The View from Iowa

Inside the Shifting Politics of a Swing State
Sen. Joni Ernst speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. in 2015 (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons).

Do you remember the Iowa caucuses back in January? Honestly, we hope you don’t, after the mess we made of them. But it’s strange to think that delayed voting results once seemed so politically consequential, given all that has happened since. As in the rest of the country, the political environment here in Iowa and the greater Midwest has been volatile, though with its share of local variations, and there is plenty of uncertainty heading into the fall elections.      

Over the last several decades, Iowa has been a classic purple state, voting for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates even as the two parties split or take turns holding congressional seats, the state legislature, and the governor’s mansion. But starting in Barack Obama’s second term, the state seemed to be trending decidedly more Republican. In 2014, the GOP won three of the state’s four U.S. House seats; Joni Ernst replaced the retiring long-tenured Democrat Tom Harkin, joining the even longer-tenured Chuck Grassley to give Republicans both U.S. Senate seats for the first time since the early 1980s. By 2016, the GOP had consolidated “trifecta” control of the governorship and both state legislative houses. And that same year, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won the state by nine points, the same margin candidate Obama had in 2008. While 2018’s blue wave flipped two U.S. House seats back to the Democrats, the GOP held onto the state legislature and Republican Kim Reynolds won her first full term as governor, inheriting the office from Terry Branstad, whom President Trump appointed as U.S. ambassador to China.

This sets up an interesting election season, one likely to get plenty of national attention for a state as small as Iowa. It’s one of the few states that doesn’t gerrymander congressional districts, so U.S. House elections tend to be more competitive here, giving parties prime pick-up opportunities. Sen. Ernst is facing her first re-election and holds a seat that Democrats hope to flip in their quest for a U.S. Senate majority. And, while the state’s six electoral college votes are less likely to make a difference compared to larger swing states, its demographics make it an interesting test case. Iowa’s population is around 88 percent non-Hispanic white, among the highest in the nation. It has the sixth-highest percentage of residents who are white without college degrees—63 percent compared to 41 percent for the country at large. And fully 75 percent of Iowa’s residents live in small metro or rural areas rather than in larger urban centers, compared to 32 percent across the United States. If President Trump in particular, and the GOP more generally, are increasingly relying on votes from whites without a college education outside of larger metro areas, then Iowa is a leading indicator of whether that demographic’s support will increase, hold steady, or decline—a trend with implications for larger states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

This sets up an interesting election season, one likely to get plenty of national attention for a state as small as Iowa.

What, then, does the November landscape look like? The only thing we know for sure is that it won’t feature Steve King, the race-baiting nativist congressman who lost his June primary to a Republican challenger in the state’s reddest congressional district. Other than that, there are plenty of unknowns. 

At least three of the four U.S. House contests look to be competitive, and there’s also an unexpectedly close Senate race. If new senators heading into their first re-election should be reliable party members with a touch of independence, who gradually increase their profile while avoiding major gaffes and remaining popular back home, then Joni Ernst has been generally doing things right over the past six years. Last year, her approval in the state was almost 60 percent, and earlier this year most projections listed her seat as “likely,” or at least suggested that it will “lean” Republican. But by June, when Theresa Greenfield won a crowded Democratic primary to challenge Ernst, Ernst’s approval in the state had fallen to around 50 percent. At the end of July, analysts such as the Cook Political Report began classifying the race as a “toss-up” as polls showed a tightening contest. Given how the race could decide control of the U.S. Senate, it is not surprising that it has attracted lots of national money. The presidential race has seen similar tightening in the state, as President Trump’s polling lead has shrunk from around five points in the spring to between one and two points by early August. Of course, if he actually loses Iowa, the president will likely have already lost the election elsewhere.

So what’s behind recent Republican slippage in the state? The president’s trade war with China hit Iowa farmers hard, but he, Ernst, and other GOP candidates were likely well-positioned to weather the issue—until larger developments began shaping political events across the country.

Following George Floyd’s murder next door in Minnesota, demonstrations, vigils, and marches unfolded across Iowa, including in many smaller communities in red-leaning counties, which helped build momentum for a package of police-reform measures passed into state law with bipartisan support. Networks of activists and ordinary citizens continue to push for more state and local action on racial justice—for instance, ameliorating the racial incarceration gap (in which Iowa ranks third nationally, joined in the top four by adjacent Wisconsin and Minnesota).  

The biggest political impact continues to come from the pandemic.

The biggest political impact continues to come from the pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 in Iowa has been fairly steady since mid-April, with peaks in early May and mid-July. The state has never gotten the virus under control; meatpacking plants and their vulnerable workers have been hit especially hard. Governor Reynolds, who seems to be taking her cues from the president, never issued stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders, though the spring did see schools and many businesses close, as well as gatherings restricted. Most of these measures were relaxed or completely lifted by the end of May. As the only state in the country that plays high-school sports in the summer (if your kids want to play five years of baseball or softball in high school, move to Iowa, where they are eligible to play the summers before school and after graduating!), Iowa schools held modified softball and baseball seasons, though plenty of teams suspended play temporarily or permanently after virus outbreaks among students and coaches.

As in many states, testing here has been distressingly inadequate. The same week in mid-July that Dubuque County, where I live, experienced a spike in cases, the governor ordered the only nearby state-run testing site to cut testing from over five hundred people a day down to a hundred, due to processing backlogs. By early August, Iowa remained one of only a handful of states across the country without any mask requirements; Governor Reynolds had not issued one herself and declared any requirement adopted by local officials legally unenforceable. And as states debated how to reopen schools, she declared that Iowa school districts must provide at least half of all instruction in-person rather than remotely. While 52 percent of Iowans approved of the governor’s handling of the pandemic in late April, this dropped to 28 percent by late July, the lowest of any governor in the country. (Reynolds won’t face voters again until 2022.)

Of course, beyond approval ratings and election prospects for particular candidates, the pandemic threatens to disrupt the process of voting itself. Iowa held its primary election in early June during the pandemic. (Yes, we use both caucuses and primaries for different things, just to keep it confusing.) Well ahead of the election, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate sensibly encouraged voting by mail by sending absentee-ballot request forms to all two million eligible voters, as well as extending the early-voting period. The result was record turnout for an Iowa primary, with around 80 percent of those who voted doing so by mail. The GOP-controlled legislature and the governor quickly passed a law preventing Pate from mailing the request forms again for the general election without express permission from a special state committee. Fortunately, that committee has since approved the measure for the general election, though without some voter information pre-filled, which could result in more of them being rejected. The committee also prohibited him from extending the early-voting period again. It’s not ideal for ease of voting during a pandemic, but it’s better than what many states have done. 

My family and I live on a short block—leafy, middle-class, largely white—in a small Midwestern city. While the impact of the virus has not been as widespread on our block as elsewhere in the city, state, or country, it has sickened several and claimed the life of a husband and father across the street, forcing his widow to put the house up for sale. Talking outside with neighbors, there is substantial worry about the state of the country heading into the fall and winter—the pandemic, caring for and educating children, jobs and incomes, civil unrest. For many this has produced considerable political anger, usually directed at the president and his party. As one neighbor, a retired electrician from the local John Deere plant, put it, “It won’t solve everything, but at least November gives us the chance to get that maniac out of the White House.” For Iowa, that counts as pretty strong language.

David Carroll Cochran is Professor of Politics at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His most recent books are Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis) and The Catholic Church in Ireland Today (Rowman & Littlefield).

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Menominee, Illinois

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