Iowa is expected to get a lot of attention during the 2020 election. Between the Iowa caucuses, what should be a hotly contested Senate race, and multiple House races up for grabs, the path to political victory runs right through the “Hawkeye State.”
Iowa grabbed headlines late last week when seven-term Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack announced he would not seek re-election for the state’s second district House seat. The news set off a flurry of speculation of who may run to replace the retiring congressman and caused political forecasters to move the rating of the race “toss up.” It’s also not the only race that’s expected to be close; The Cook Political Report expects all four of Iowa congressional districts to be competitive.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is also facing her first reelection campaign. While she has yet to draw an official opponent, there are several legitimate candidates reportedly considering a challenge. With Republicans defending 23 seats next year, national Democrats are likely to target Iowa as part of their strategy to reclaim the 4 Senate seats they need for a majority.
While it’s still early, here is the current state of play for politics in Iowa.
The last several statewide elections in Iowa have all favored Republicans. Ernst was elected in 2014 by an 8-point margin, the same year that Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) was elected with 58 percent of the vote. In 2016, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was easily reelected and President Trump cruised to a 9-point victory over Hillary Clinton.
Despite these trends, Democrats remain optimistic about their chances in Iowa. The state voted for President Obama in 2012 by a near 6-point margin, and Democrats were able to unseat two Republican House incumbents in 2018. Fred Hubbell, the Democratic candidate for governor last year, was also able to keep the race close, losing by less than 3 points.
Ernst starts off the 2020 cycle in a strong position. A February Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll showed that 57% of Iowans approve of the job she’s doing — a 10 percentage-point increase since September and her highest approval rating ever. She also opened the year with a strong fundraising showing, hauling in $1.69M to bring her cash on hand total to $2.82M. Furthermore, Ernst received positive news in February after former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack announced that he would not run for Senate. Vilsack was considered a top-recruit by many Democratic activists and would have been the party’s most prominent would-be challenger to Ernst.
That said, there are other Iowa Democrats who could pose a threat to Ernst. There are at least seven names of potential challengers floating around, including former baseball player J.D. Scholten, who nearly unseated Rep. Steve King (R-IA) in Iowa’s deep-red fourth district last year. Another possible candidate is Rita Hart, a member of the Iowa state Senate and the state Democratic Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor last year. An April 2019 article in Roll Call noted that Hart was considering a run for Senate, but may now choose to run for the House seat being vacated by Loebsack. There’s also freshman Rep. Cindy Axne, who defeated former Republican Rep. David Young in the Republican-leaning third district last year.
Democrats have some time to settle on who they will back – the statewide primary election isn’t until June 2 of next year.
Iowa has 4 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and until last year, three of them were held by Republicans. The 2018 election saw Democrats flip two seats and now Democrats hold the majority of the seats in the state with Rep. Steve King as the only remaining Republican. Outside groups have already announced they intend to target these House seats in 2020. Here’s how they currently stand:
IA-01: Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-IA) defeated incumbent Rep. Rod Blum by 5 points in 2018. Although the first district leans Democrat, it voted for Republicans in 2014 and 2016 – Trump carried IA-01 by 3.5 points and Blum was reelected in 2016 by a 7-point margin. There is not currently a Republican officially running against Finkenauer, but a name that is consistently mentioned as a possible opponent is Ashley Hinson, a state legislator who was elected to a second term in the Iowa state House in 2018.
IA-02: Iowa’s second district has skewed left for the last several election cycles. Not only has Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) been reelected 7 times in a row, but President Obama carried the second by 13 points in 2012. President Trump won the district by 5 points in 2016, however, which explains why Loebsack’s announcement that he was retiring caused election forecasters to change their ratings of the race to “toss up.” The seat only recently became open, and there are not currently any announced candidates. However, several names have been floated for the position. Bobby Kaufmann is considered a strong Republican option. Currently serving his third term in the Iowa House of Representatives, Kaufmann is also the son of Iowa GOP state party chair Jeff Kaufmann. There are at least seven Democrats who may run for the seat including Rita Hart, a member of the Iowa state Senate who was the state Democratic Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor last year. Roll Call noted that Hart was considering a run for Senate but may now choose to run for the vacated House seat. Bleeding Heartland noted that Hart “would be the favorite in the primary if she goes for it.”
IA-03: Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA) defeated incumbent Republican Congressman David Young last year by a 2-point margin. The district leans Republican and has an R+3 PVI rating from The Cook Political Report, but President Obama carried it by 4 points in 2012. Like the first and second districts, there are no announced challengers to Axne. Jon Jacobson, a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and Zach Nunn, an Iowa state Senator and cybersecurity entrepreneur, have both reportedly been encouraged to run for the seat. There is also the possibility that David Young could run again, as his campaign website is still active.
IA-04: The deep-red fourth congressional district has an R+11 PVI and has voted for Republican presidential candidates in the last three elections. However, incumbent Rep. Steve King’s penchant to create controversy led to a close call in 2018, when the Republican scraped by with a 3-point victory over former baseball player J.D. Schloten. Earlier this year, state Senator Randy Feenstra announced that he would seek a primary challenge to King, citing the incumbent’s “caustic nature.” Although King has resisted calls to announce his retirement, his fundraising numbers have taken a significant hit. In the first quarter of the year, he only pulled in $60K while Feenstra raised over $260K.