(Bloomberg View) – No state changed its political colors more sharply in the past two election cycles than Iowa. Once a Democratic-leaning purple-blue state that backed Barack Obama, it is now a deeply Republican, Donald Trump-supporting red one.
Was that a permanent shift or an aberration with unique conditions and candidates?
That question shows what’s at stake this year in a state that is closely watched as a barometer for a swing state and because it’s the first contest in presidential elections.
“Iowa is a purple state accustomed to changing its collective political mind,” says Ann Selzer, a Des Moines-based pollster and a top expert on the Hawkeye State. She notes that Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who took over from Terry Branstad when he became ambassador to China last year, is “untested,” with “poll numbers that suggest she is far from secure.”
As for the state’s congressional races, Seltzer adds: “While there are early signs of at least one Democrat ousting a Republican in a House race, it’s a little early to say how this will end up.”
For a quarter century, Iowa voted Democratic in six of seven presidential elections, and the congressional delegation and state government were closely divided. Then in 2014, a second Republican senator (Joni Ernst) was elected, and the GOP won three of four House seats. Two years later Trump carried Iowa by nine points, the same margin Obama had reached in 2008.
Republicans think this presaged a political shift in a state where the electorate is older, less urban and has fewer college-educated whites than in other states that have been politically competitive.
“We’ll see this year if these last two elections marked a permanent change,” said Matt Strawn, a former chair of Iowa’s Republican Party. “So far I haven’t seen much indication of a change from 2016.”
Democrats, however, point out that their party’s victories in special elections across the U.S. in recent months have exceeded previous results, indicating that the political energy is on their side. Trump’s popularity has dropped, and the trade war he threatens would be lethal in this agricultural heartland.
All governor’s races are different, but few as much as the one in Iowa this year. Reynolds, Iowa’s first female governor, lacks the political acumen of Branstad, who had been governor for a total of 22 years, starting with his first stint in the early 1980s.
Multiple Democrats are vying to succeed her. The strongest general-election candidate would be businessman Fred Hubbell. But in Iowa’s crazy-quilt system, if one hopeful doesn’t get at least 35 percent of the vote in the June 5 primary, the decision goes to a party convention where a less viable candidate could emerge.
In the House races, the Democrats are considered likely to defeat right-wing Rep. Rod Blum in eastern Iowa, but their dream of knocking off the immigration-bashing Rep. Steve King in northwest Iowa are likely to fail again. The key contest is in the third congressional district, which stretches from Des Moines to the Nebraska border.
The two-term Republican incumbent is David Young, who votes with Trump almost 99 percent of the time but avoids the ideological bombast of a Blum or King.
“If there’s a candidate who can survive a blue wave, it’s David,” says Strawn, the former GOP chair.
The strongest potential Democratic candidate was forced off the ballot for irregularities. The two current favorites in the primary race are Cindy Axne, a business owner and former state official, and Pete D’Alessandro, a veteran activist who ran Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Iowa campaign.
They both criticize Young as a Trump toady, assail the Republican tax cut and warn of the dangers of a trade war. But they differ sharply on health care — Axne wants to build on Obamacare, while D’Alessandro favors a single-payer government system — and they disagree on how quickly to raise the minimum wage.
D.C. Democrats worry that D’Alessandro, who has gotten support from a few mainstream Democrats, would be too liberal for the district in the general election; yet they question whether Axne can generate the enthusiasm that he does. For either to win in November, a blue wave has to wash over this landlocked state.
A conversation with the district’s voters last week at a restaurant in Stuart, Iowa, suggests that the core Trump base remains but that there is slippage.
Sandy Wahlert, who lives in Dexter, says she’s running into more people who voted for Trump who are now disenchanted with the chaos and nastiness. Another voter, a grain-elevator operator, just shakes his head at the possibility of a trade war.
But Cory Forcht, an auto-body worker from Greenfield, is still in Trump’s corner. “He may be a little weird,” he said, “but he doesn’t let politicians stand in his way.”
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.