If the margin of victory separating candidates is narrow enough, typically less than 1% of the total number of votes cast, the state will pay the cost for a recount. In all other instances, the requesting candidate will need to post a bond to cover costs of the recount, which is refunded if the recount changes the election outcome.

Iowa Secretary of State Communications Director Kevin Hall said a campaign would have to request a recount of each individual county, which would likely wait until the official canvass of votes on Monday or Tuesday, depending on the county.


“I might not be until next week that we know,” Hall said. “We still have some absentee ballots that still can come in as long as (they were) postmarked by Monday, Nov. 2 and received by noon on Monday, Nov. 9,” Hall said. “Any provisional ballots, the county (election) boards will review those as well and those could be added as well.”

If the results stand, Republicans will have claimed a majority of the state’s four House districts, erasing gains made by Democrats in the state in 2018.

Both parties have invested heavily in the open-seat race, with Republicans eager to cut into Democrat’s majority in Congress and in the state. Republicans lost two congressional seats in the state following the 2018 midterm election, with the election of U.S. Reps. Abby Finkenauer in the 1st Congressional District and Cindy Axne in the 3rd District. That gave Democrats a 3-to-1 majority of Iowa’s four congressional seats.

That now could flip to a 3-to-1 Republican majority, with Miller-Meeks’ win and Republican Ashley Hinson upsetting Finkenauer in the 1st District U.S. House race.

Hart’s campaign outraised and outspent Miller-Meeks’ campaign by more than a 2-to-1 margin, according the nonpartisan and nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Hart raised $3.6 million and spent just over $3 million, while Miller-Meeks raised $1.5 million and spent nearly $1.3 million, with another more than $15 million in outside spending roughly evenly split between the two candidates.

A former teacher and farmer who grew up in a politically divided household, Hart has said she would look to build coalitions in Congress that work toward pragmatic solutions and end the political division that has prevented solving issues such as expanding affordable health care, climate change and immigration reform.

Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist, former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, has said she will fight for skills training and apprenticeships to prepare Iowa’s workforce for the 21st Century, fair trade deals that allow Iowans to compete around the globe, and economic solutions that will strengthen the U.S. economy and increase Iowan’s take-home pay, including preserving the 2017 Republican tax cuts.


“I have a resume that’s unparalleled in this race and, even, throughout the country,” Miller-Meeks said on the call. “To have a military veteran, a doctor and a former (state public health director) that can help navigate through health care, through the pandemic, preposition supplies and safely reopen the economy and continue the gains we have recently made.”

This was Miller-Meeks’ fourth attempt at the seat. She ran unsuccessfully against Loebsack three times.

Asked what had changed since the last time she ran, Miller-Meeks noted the district has trended more Republican.

“Being a state senator has made a difference,” Miller-Meeks said. “And it’s an open seat. So let’s not forget that. It is very different when you are not running against an incumbent.”

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