Impeachment could play a role in Iowa’s congressional races

January 22, 2020 7:00 am
Joni Ernst

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is a Republican from Red Oak, Iowa. She is shown here in a file photo from November, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The 2020 elections will be a historic event in so many ways. President Donald Trump is one of the most unusual and controversial incumbents in U.S. history. The Democratic Party spawned the largest and most diverse field of candidates ever seen in an American race, outdoing even the 2016 GOP caucuses and primaries.

The world situation is dicey with Russia, Ukraine, China, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and many more nations injecting uncertainty and potential danger into the American election.

Then there is impeachment.

The Iowa 2020 election season will field four House races and one Senate contest. How will the impeachment of President Trump affect these races?

History may help us predict. The impeachment of President Clinton is not a good comparison mostly because Clinton’s impeachment occurred after he was reelected and partly because the Dec. 19, 1998, vote in the House was bipartisan, removing some of the divisive sting.

In 2016, Donald Trump practically tied with Ted Cruz for first place in the 2016 Iowa caucuses and won the election receiving 51.1% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 41.7%. Trump won all but five counties. It was a good year for the GOP with three House seats (Districts 1,3, and 4) and Sen. Charles Grassley retaining his seat.

In 2018, Democrats recovered, holding on to the Second District and retaking the First and Third Districts from the Republicans. In the latter, two women, Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, made history and showed that Iowa continues to be a “purple” state.

These two snapshots of Iowa politics, a strong Trump and Republican victory in 2016 and a Democratic recovery in 2018, suggest that the impact of impeachment on the 2020 races is a tossup.

The key variable is, of course, the impeachment of Donald Trump. Iowa’s House members voted along party lines, with the Democrats in favor of impeachment and the lone Republican, Steve King, against the articles.  The question is whether Democrats’ votes for impeachment will hurt their chances of getting reelected in the face of Trump’s strong showing in 2016.

Religion will likely factor into voters’ decisions

All four House seats and Republican Joni Ernst’s Senate seat are up for grabs, so the impeachment of Trump is a real issue for 2020 contests. One factor I will be carefully monitoring is how voters’ religion factors into their decision.

In Iowa, older voters have a much higher voter turnout. That could be a challenge for Democrats, who generally take a more secular and liberal position on abortion, prayer in schools, support for Israel, federal court appointments, and other issues. Evangelicals and religious voters have strongly supported Trump.

In the latest metrics, 85% of Iowa seniors are white Christians, “including roughly one-third of whom identify as white evangelical Protestants,” according to Public Religion Research Institute. Democrats have largely conceded this demographic to the GOP. Rarely do Democratic candidates prominently mention their faith and religious principles in their public appearances.

Many Democrats across the nation who were elected in districts Trump won are nervous about the impeachment vote. Will voters that swung their way in 2018 be angered by impeachment and swing to the Republican candidate? Or will constituents who support impeachment abandon those who voted against it?

For Iowa Democrats, that’s the difficult decision for the two House races with Democratic incumbents and even in the Second District held by Dave Loebsack, who is not running again but where his vote could set the tone for the November election for the Democratic candidate. In the Fourth District, long held by King, impeachment could also affect the chances of the Democrat challenging King. The Fourth District is the most conservative congressional district in Iowa and King has held his seat since 2003.

However, since President Trump took office, his net approval in Iowa has decreased by 18 percentage points (down to 44%) according to Morning Consult which, on a daily basis, surveys more than 5,000 registered voters across the United States. That is clearly alarming for Republicans. However, there is some reassuring news for Republicans. Among GOP primary voters, Trump’s overall approval is around 86%; among very conservative Republicans, it’s an astonishing 96%, and the lowest score in this group is 73% among moderate Republicans, who are now a minority in the party.

In a Dec. 11, 2019 poll, Trump beat all the potential Democrats running for president, which could pose a challenge “down ballot” for Democrats. At the time of this writing, polling on which Democrat could beat President Trump is considered too fluid in light of the impeachment trial, tensions with Iran, and the evolving trade relationship with China.

Of course to win election or reelection, candidates of either party need to attract independents or “no-party” voters. It’s not at all clear how independents or disaffected Democrats who abandoned Hillary Clinton, as well as Bernie Sanders voters in 2016, will be affected by impeachment. Will they double down and vote for Trump and Republicans as in 2016, or will they again support Democrats, which they did in 2018? Nationally and in Iowa, that is the $100 million question Democratic candidates but also Republicans in very bluish-purple (i.e. leaning Democratic) districts need to answer.

Impeachment could factor into the caucus vote

The 2020 election even crept into the House debate over impeachment. Republicans mocked Democrats saying that their 2018 winners would lose in 2020 by voting for impeachment. Democrats struck right back, saying that with the Trump chaos in Washington it’s Republicans in the House and Senate who would be punished for NOT voting to impeach.

There are two factors that will deeply influence the caucuses this year.

The senators running for president — Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Michael Bennet, and Elizabeth Warren — may be handicapped because they will be isolated in Washington as jury members in President Trump’s impeachment and cannot campaign in the crucial run-up to the Iowa Caucuses.

The second huge question marks are two foreign policy challenges. First is the collapse of the Venezuelan democracy movement with President Nicolas Maduro crushing opposition groups and the revelation that the terrorist group Hezbollah may be active in that country. Sanders is especially vulnerable because he has said the regime there is not a dictatorship.

Secondly, the crisis over the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani is expected to affect the narrative for Democratic candidates and elevate international experience and leadership. Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are seen as potentially benefiting from their experiences. For Biden, his eight years as vice president with many foreign policy assignments are considered assets. Buttigieg’s military service could give him some credentials.

 And so the “expectations game” leaves us white knuckled as we slowly move toward Nov. 4 and the results of the election the day before, which will reveal who was right.

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Steffen Schmidt
Steffen Schmidt

Steffen Schmidt is the Lucken Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University in Ames.