Coastal donors plow cash into Iowa campaigns

By: - April 29, 2020 3:38 pm

(Photo by Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Last fall, Peter Baldwin, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, sent a campaign contribution to a congressional hopeful two time zones away.

Iowa Democrat J. D. Scholten, who narrowly lost his 2018 bid to unseat 4th District Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, announced last August that he would take another shot at King’s seat in the fall of 2020. After learning about Scholten’s bid, Baldwin sent a $500 contribution to bolster the Iowa Democrat’s campaign.

“I think I saw a (news story) about him, outsider in a valiant fight, that sort of thing, and decided he was worth a long-shot donation,” the UCLA professor told the Capital Dispatch this week in an email.

Last year, Scholten raised nearly twice as much from donors in California than he did from donors in Iowa, according to federal campaign finance reports. He raised about $162,500 from California, compared to $85,200 from Iowa donors, Federal Election Commission data show.

Those numbers include itemized donations over $200 and some small donations, but don’t include all the donations he received.

He’s not alone among Iowa congressional hopefuls who have received significant portions of their money from big coastal states. Donors from New York, California and elsewhere have been shelling out cash for candidates in the Hawkeye State, which is home to one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the nation and four U.S. House contests that are all considered competitive.

Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield, for example, received more in big donations from New York than she did from Iowa in 2019, the records show. And vulnerable Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer took in more itemized contributions from California than she did from her home state.

Political observers and campaign finance experts say the outside cash isn’t unusual, given Iowa’s relatively small donor base. Still, the totals indicate that Iowa’s races are attracting significant attention nationally as Democrats and Republicans alike look to safeguard their parties’ own seats while ousting incumbent lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.

“The more high profile a race is, the more likely you’re going to see a lot of out-of-state or out-of-district contributions,” said Brendan Glavin, senior data analyst at the Campaign Finance Institute.

Democrats in Iowa and across the country are hoping they can oust the two Republicans in Iowa’s delegation: Sen. Joni Ernst and King. Republicans, meanwhile, are playing offense in two swing-district seats held by freshman Democrats and a third that’s being vacated by a Democratic incumbent.

“Iowa’s interesting because it wouldn’t be unheard of for them to send an all-Republican delegation to Washington next year,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter from the University of Virginia Center for Politics. By the same token, he added, “they could possibly elect all Democrats to the House as well.”

Earlier this month, Iowa’s congressional candidates were required to file campaign finance reports disclosing their fundraising activity for the first three months of 2020. Although COVID-19 has complicated fundraising for candidates across the country, the latest reports offer a glimpse into candidates’ cash hauls just before the pandemic upended the economy and political campaigns.

Here’s what the latest reports revealed about Iowa’s races:

Senate contest

Ernst still has an overall fundraising edge over Greenfield, her top Democratic rival, although Greenfield’s $2.3 million first quarter haul was just slightly lower than Ernst’s $2.7 million. Ernst ended March with $6.5 million in the bank compared to Greenfield’s $3.8 million.

Outside groups known as super PACs are also pouring money into the race, one of the few contested Senate races in the nation that will help decide whether Democrats or Republicans control the chamber next year. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race as leaning Republican.

Out-of-state donors have been putting money behind both Senate candidates. Greenfield received 81% of her contributions from donors outside of Iowa, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ernst raised 73% of her money from out-of-state donors.

Greenfield raised $752,400 from New York donors in 2019, compared to $485,800 from Iowa donors, according to FEC data. Those donations include itemized checks over $200 and don’t include all small donations.

Greenfield’s New York donors include former Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch; investment banker and Democratic insider Roger Altman; liberal megadonor George Soros and his son, Jonathan Soros; and former Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey.

Greenfield’s fundraising has been driven by strong grassroots support in every corner of Iowa,” said her campaign spokesman Sam Newton. “Theresa isn’t taking a dime from corporate PACs and has received more than 15,000 contributions from Iowans in all 99 counties, with more than 95% of contributions under $100 last quarter and an average online contribution of $18.”

