DES MOINES — For the past four years, Iowa’s state lawmaking process has been under total Republican control.
Democrats failed to regain a seat at the table in 2018 when Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds won re-election.
Democrats’ next-best opportunity is upon them: the race for the majority in the Iowa House of Representatives.
Republicans hold 53 seats in the Iowa House and Democrats 47. Democrats believe they can win enough House races Nov. 3 to regain a majority they have not held since 2010.
“I would say I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Rep. Todd Prichard of Charles City, House Democratic leader. “We know that the House is definitely in play, and we know that we’re competitive. Our candidates are running great campaigns in districts across the state where we have to win if we want to be in the majority.
“We’re cautiously optimistic, but it’s a competitive environment.”
Control of the Iowa House hinges on roughly 20 races sprinkled across the state.
House Democrats gained a net six seats in 2018 — narrowing Republicans’ edge in the chamber from 59-41 to 53-47 — and feel they can finish the job in 2020. They have targeted a number of open-seat races in districts where registered voters are politically balanced, plus vulnerable Republican incumbents.
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Republicans, however, contend they are not only defending their incumbents, they are campaigning aggressively in Democratic-held districts.
“This is why it’s so hard to regain a majority when you’re the minority. Because you can have good targets, you can have good opportunities, but if you lose one of your own, all of a sudden, man, it is a much bigger lift,” Craig Robinson, a Republican consultant, said during recording of last week’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS. “And again, Republicans are on the offensive in some of these areas with really good candidates. And so you flip one of them, you make that chore of regaining the House even more difficult.”
Democrats’ top pickup opportunities are in the suburbs — where they made gains in 2018. The biggest came in the Des Moines suburbs: Democrats flipped five seats there, leaving only two Republicans among the 14 lawmakers representing Polk County.
The district perhaps most poised to flip to Democrats is in the Cedar Rapids and Marion suburbs. The district had been represented by Republican Ashley Hinson, who is challenging Rep. Abby Finkenauer for her 1st Congressional District seat. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in the district, and Democrats are confident of their chances of flipping the an open-seat Statehouse seat.
Another suburban seat in play is in the northern Des Moines suburb of Ankeny. Democrats flipped the southern portion of Ankeny in 2018, but Republican John Landon held on in the north side. This year, Democrats believe challenger Andrea Phillips can defeat Landon.
Democrats have also targeted Republican incumbents in Scott County: a suburban-style district in Bettendorf, represented by Gary Mohr, and a suburban-rural district represented by Ross Paustian.
“The recipe is sort of what we saw last cycle in these suburban seats,” Prichard said.
Democrats are also targeting open-seat races where Republicans retired in Council Bluffs, Muscatine and rural Linn County.
And they hope to claim House District 55 that includes Decorah, a race that in 2018 was decided by just nine votes and included a legal challenge over uncounted absentee ballots. The candidates this year are the same: Republican Michael Bergan and Democrat Kayla Koether.
They also have targeted Republican incumbent Jeff Shipley in a southeast Iowa district that includes Fairfield. That will be another rematch: Shipley is being challenged by Democrat Phil Miller.
“I’m really proud of the hard work our incumbents and the people that we’ve recruited to be challengers,” Prichard said. “These are the caliber of people that we want to represent us and set the policy for the future of the state. These are the people that can lead us into the next decade. I’m excited to work with this group of people, and I’m excited about what we can accomplish. I’m really hopeful. … These people give me hope. They really do.”
House Speaker Pat Grassley said Republicans will not only defend their seats, they are campaigning aggressively for Democrat-held seats as well, especially in districts where Republican candidates like President Donald Trump or Gov. Kim Reynolds have performed well.
Rep. Andy McKean, was the longest-tenured Republican in the Legislature when he switched parties in 2019. Republicans think they can defeat McKean and win back the largely rural district in eastern Iowa’s Jackson and Jones counties. McKean, now a Democrat, faces Republican Steven Bradley, a dentist from Cascade.
Democrats have a slight voter advantage in the district, which has an unusual recent history with party-switchers. Prior to McKean, the district was represented by Republican Brian Moore, who had previously run as a Democrat for the Iowa Senate.
Republicans also have targeted central Iowa Democratic incumbents in Newton and Indianola, and like their chances in an open-seat race in Fayette County.
“We’re playing offense in so many races that we have not in the past several elections. This is a much bigger picture than just flipping four races,” Grassley said. “This is not just about Republicans being on defense.”
Some of Grassley’s optimism stems from the different ways political parties have campaigned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, Republican candidates resumed door-to-door, in-person campaigning, while Democrats have focused on making phone calls and distributing literature.
Political science experts say studies show in-person conversations are the best way to convince people to vote.
But some candidates and voters are apprehensive about in-person conversations. Public health experts recommend people maintain at least six feet between each other to avoid spreading the virus.
Prichard, who also has been targeted by House Republicans, said it is up to the individual candidate whether they campaign door-to-door.
“I haven’t been door-knocking, but I have been walking the neighborhoods, dropping literature and talking to people when I felt safe doing that. But I’m in a different situation in my rural district that some people are in more urban areas,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, yeah, we would absolutely be campaigning the way we normally do, and that’s with the shoe leather and knocking on doors. But we’ve just had to make those adjustments for public safety and for the safety of our candidates and staff, too. We don’t want to put anybody in danger.”
Republicans said they are door-knocking responsibly by knocking and then standing back at least six feet while talking to the prospective voter.
“There’s a safe way that you can do things you just have to be smart about it,” Grassley said.
Pat Rynard, publisher of the liberal Iowa Starting Line political news website and a former Democratic campaign worker, expressed concern that Democrats’ hesitation could cost them votes in critical races.
“I’m a little concerned about it because I think Democrats are not getting some of those drop-off voters (who are) less likely to vote if you don’t actually go to their doors,” Rynard said during the “Iowa Press” taping. “I think there is probably a way that you could have come up with that would have been safe, and they haven’t done that.”
Early voting has already begun for the general election. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.