2018 will show whether Iowa is a two-party state



Next year should provide a barometer on whether Iowa has reverted to its historic state of perma-red.

A half-dozen Democrats and two Republicans are chasing what is an essentially open seat held by Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican who ascended to the office with the departure of Terry Branstad for China. Reynolds has a bushel basket full of problems to attend to, not the least of which is Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. (See today’s editorial.)

Many astute political observers look at the rout suffered at the hands of Donald Trump, combined with the legislative sweep, and wonder if the sun hasn’t set on the party. As if to validate their concerns, the Senate Democrats in an act of self-flagellation over the weekend unseated caucus leader Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids after 11 months in the seat because he wasn’t raising enough money. He was replaced by Janet Peterson of Des Moines. It looks like a party in disarray. Tom Harkin is gone. Tom Vilsack too. And Mike Gronstal. It is a party without a rudder.

The only comfort for the minority is that if the Democrats are adrift, the Republicans are dug in for civil war.

It is undeniable that Iowa is trending redder. Voter registration totals show that in 2017 the gap between Democrats and Republicans grew to 50,000 — twice what the gap was 10 years before. Maps that show in red or blue how counties voted are striking from 2008 to 2016 — a decided flip that saw even Woodbury and Webster counties in the Fourth District flip to Republican.

Now, no Democratic state senator lives west of I-35.

The election line was that college-educated voters went blue while non-college educated voters — the angry white male cohort — wanted to blow things up and voted for Trump. And Steve King. And against Democratic control of the state senate. Former Majority Leader Gronstal, of Council Bluffs, chalks up his defeat to a wave election and a ton of money dumped on his district.

David Yepsen, the dean of Midwestern political reporters, believes Iowa is going back to predictable Republican control. He cites the erosion of support for and membership in unions, the basic economic insecurities of the Midwest and the anger toward government that moves voters in Dubuque or Burlington, the old manufacturing river towns, to drift from the blue column.

Did 2016 swing so far that it will swing back?

Next year will tell us whether Democrats can win a statewide race. They lost Tom Harkin’s senate seat to Joni Ernst. They lost Terrace Hill to Terry Branstad. They lost to Trump.

Yet things appear to be getting worse. College tuition is going up. State parks are shutting down. Net household income is sliding sideways such that Iowa was last among the states in income growth during the second quarter. Nursing homes are closing and merging; hospitals and other health care providers are mad. Public employee unions have been denuded. Schools are hurting and parents know it.

This could be a wave in Iowa that sets up a presidential wave two years hence.

Turnout was muted among Democrats who were not turned on by Hillary Clinton for any number of reasons, emails being the least of them. Many Republicans held their noses and voted for Trump. The same with some independents, just enough of them.

Any of the leading Democratic candidates has the smarts, and should have the financial resources to articulate a message that reaches Clinton and Davenport, if not Sioux Center. Iowa keeps about half its college graduates in-state each year, which means that the base of the college-educated is outpacing that of those holding a high school diploma or less. Rural Iowa is fading in population, hence going from five to four congressional districts. The rural vote that is so decidedly red will become less significant every two years.

The question is whether a Democrat can reach those disaffected white voters in Oelwein and Keokuk who gave Obama a chance. They wanted to blow things up but see now that nothing has changed. They also can see Kansas from here — that tax cut after tax cut leads to government failure and not necessarily more jobs in movie animation.

Those same voters say in poll after poll that they want world-class schools, clean water, limits on hoghouses, a strong state patrol and access to justice for all. They know that the clerk of court is on limited hours, that Storm Lake still needs to be dredged, that we cannot even count the number of hoghouses in the state there are so many of them. They know it all adds up to capital T and that means Trouble.

If the Democcrats lose the governor’s race, you can bet the Democrat will lose Iowa in the 2020 Presidential election. As Iowa goes, so goes Ohio. And as Ohio goes, so goes the nation.