Ernst raised $1.7 million from Iowa donors through the end of 2019, records show, making it her top state for donations. Her No. 2 top-contributing state was Florida, where donors gave her $436,400.

The incumbent Republican senator had some high-profile New York donors too, including Paul Singer, a billionaire and founder of the New York hedge fund firm Elliott Management; Andrew Sabin, a wealthy GOP donor who heads a metals recycling business; and Robert Mercer, a Republican megadonor and former Breitbart News investor.

1st District 

Finkenauer’s race is expected to be among the closest House races in the country. She’s a top target of the National Republican Congressional Committee and political experts see the November outcome as a toss-up.

Finkenauer raised $778,800 during the first quarter of 2020 and $2.7 million during the cycle.

Her top-raising GOP competitor, state Rep. Ashley Hinson, raised $551,600 during the quarter and $1.6 million during the cycle, the latest reports show.

Through the end of 2019, California was Finkenauer’s No. 1 state for donations, according to FEC data. She raised $335,400 from California donors, compared to $191,000 from Iowa donors. Hinson raised $683,400 from Iowa donors during that time, making it her top state for contributions.

Finkenauer closed March with $2 million in the bank; Hinson had $980,400 cash on hand.

2nd District

Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack’s retirement has opened the door to a competitive race for his seat.

Former state Sen. Rita Hart, a Democrat, is leading the money race so far. She raised $364,600 in the first quarter of this year and $1.2 million this cycle. She ended March with $898,600 in the bank.

State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is the top-raising Republican in the race; she brought in $256,400 in the first quarter, including $95,000 in self-financing. She has raised $516,300 for the full cycle and ended last month with $397,300 cash on hand.

Former Illinois Republican Rep. Bobby Schilling is also running for the seat. He raised $18,800 for the quarter and $99,700 for the full cycle. He had $55,000 cash on hand.

3rd District

Freshman Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne is another top target for Republicans. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the seat as leaning Democratic, while the Cook Political Report pegs it as a toss-up.

Axne raised $944,000 in the first quarter and $3.1 million in the full cycle. She had $2.5 million cash on hand at the end of March.

Former Republican Rep. David Young is making another play for the seat after losing to Axne by 2 percentage points in 2018. He raised $403,200 in the quarter and $1.4 million in the cycle. He closed March with $1 million in the bank.

Army veteran Bill Schafer is also running for the GOP nomination. He raised $18,200 so far this election cycle.

4th District

King, a ninth-term Republican congressman, has been outraised this cycle by a Democrat and a Republican vying for his seat.

His Democratic challenger Scholten raised $339,600 for the quarter and $1.1 million for the full 2020 cycle. The bulk of Scholten’s itemized contributions — 78% of them — came from out of state. His top-donating metro area was San Francisco.

Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra raised $122,900 for the first quarter of this year and $844,300 so far this cycle.

King, meanwhile, raised just $42,900 in the quarter and $307,800 in the cycle. King was removed from his U.S. House committees last year after he made comments to the New York Times questioning why the phrase “white supremacist” is considered offensive.

Despite Scholten’s fundraising advantage, Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race as likely Republican. The district voted for President Donald Trump by a margin of 27.1 points in 2016, and Scholten lost in 2018 despite having a significant fundraising advantage that cycle.

“We kind of feel like if they can’t beat (King) in a blue midterm, it’s going to be hard to see how they can beat him” in 2020 with Trump at the top of the ticket, said Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Other Republicans challenging King in the GOP primary are Jeremy Taylor, Bret Richards and Steve Reeder, all of whom raised less than King this cycle.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the 3rd District race was rated as leaning Republican by Sabato’s Crystal Ball. The group rates the race as leaning Democratic. 

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin coordinates States Newsroom’s Washington, D.C., coverage. She keeps tabs on states’ U.S. congressional delegations and writes about how decisions made by federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts impact states across the country. Before coming to StatesNewsroom, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV. She has been a guest on NPR, C-SPAN, WBUR and other outlets and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Science, Scientific American, Salon and other publications. Robin has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in journalism from American University.