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Democrats Aim To Flip Iowa House, Break GOP Control Over State Capitol

Iowa’s Capitol at sunset. 2/28/2016 Photo by Michael Leland
Michael Leland
IPR file
Democrats see this as their year to flip control of the Iowa House and break the Republican Party’s control over the Iowa Capitol

In 2016, Iowans not only helped vote President Trump into office, they also put Republicans in control of the Iowa Senate. Since then, Republicans have controlled the Iowa House of Representatives, Senate, and governor’s office.

House Democrats gained back some of that lost ground in 2018 by flipping several suburban districts, and then one GOP lawmaker switched parties.

Now, Republicans hold a slim majority in the Iowa House with 53 seats to the Democrats’ 47, and Democrats see this as their year to break the Republican Party’s control over the Iowa Capitol.

House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said he is “cautiously optimistic” his candidates can flip at least four seats to put the Democrats in control of the chamber.

“I think Iowans know that government works best when there’s balance in government,” Prichard said. “And in the last few years, we just haven’t had that balance. That’s what we want to do is restore balance to state government, work and find partnerships with those that want to move the state forward.”

For four straight legislative sessions, the GOP has had the power to pass state laws and decide how to spend taxpayer dollars, mostly without needing any support from Democrats. If Democrats gain control of the House, the parties will have to compromise.

But Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said he feels Republican candidates are in a strong position to stay in control.

“The consistent leadership that the House has been able to display over the last 10 years, is what I think you can expect under continued House leadership or under a continued House majority,” Grassley said.

Grassley, the grandson of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, became the House Speaker about a year ago. His first legislative session leading the House was cut short when the coronavirus pandemic hit the state in March.

He said he is proud of the state’s finances, which look solid for now even as other states have seen a steep decline in revenue amid the pandemic.

“Our budget’s balanced, we have an ending balance, we’ve got some cash reserves, and the rainy day funds are full,” Grassley said. “And so as you look at some of those things, we take great pride in our budget. So I can tell you we’re going to continue to operate in a way that we’re prepared for anything.”

Grassley said he’s also proud that the state’s GOP leadership required kids to go back to school in person this fall, and said he’s talked to a lot of voters who are thankful for that.

But Prichard said as he talks to voters, their biggest concern is Iowa’s increasing COVID-19 cases. He says he would want to work on shoring up weaknesses in the health care system and expanding access to coronavirus testing.

“I think what we need to do is make sure the people of Iowa have access to the resources that they need to get through this pandemic, whether that’s resources for schools…resources for small businesses, resources for workers,” Prichard said.

In the past four years of Republican control, the Iowa Legislature has passed some widely popular policies with bipartisan support: a framework for expanding mental health services, programs to educate Iowans to fill high-demand jobs, and some policing reforms in response to this summer’s protests for racial justice.

But Republicans also enacted plenty of controversial policies. They’ve cut funding from public universities, rolled back gun restrictions, made many attempts to restrict abortion, and limited the rights of transgender Iowans and public worker unions.

“When one party controls all three pieces of state government, they can do a lot of what they want to do,” said Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “And that usually pushes them to be a little bit more extreme than they would have been otherwise, whether it’s the Republicans right now controlling the House and Senate and governor, or if the Democrats had all three, it’d be the same sort of thing.”

But the House is the only chamber Democrats are likely to flip in 2020.

The Iowa Senate is expected to remain in Republican hands because they have 32 seats to the Democrats’ 18. And Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has at least two years left in office.

Peterson said the highly competitive races at the top of the ticket, as well as some actions taken by Reynolds in her handling of the state’s pandemic response, could benefit Democratic Iowa House candidates.

But Republican candidates are still door knocking and attending events, while Democrats have done little of that because of COVID-19.

“I do think that there are some small effects from campaigning in person like that, and that the Republicans are going to have an advantage due to that,” Peterson said.

But he believes Democrats’ voter education efforts may fill some of that mobilization gap.

Some of the most competitive House races are where Democrats are trying to pick up the few remaining suburban seats held by Republicans, as well as flip or hold onto some rural districts that went for Trump in 2016. Republicans are hoping to hold onto their remaining suburban districts and are trying to flip some rural areas currently held by Democrats.

These races have also attracted a lot of money, with Democrats outraising Republicans in most of the top races, according to a Des Moines Register analysis of campaign finance reports.

Grassley repeatedly criticized Democrats for receiving a lot of financial support from outside of Iowa, and questioned who they might have promised things to.

But it’s not clear how a Democratic majority in the Iowa House would help donors in California and New York, especially when they would have to compromise with the Republican Senate and governor to pass any new laws.

“Everybody who gets less money than their opponent always complains about money in politics,” Peterson said. “I think everybody would prefer no out-of-state dollars or less money in politics. But ultimately, that’s a much lower concern for a lot of people than a lot of the other governmental policies that have a much bigger sway.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter