Suburban and rural voters could decide Iowa House control

Democrats need to flip 10 seats to have sway over the chamber

Iowa Representative Mark D. Smith, D-Marshalltown, 2017 Legislature.
Iowa Representative Mark D. Smith, D-Marshalltown, 2017 Legislature.

By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — Voters in Iowa’s suburbs and rural eastern counties figure to play a large role in deciding which political party controls the lawmaking agenda in the Iowa House over the next two years.

Democrats, who have not outnumbered Republicans in the Iowa House since 2010, believe a majority is within their grasp despite going into this fall’s midterm elections at an eight-seat disadvantage.

Democrats believe there are enough House districts in play — roughly two dozen — and that they can win enough races in order to surpass Republicans and gain an agenda-setting majority in the House.

Republicans acknowledge they face some political headwinds in the upcoming election, but feel they are well-positioned to maintain their majority.

The key races that are likely to decide who controls the Iowa House in 2019 and 2020 mostly are in suburban areas of the state’s biggest cities, and in rural counties in Eastern Iowa, especially along the Mississippi River.

Voters in those areas have been shifting their political allegiances in recent years, voting results show. How they vote this November could impact any number of races, including the collective race for control of the House.

“Some of those areas are coming back our direction or coming our direction,” said Rep. Mark Smith of Marshalltown, leader of the House Democrats. “Part of our (path to victory) is we win back places like that in the 2018 elections.”


Rep. Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake, the Republican House speaker, said despite any challenges Republicans are poised to protect their majority and said they think they also can defeat a Democratic incumbent or two.

“While this cycle appears to be a bit unpredictable, House Republicans have delivered on the priorities that Iowans expected us to address. I fully expect to begin the 2019 legislative session with a strong Republican majority in the Iowa House,” Upmeyer said in a statement.

Democrats say their optimism comes from voter and candidate enthusiasm, the sheer number of candidates recruited, results in recent special Statehouse elections and national voting trends over the past two years. They feel they will be on offense in the election — attempting to defeat incumbent Republicans while feeling safe about their own incumbents — and like their chances in a number of seats that are open due to Republican retirements.

Smith said the Democrats’ 95 candidates for the 100 House seats are their most in decades, and said Democratic candidates and voters are motivated for the election in order to push back against Republican-led policies implemented since 2016 at both the state and national levels.

Democrats also point to special elections since 2016 in Iowa and other states. The most prominent example nationally was in Virginia, where in 2017, Democrats went from a 66-34 disadvantage to just missing out on split control after a random drawing broke a tie race and left Republicans with a 51-49 edge.

Iowa Democrats improved on their 2016 results in a half-dozen special elections to fill vacant Statehouse seats, although they did not change the party control in any of those elections.

In order to gain a majority in the House this fall, Democrats will have to flip control of 10 seats — assuming all of their incumbents also win.

Suburban, college-educated voters have been driving some of the Democrats’ good fortunes in post-2016 elections. Their turnout and choices could play a significant role this fall.


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Christopher Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said education level was a decisive factor in voters’ choices in 2016, and likely will be again.

“The suburban, educated vote will be significant” this fall, Larimer said. “The education split was beyond what political scientists had previously modeled for. ... I think that is a group (suburban, college-educated residents) that is going to be significant for voters.”

Another bloc that could have significant sway this fall are the swing voters who voted for Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012 but Republican President Donald Trump in 2016. The lion’s share of those swing voters are in Eastern Iowa, and they could make the difference in a number of races in that area of the state.

Larimer said it is difficult to predict which party those voters will support this fall, and to what degree they will turn out and vote.


These races are considered by Iowa Democrats and Republicans to be competitive and could determine which party controls the lawmaking agenda in the Iowa House for the next two years. An (i) designates the incumbent.


District: 38

l Area: southern portions of Ankeny

l Democrat: Heather Matson

l Republican: Kevin Koester (i)

l Outlook: This is another prototypical suburban district that Republicans have won in the past but Democrats feel they have a chance to win this fall.

