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Iowans prep for fierce 2020 fight — and not just for the White House

All four House districts will be contested, in addition to competitive Senate race

Iowa Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne is a top Republican target in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Iowa Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne is a top Republican target in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Iowans are used to the spotlight in presidential election years, and with the number of Democrats eyeing the nomination approaching two dozen, it may be difficult this year to travel in the state without running into a candidate or the media entourage that comes with them.

But for Iowa voters, the more intense political battles in 2020 might actually be further down the ballot.

Former Republican Rep. David Young’s decision this week to run for his old House seat is the latest reminder that Iowa will be central to the fight for congressional control, with all four House seats up for grabs, along with a competitive Senate race. 

Republicans believe having President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket will help them win back the two House seats they lost last fall and flip a newly open seat, since Trump carried all three districts in 2016.

But Democrats say energy is still on their side and discontent with Trump, along with a focus on issues such as health care and climate change, will continue to fuel their success.

And as presidential contenders criss-cross the state, both parties are taking early steps to make sure they’re ready for hotly contested House and Senate races.

“It feels like there’s more at stake here than just winning some seats back,” Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said. “I really feel the national spotlight now more than ever.”

A battleground?

Iowa is largely white and rural but with a mix of urban and suburban areas. its residents are the kinds of voters essential to both parties. They’re who Trump needs to keep in his coalition, and who Democrats want to win back.

“If you can win Iowa, you can win the Upper Midwest,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said.

Trump won the state by about 9 points in 2016, while carrying all four of its House districts. But three of those districts backed President Barack Obama in 2012, as did the entire state. Democrats see 2018 as an indication that voters who jumped to Trump are coming back.

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“People were looking for change,” Price said of the 2016 results. “And I think what we saw in 2018 is people were not happy with the change they saw.”

Democrats flipped Iowa’s 1st and 3rd districts in the midterms, with Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne respectively becoming the first women to represent the state in the House. Finkenauer defeated GOP Rep. Rod Blum by 5 points, while Axne defeated Young by 2 points.

Both women are top Republican targets in 2020, along with the 2nd District seat, which is newly open now that Democrat Dave Loebsack is retiring. Trump’s victory margins in the the districts ranged from 3 to 4 points. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in each district, although the largest share of voters in all three are not registered with any party.

Republicans have a registration advantage in the 4th District. But Democrats view GOP Rep. Steve King, who has grabbed headlines for racist remarks, as vulnerable. King narrowly won last fall even though Trump carried his seat by 27 points in 2016. The congressman is now facing four primary challengers, with GOP state Sen. Randy Feenstra raising four times as much as King in the first three months of the year.

On top of heated contests in all four House races, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst is seeking a second term. Democrats are looking to take back the seat that was once held by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, but they have yet to field a candidate.

Party strategies

To succeed in Iowa in 2020, Democrats have to stay united and energized, despite a lengthy and crowded presidential primary season.

Price acknowledged that animosity between supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016 persisted after the Iowa caucuses were over, but he said Democrats came together in 2018 and was confident they would do so again next year. 

The crowded presidential race could cause headaches for Democrats at the congressional level, with Republicans planning to tie them to liberal policies such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, which some presidential contenders are embracing or spearheading.

Republicans are confident that Trump’s position at the top of the ticket will help them down ballot. But they’re also looking to make inroads in suburban areas where the president is not as popular.

Kaufmann said the state GOP is planning to hold retreats for county chairs in populous areas and to conduct focus groups, particularly among suburban women. 

Kaufmann predicted that Trump would energize Republicans in rural parts of the state, but Ernst would “fill in that energy gap” in places GOP voters aren’t as enthused about the president.

Gearing up 

Both parties are organizing ahead of 2020. The state parties have deployed staffers to each congressional district, and both say it’s the earliest they’ve done so. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also has two staffers on the ground in Iowa as part of its early grassroots effort.  

Democrats and Republicans see the presidential race, particularly the highly anticipated caucuses on Feb. 3, as key to boosting energy and building campaign infrastructure, which could benefit House and Senate campaigns later in 2020. 

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The elaborate caucus process, which is held for presidential candidates only, means parties have to organize leaders across the state and encourage people to be engaged early in the campaign cycle.

Price called the caucuses a “springboard” for House and Senate race organizing, for which nominees will be chosen in June 2 primaries. 

Even though Trump is the incumbent, Republicans will hold a preference vote on Feb. 3, in part to test the party’s organization, Kaufmann said.

He said there is already early coordination between the state party, Trump re-election effort, Ernst’s campaign and the Republican National Committee. Ernst’s team said it’s well-prepared for 2020, touting her $2.8 million haul in the first fundraising quarter and her commitment to maintaining campaign staff in off years. 

Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, have been scooping up staff with Iowa campaign experience. A handful of party operatives said they are not concerned, however, that the crowded presidential race will leave down-ballot races short-staffed. 

After all, it’s still early for congressional races. But that hasn’t stopped some candidates, such as Young, from launching their campaigns.

Young might not have the 3rd District primary to himself, with GOP state Sen. Zach Nunn launching a listening tour in the district as he weighs a potential run. 

In the 1st District, GOP state Rep. Ashley Hinson is expected to challenge Finkenauer. Blum, who lost to Finkenauer, is also said to be contemplating a run, but one GOP operative involved in House races did not think that was likely.

The field is still shaping up in the open 2nd District. Potential Democratic candidates include former state Sen. Rita Hart, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year. The Republican mayor of Osceola, Thomas Kedley, launched his campaign this week, but more Republicans are expected to jump in the race. 

In the 4th District, Democrat J.D. Scholten is still weighing a rematch against King, whom he nearly beat in 2018. Scholten is also considering challenging Ernst. He told CQ Roll Call that he expects to announce which office he will seek within the next two months. 

Even though he is not a candidate right now, Scholten has been traversing the state this year. He said Iowans have been mostly focused on the presidential race, but they recognize there are other battles ahead.

“The fact that we won two seats doesn’t mean people are content,” Scholten said. “There’s still a lot of excitement.”

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