Iowa’s 2nd District race sparks national debate, could color ’22 campaigns

By: - March 22, 2021 4:08 pm

“I voted” stickers are scattered over a table at a polling site in Des Moines on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo By Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The overtime race in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District has turned into a debate over political tactics that many think could color the 2022 elections.

Among new developments is a complaint from nine House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump and now see the Iowa race as another threat to election integrity.

Meanwhile, Politico reported Monday that some moderate Democrats are pushing back on the prospect of reversing a state-certified election. 

The Iowa race has attracted the attention from the Washington Post and other national news outlets. The Wall Street Journal called the Iowa race a “flashpoint on Capitol Hill.” 

Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks has been seated even as

The Iowa Federation of Republican Women painted the situation as a power grab by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

“Every voter in America should be outraged by any attempt by politicians in Washington, D.C., to overturn a state’s certified election,” federation President Barbara Hames-Bryant said in a statement Monday. 

“It is insulting to the people of Iowa that Ms. Hart’s petition is even being considered in Congress,” she added. “All Americans should be outraged and fearful for the future integrity of our electoral process, if a certified election can  be overturned in a political power grab. The Democrats, by ignoring the voters’ legitimate choice, are crumbling the  foundations of our democracy.” 

Former Iowa Sen. Rita Hart, a Democrat, ran for the 2nd Congressional District seat. (Photo courtesy of Hart campaign)

In an interview, David Yepsen, host of Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press” and former director of the  Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Illinois, said the Hart appeal is “pure, pragmatic politics.”

With the Democrats in control of the House but some observers seeing a GOP takeover in the midterm elections, the Dems “want to get what they want while they can,” said Yepsen, who covered Iowa politics for several decades at the Des Moines Register. 

“The Democrats really screwed up this election in Johnson County,” Yepsen said. “A lot of people voted for Joe Biden but didn’t pay attention to the down-ballot races.” 

State election results show that there were 3,863 ballots cast in Johnson County in which the voter chose a presidential candidate, but didn’t make a selection in one or more other races.

Yepsen predicts the House will hand the seat to Hart. “It’s looking that way. I will be surprised if they don’t,” he said.

“This race has some significance on 2022 because the projections show that the GOP will pick up control” of the House, Yepsen said. “Every seat counts.”

Yepsen added the situation may be a little bit of political payback for Democrat Kayla Koether’s loss by nine votes in the 2018 race in District 55 of the Iowa House of Representatives. The GOP majority voted to not count ballots that weren’t postmarked but would have given Koether the win.

Professor: Dems’ 2nd District stance at odds with presidential race

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said the Democrats’ seeming insistence on staying the course on the 2nd District fight is difficult to reconcile with their view the presidential results shouldn’t have been challenged.

“I get the impression that the Democratic leadership really wants to make a major fight out of this,” Goldford said in an interview. “Doing so would seem to undercut their insistence on sticking with the certified results in the presidential race in several close states.”

Goldford said Hart may have miscalculated the political cost of skipping a court appeal in Iowa.

“Hart may have made a mistake in not going through an Iowa process before taking it to the Democratic majority in the House.  I can understand the frustration of ‘so close’ — six votes — which is why most election officials probably pray for a landslide one way or the other.”

Goldford said 2022’s elections “in general will be blood and guts in any case, regardless of this one issue right now. That said, if 2022 is a repeat contest from 2020, the aggrieved person, Hart or Miller-Meeks, pending the outcome, can use the issue as a rallying cry in 2022.”

The GOP has consistently bashed Hart for not choosing to appeal first to a panel of Iowa judges. Hart’s campaign has said the Iowa law didn’t allow enough time for a full investigation of the results. And Democrats have consistently said all legally cast votes should be counted. 

Late last week, House Republicans sent Pelosi a letter calling for the House committee to end the investigation, something the House Administration Committee declined to do at Miller-Meeks’ request recently. The committee decided to review the case. Initial briefs are due Monday (March 22), with no set timeline for a decision. 

Appeals like Hart’s have rarely been successful, federal records show. 

GOP lawmakers: Appeal sets ‘dangerous precedent’

“This action not only sets a dangerous precedent for future elections, it reinforces the false belief by many in our country that our election system is rigged and that certain politicians can change results to fit their whims,” nine Republicans, including Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking GOP member in the house, wrote in the letter.

The nine Republicans noted they voted to impeach President Donald Trump in part due to his false claims that President Joe Biden’s election victory was rigged. They also acted in response to Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol.

“Earlier this year, we the undersigned voted to impeach a president in our own party who had repeatedly refuted the results of a certified election, which led to horrific violence in the Capitol building on Jan. 6. This was not an easy vote for us politically, but it was the right thing to do. The integrity of our election system was being attacked and trust in it was being eroded — with disastrous consequences,” the representatives wrote.

The Iowa race is another important moment for the future of elections, the added. “It is our belief that any attempt to overturn the results of a certified congressional election through a partisan process will be rightfully seen as illegitimate and further erode that trust in our election system,” the representatives wrote.

Pelosi pushed back against criticism of the investigation a week ago on ABC News’ “This Week.” 

“Even Justice Scalia agreed that the House has the authority to seat members and therefore we can count the votes — six votes out of 400,000 cast,” Pelosi said, referring to late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a strong conservative. “For them to call anybody hypocritical about elections when two-thirds of them voted against accepting the presidency of Joe Biden — well, it’s just who they are.”

The Post quoted Peter Whippy, spokesperson for the House Administration Committee, as saying appeals are fairly common. There have been 107 contested elections contested since 1933. In addition to Iowa’s race, Illinois has a contest this year.

Hart campaign stands by appeal

Hart’s campaign has kept the heat on and plans a press conference Tuesday.

In previous statements, the campaign has said legally cast votes would make Hart the winner, if counted.

“While Miller-Meeks has spent the last two months fighting to disenfranchise these Iowans, Rita has stood with them from the beginning, urging Congress to count every ballot,” the Hart campaign said in a statement last month.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.