Capitol Ideas column: With election clock ticking, plenty of Iowa races to watch

(Gazette file photo)
(Gazette file photo)

There is seldom a dull day in Iowa politics, and the next ones will be no exception.

Sunday marked 100 days until the 2020 general election, which in Iowa will feature competitive races up and down the ballot. So it’s a good time to take stock of everything worth watching in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 3.

Ernst vs. Greenfield

There is a race one spot higher on the ballot, but this is the one Iowans should be watching just as closely. Republican freshman U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is facing Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.

This race will determine who holds this seat for the next six years. That alone should be sufficient reason to pay attention. But it also figures to play prominently in which party controls the U.S. Senate. That’s some seriously thick icing on an already-rich election cake.

Speaking of which, reelection will be no cake walk for Ernst.

A Selzer & Company/Des Moines Register poll in June showed Greenfield with a 3-point lead. A more recent AARP-commissioned survey of Iowa voters 50 or older — also conducted by Selzer — showed Ernst’s job approval numbers underwater, with 42 percent approving and 53 percent disapproving.

The Cook Political Report this month changed its outlook for the race from “leans Republican” to “toss up.”

The national parties and interest groups also are all over this race because of its implications for control of the Senate.

Congress curiosity

Iowa typically is good for two congressional races each cycle. But how about all four?

Each race promises to be competitive, or at least intriguing.

Eastern Iowa’s 1st District and Central Iowa’s 3rd District are almost always close contests. This year is no different. A pair of Democratic freshman incumbents, Abby Finkenauer in the 1st and Cindy Axne in the 3rd, are facing tough reelection battles against the GOP’s Ashley Hinson and David Young, respectively.

Meanwhile, the 2nd District is an open-seat race where Democrats are trying to maintain a seat in the Eastern Iowa district that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.


Like the 1st, the 2nd District race to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack features a pair of hopefuls both with state legislative experience: Democrat Rita Hart and Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

As for the 4th District, it promises to be worth watching, too, if for no other reason than the decided lack of Steve King.

The nine-term incumbent Republican’s incendiary comments finally caught up to him. He lost a GOP primary to state Sen. Randy Feenstra in June. Feenstra now will face Democrat J.D. Scholten, who came within an eyelash of upsetting King in 2018.

Running against Feenstra, instead of King, will be more difficult for Scholten. But the Democrat made noteworthy gains in 2018 and comes into this race with more name recognition. Maybe this will be another close one on election night.

Statehouse Control

Iowa House races will be worth watching as Democrats try to take out one of the three legs of the Republicans’ complete control of the Iowa Capitol. The GOP has a 53-47 edge in the House, and Democrats believe they can flip enough seats to gain a majority.

If Democrats can flip the chamber, they will stop the GOP’s ability to pass laws without the Democrats’ approval.

Democrats maxed out their victories in the suburbs in 2018. So, to flip the chamber, they must protect those wins and pick up more seats, most likely in Iowa’s Mississippi River border counties.

Presidential campaign

President Donald Trump won Iowa by nearly 10 points in 2016, but early polls show a close contest between the president and Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.

What still is unclear: To what extent the Trump and Biden campaigns see Iowa as vital to their pursuit of 270 electoral votes. That will determine how much they will campaign here.

Iowa may not receive as much attention as in previous elections. Most pundits see states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Arizona, and a few others, as more important to the campaigns’ political calculus.


Still, Iowa is important enough for Trump to run TV ads here, so we’ll see.

Early voting

A backdrop to all these races is the intrigue over how Iowans will actually vote. With the pandemic still a threat, voters may be motivated to vote by absentee ballot, as a record number did during the June primary.

The question is: Which party has the advantage in absentee and early voting? Democrats typically do better with early voting and Republicans make up the ground on Election Day. But if this year has taught us anything, it’s that predictions are chancy; answers will have to wait.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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