District: 42

l Area: southern portion of West Des Moines

l Democrat: Kristin Sunde

l Republican: Peter Cownie (i)

l Outlook: Cownie faced an unexpectedly close challenge in 2016, and Democrats have targeted his seat again. Republicans feel better prepared this year but it is the kind of suburban district that could swing if a blue wave materializes.

District: 43

l Area: portions of West Des Moines, Windsor Heights and Clive

l Democrat: Jennifer Konfrst

l Republican: Michael Boal

l Libertarian: Chad Brewbaker

l Outlook: This is an open seat after Republican House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow moved west into a new district. Hagenow said he moved for family reasons, not because the politically changing district would have put him in danger of losing re-election. Konfrst lost to Hagenow by just 3.2 points in 2016. Republicans said this race will be a “slugfest” and concede it’s a prime opportunity for Democrats.

District: 60

l Area: Black Hawk County, including the southern and western portions of Cedar Falls and Waterloo

l Democrat: Dave Williams

l Republican: Walt Rogers (i)

l Outlook: Republicans are confident Rogers will win re-election to a fifth term, but Democrats think they have a shot, saying Rogers has not had to run in a political environment like this.

District: 67

l Area: portions of Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha and Robins

l Democrat: Eric Gjerde

l Republican: Ashley Hinson (i)


Outlook: Democrats’ hopes here are placed in those suburban voters. Republicans are confident in Hinson, who is well-known in the area as a former television news anchor.

District: 68

l Area: portions of Marion and Linn County

l Democrat: Molly Donahue

l Republican: Randy Ray

l Outlook: This open seat is another top Democratic target after the retirement of Republican Rep. Ken Rizer. Republicans know they are in for a fight in this district.

District: 92

l Area: Scott County, excluding most of Davenport but including Eldridge

l Democrat: Jean Simpson

l Republican: Ross Paustian (i)

l Outlook: This seat has gone back and forth between the parties in recent elections, and Democrats feel they can win it back this year.


District: 51

l Area: Mitchell and Howard counties and portions of Worth and Winneshiek counties

l Democrat: Tim Knutson

l Republican: Jane Bloomingdale (i)

l Outlook: Democrats think they could flip this district, which Obama won in 2012 by nearly 12 points. It swung wildly in 2016 to Trump, who won it by more than 23 points.

District: 55

l Area: portions of Winneshiek, Fayette and Clayton counties

l Democrat: Kayla Koether

l Republican: Michael Bergan (i)

l Outlook: Along with District 43, this is one of the top races in which Democrats have the most confidence and Republicans are most worried. It’s another Obama-Trump district: Obama won it by nearly 12 points in 2012 and Trump by more than 7 points in 2016.

District: 56

l Area: portions of Allamakee and Clayton counties

l Democrat: Lori Egan

l Republican: Annie Osmundson

l Outlook: This seat is open after the retirement of Kristi Hager; Osmundson is Hager’s former Capitol clerk. Democrat Patti Ruff held the seat from 2013 to 2016, and Democrats think they can win the seat back this fall. This was another wild-swinging district in the past two presidential elections: Obama won it by 5 points and Trump by 25.

District: 91

l Area: southern and eastern Muscatine County, including Muscatine

l Democrat: Laura Liegois

l Republican: Gary Carlson (i)

l Outlook: Democrats are optimistic this district is poised to swing back in their direction. Obama won here by nearly 17 points while Trump won it by 6.


District: 9

l Area: much of Webster County, including Fort Dodge

l Democrat: Megan Srinivas

l Republican: Ann Meyer

l Outlook: This seat is open after Democrat Helen Miller retired. Republicans are confident they can flip it, which would give Democrats at least one more needed to flip in return to gain a majority.

District: 14

l Area: Woodbury County, excluding most of Sioux City

l Democrat: Tim Kacena (i)

l Republican: Robert Henderson


l Outlook: While Republicans will be mostly on the defensive in this year’s election, they think there are some opportunities to beat Democratic incumbents, including this seat.

District: 15

l Area: northern and western portions of Council Bluffs

l Democrat: Charlie McConkey (i)

l Republican: LeAnn Hughes

l Outlook: Republicans feel they can defeat McConkey after upsetting former Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal in this area in 2016.

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