Democrats have a cash advantage in nearly all of the most expensive Iowa House races, new reports

October 21, 2020

Des Moines Register: Democrats have a cash advantage in nearly all of the most expensive Iowa House races, new reports show
By: Stephen Gruber-Miller and Ian Richardson

Ahead of the 2020 election, Democratic Statehouse candidates have a cash advantage over their Republican opponents in nearly all of the most expensive Iowa House races.

Democratic candidates are outraising their Republican opponents in nine of the 10 Iowa House races that have drawn the most money in candidate contributions and in spending from outside groups, according to state campaign finance reports that were due Monday.

Those races alone have attracted nearly $9.5 million in the last reporting period, which covers July 15 through Oct. 14.

Democrats are hoping to take back the Iowa House this year for the first time in a decade, while Republicans, who control both legislative chambers and the governorship, are seeking to defend their majority. In the Iowa Senate, Republicans are seen as likely to maintain their 32-18 majority. But in the House, Democrats would need to flip only four seats to control the chamber.

Four of the races that have drawn the most spending feature Republican incumbents. Three others are GOP-held seats where the incumbent is retiring. Just three of the races feature Democratic incumbents.

“The strong fundraising effort and the hard work our candidates are putting in every day is a sign of the momentum Democrats have leading up to Election Day,” House Democratic leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said in a statement. “We are in a solid position to beat Republicans in the final two weeks of this campaign and win back the Iowa House on Nov. 3.”  

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said he believes Republicans remain in a good position to maintain control of the House and even pad their majority.

“We continue to play offense in several Democrat-held seats where Republicans have performed well in past elections,” Grassley said in a statement. “This includes Minority Leader Todd Prichard, who is in the race for his life and has spent significant resources just to protect himself.”

Prichard's race, in rural northern Iowa, is one that has seen significant in-kind spending on the Democrat's behalf. Prichard reported receiving more than $456,000 in advertising from the state party over the past three months. 

As a party leader, Prichard has raised money for other candidates as well, transferring $370,000 in political contributions to the Iowa Democratic Party during the past three months. But he and other groups have spent significant money on his race, where he is being challenged by Republican Craig Clark. Clark brought in $211,626 during the reporting period, nearly all of it representing in-kind spending from the Republican Party of Iowa. 

Grassley, who does not face a competitive race, raised $845,000 over the past three months. He had nearly $1.5 million in the bank at the end of the filing period, which he can give to other Republican candidates.

Which races are drawing the most cash?
The most expensive House race is in District 37, where four-term Republican Rep. John Landon is running for re-election against Democrat Andrea Phillips to represent Ankeny and parts of rural Polk County. That race has already brought in nearly $1.3 million. 

Both candidates are running television ads and have received hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind spending, mostly from the state Republican and Democratic parties.

As of Oct. 14, Phillips had brought in $849,335 for the quarter, a total that includes nearly $520,000 in in-kind spending by the Iowa Democratic Party on advertising. 

Landon brought in just under half that total — $421,800, which included more than $360,000 from the Republican Party of Iowa on advertising. 

More:Record-smashing Iowa Senate race fuels deluge of final-stretch campaign spending

Iowa's second most expensive House race is in District 94, where Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, is facing a challenge from Democrat Marie Gleason. Mohr brought in $577,231 to Gleason's $643,967. Those totals include massive spending by both state parties on advertising, with Democrats outspending Republicans $528,932 to $477,736.

House District 91, an open seat that represents Muscatine, is the one race in the group that saw more money coming in from Republicans than Democrats.

Although Democrat Kelcey Brackett outraised Republican Mark Cisneros $141,384 to $24,860 in direct contributions, Cisneros has an advantage when in-kind spending is factored in. Cisneros pulled in $338,000 from the Republican Party of Iowa, while Brackett received $151,800 from the Iowa Democratic Party and the Future Now Fund, a group backing Democrats in several statehouse races across the country.

The cash hauls in some districts are much more lopsided.

In suburban Cedar Rapids, Democrat Eric Gjerde has pulled in more than $500,000 in direct contributions and in-kind spending as he seeks to flip the House District 67 seat. State Rep. Ashley Hinson currently holds that seat, but she is running for Congress in Iowa's 1st District, rather than for re-election to the Statehouse.
Republican Sally Ann Abbott has raised only $17,000, including more than $10,000 of in-kind contributions. That race fell just outside the top 10 in terms of spending.

Where the money is coming from
Prichard said Democrats have used “small, grassroots donations” to outraise their Republican counterparts. For example, in House District 37, Phillips has reported more than 4,100 individual donations, including in-kind contributions, since Jan. 1. Landon has reported just under 400 contributions.

But Grassley criticized Democrats on Tuesday for receiving a large percentage of contributions from out-of-state sources looking to help flip Iowa districts. In District 37, reports show just more than a quarter of Phillips' contributions are from Iowa addresses, while more than 96% of Landon's are.

“Iowans should be very alarmed by the amount of money that Democrats are receiving from liberals in California and New York,” Grassley said. “Why these out-of-state individuals are so interested in a state legislative race, in a state where they don’t even live, should be concerning.”

Outside groups are also spending big, either by donating directly to candidates or spending independently on their behalf. 

EMILY's List, which seeks to elect Democratic women to office around the country, has given about $400,000 directly to Democrats' campaigns. President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement that the path to Democrats retaking the House runs through candidates endorsed by EMILY's List.

“Given the GOP’s relentless attack on reproductive freedom and their shameful record of voting to shortchange Iowa families, it is critical to flip this chamber by electing pro-choice Democratic women who will get to work and fight for their communities,” she said.

Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, another group that is seeking to flip the Iowa House to Democratic control, has pledged to spend about $1 million.

The latest campaign finance report shows nearly $240,000 in spending so far, much of it funneled into opposing Republican candidates in competitive districts. Everytown's spending is listed as an independent expenditure and is separate from contributions or in-kind spending on behalf of a candidate.

“Polling consistently shows that gun safety mobilizes, persuades and has become a litmus test issue for Iowa voters because Iowans are tired of inaction on gun violence and state lawmakers who are in the pocket of the gun lobby. That's why we went all-in with nearly $1 million in digital ads and candidate-specific mailers, and an unbeatable grassroots program to flip the state House,” said Charlie Kelly, senior political adviser for Everytown for Gun Safety.

Better Democracy PAC, a group started last year by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell, also reported spending more than $1.15 million during the latest reporting period.

Much of that ($825,000) went directly to the Iowa Democratic Party, although the group also donated directly to several Iowa House candidates. That includes $140,000 to Christian Andrews, the Democrat running in District 95 in rural Linn and Buchanan counties, and $115,000 to Phillips.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative/libertarian advocacy group, reported $121,444 in independent expenditures on behalf of Republican candidates for the Iowa House and Senate, mostly in the form of direct mail and digital advertising.

Drew Klein, the group's state director, said Americans for Prosperity decided which candidates to support after having conversations with candidates about the group's policy priorities, which he said include changing Iowa's tax code, reducing occupational licensing, advocating for school choice and improving Iowa's health system.

“We wanted to start talking about the big issues that we thought were important moving forward at the state level, and so really leading with policy first and framing out what we hope to be talking about for the next two years,” he said.