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Iowa’s tightly contested, all-important 2018 House elections, explained

Rod Blum and David Young are two vulnerable House Republicans in what should be competitive 2018 elections.

Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

In the June 5 Iowa primary elections, voters will pick the Democratic candidates in two of the most important House races in the November midterms — giving the Hawkeye State an outsize importance in the 2018 battle for House control.

This state could also be a good opportunity for Democrats to take back a governor’s mansion in 2018: Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is seeking her first full term.

Two of Iowa’s four congressional elections are expected to be competitive, presenting Democrats an opportunity to pick up a pair of the 24 seats they need to flip to take back the House. Sure, a few other states will be more important — most notably California, New York, and Pennsylvania — but key wins in Iowa would put Democrats on the path to the 218 seats they must win for a House majority.

Both the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball rank Iowa’s First Congressional District, currently represented by Republican Rep. Rod Blum, as a toss-up and the Third Congressional District, home to Republican Rep. David Young, as only Lean Republican. One of the other districts is Solid Republican and the other is Solid Democrat.

The competitiveness in Iowa, where Donald Trump won by nearly 10 points, might be reflected by the state’s gold-standard redistricting rules, which have made it more difficult for the party in power to rig the maps in its favor. In brief: Nonpartisan staff draw the lines, they aren’t allowed to account for any political data, and, while the legislature does get an up-or-down vote, the same nonpartisan staff will simply take another crack at it if lawmakers reject the plan.

With that, here’s a quick rundown of the June 5 primaries in Iowa and a brief peek ahead to the November general election.

Iowa governor Democratic primary: Gov. Kim Reynolds awaits in what could be a competitive general election

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Who is the Republican? Incumbent Gov. Kim Reynolds, who replaced longtime Gov. Terry Branstad in 2017 when he was appointed ambassador to China. She’s seeking her first full term. Her signature achievement is probably moving Iowa’s 600,000 Medicaid enrollees into managed care, a privatized version of the program where private health plans administer Medicaid’s benefits.

Who are the Democrats? It’s a crowded field. Fred Hubbell, a business owner who once worked for the state’s economic development agency, has raised the most money and was leading in the one poll of the primary that we have; he says he wants to reverse the Medicaid privatization plan that Reynolds supports. Cathy Glasson, a local SEIU leader, has also had strong fundraising and is running on a more progressive platform that includes a statewide single-payer program. State Sen. Nate Boulton had ranked second in that only state poll and raised a decent amount of money — but he dropped out of the race a few weeks before the primary due to sexual misconduct allegations.

If no candidate gets 35 percent of the vote, the race goes to a convention. Right now, Hubbell is pressing right up against that threshold.

What’s the story? Reynolds is reasonably popular: 42 percent approval and 35 percent disapproval, according to Morning Consult. She could have a Trump problem, though. The president won in 2016, but he’s now underwater in Iowa: 45 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval, per Morning Consult.

Cook says this race is a Likely Republican win, but UVA places it as merely Lean Republican. The available polling gives Reynolds a slight edge over her various Democratic challengers. So we have to count the incumbent governor as the favorite, but a strong enough anti-GOP climate could give Democrats an opening to take back a governor’s seat.

Iowa’s First Congressional District: Rod Blum gets his Democratic challenger

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Who is the Republican? Incumbent Rep. Rod Blum, who was first elected to Congress in 2014. Voted for Obamacare repeal, the tax bill, a 20-week abortion ban, and a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities during the 115th Congress.

Who are the Democrats? State Rep. Abby Finkenauer looks like the frontrunner. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee supports her, and the one poll of this race that we have shows her with 29 percent, 19 points ahead of her closest rival. But her three competitors have attracted some support: Thomas Heckroth, who was an aide to former Sen. Tom Harkin, has raised more than $100,000; veteran George Ramsey was the only other candidate to hit at least 10 percent in that poll; and Courtney Rowe got the support of the national Justice Democrats, a Bernie Sanders-aligned group. And we’ve seen in previous races that the DCCC’s top pick doesn’t always secure the nomination.

What’s the story with this district? The First District represents the northeast corner of the state, including Cedar Rapids. Cook actually rates it as a D+1 district (meaning, all else being equal, this district tilts 1 point toward the Democrats compared to the United States as a whole). It voted for Trump by less than 4 points in 2016, and Blum won it by 7 points. Cook and UVA’s Crystal Ball think this is a toss-up.

We have a few general election polls, actually, and they all showed Finkenauer, Heckroth, and Ramsey leading Blum in a hypothetical matchup. It’s way too soon to say whether that will hold, but it’s indicative of how competitive the district should be.

Iowa’s Third Congressional District: David Young is looking vulnerable too

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Who is the Republican? Incumbent Rep. David Young, who was also first elected to Congress in 2014, a good Republican year. He actually voted against the first version of the House’s Obamacare repeal bill, lost the backing of a House leadership PAC, and ended up voting for the final bill that passed the House. He also voted for the Republican tax bill, the 20-week abortion ban, and the bill targeting sanctuary cities.

Who are the Democrats? It’s a good moderate-versus-progressive dynamic: Small-business owner Cindy Axne, endorsed by Emily’s List, is running on fixing Obamacare, while former Sanders campaign aide Pete D’Alessandro is running — with Sanders’s support — on a Medicare-for-all message. They are both raising a decent amount of money, though Axne has been raising more. Eddie Mauro, another small-business owner, has actually raised the most campaign funds. It should be competitive.

What’s the story with this district? It represents the southwest corner of the state, including Des Moines. Cook says it’s an R+1 district. The Third District also voted for Trump by less than 4 points in 2016. Young won by nearly 14 points, though, running well ahead of the president. And yet Cook and the Crystal Ball think the district is only Lean Republican in 2018.

We don’t have any polling on the potential general election matchups. Young is going to get a lot of financial support from Republicans, though — given his strong showing in 2016, this is probably a district the GOP really believes it can hold on to.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Boulton is no longer running in the Democratic primary.


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