Iowa House maps create competitive seats

Greg Nash

Iowa lawmakers late Thursday gave final approval to new congressional district boundaries that are likely to set the state up for a decade of competitive races ahead.

Just one of Iowa’s four congressional districts would likely be beyond competition, according to state political observers and data released by the legislature’s nonpartisan redistricting panel. The other three districts all voted for former President Trump in 2020, but by the slimmest of margins.

The state House gave final approval to the maps on Thursday, sending them to Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) for approval. Reynolds is likely to sign them into law.

The new map shores up Rep. Randy Feenstra’s (R) district, based north of Des Moines and west along Iowa’s borders with South Dakota and Nebraska. Feenstra’s district will gain new counties along the Missouri River formerly represented by Rep. Cindy Axne (D).

Under the new version, Axne’s district — based in Des Moines, the state’s largest city — will take in several new rural counties along the southern border with Missouri, along with Greene County, north and west of Des Moines. Her district gave Trump a 49.1 percent plurality in 2020, though it contains slightly more registered Democratic voters than Republicans.

First-term Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R), who won her seat by just six votes in 2020, would likely run in the 1st District, which gains Warren County, south of Des Moines, and several counties along the Mississippi River on Iowa’s eastern border with Illinois. Those counties are among the dozens in the Upper Mississippi River Valley that had voted Democratic for a century before realigning to back Trump in 2016 and 2020.

“I will be evaluating the new districts to determine my next step, which I will be announcing shortly,” Miller-Meeks said in a statement Friday morning.

The mapmakers, who under state law are not allowed to consider where incumbents live when they draw district lines, put Miller-Meeks and Axne in the same district. But Miller-Meeks lives close to the eastern 1st District, which makes up most of her current district.

Regardless of which seat she chooses, Miller-Meeks is unlikely to get a break from competitive elections in the next several cycles: The closest analogue to her current district gave Trump just 50.4 percent of the vote in 2020, a sign of closely divided contests ahead if Democrats can recruit the right candidate.

The new proposal will give another first-term Republican, Rep. Ashley Hinson, a little more breathing room: Hinson’s district will surrender Marshall County, which voted for Trump by slim margins in 2016 and 2020, and two eastern ancestrally Democratic counties in exchange for more rural, more heavily Republican counties near the northern border with Minnesota.

The shifting counties between districts “reflects the population shifts to the Des Moines market and the larger cities in [eastern] Iowa,” said David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican strategist. He predicted at least two of the seats — and possibly three, including Hinson’s — would be competitive in the decade ahead.

Despite creating four districts that Trump won in 2020, Democratic strategists were largely content with the end result — which, they said, could have been worse for their party. Iowa’s redistricting panel, made up of legislative staff, draws maps, but the legislature could decide to throw out the panel’s work and start anew. The legislature decided not to break precedent this time around.

“What matters is that they avoid leading Iowa into a very dangerous position of legislators redrawing maps,” said Matt Paul, a longtime Democratic strategist who helped guide Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The Iowa process is nonpartisan and fair, and while these maps may not be the greatest for Democrats, they preserve one of the last truly nonpartisan aspects of redistricting.”

Democrats expressed optimism in Axne’s chances of keeping her seat, and in state Sen. Liz Mathis (D), who is challenging Hinson this year. State Rep. Christina Bohannan (D) has already said she will run against Miller-Meeks.

“Strong candidates should be able to compete in three of the four [districts], and that’s a win,” Paul said.

The maps conform to Iowa state law that requires counties to remain whole, a quirk that can often complicate the remapping process, said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. Even keeping counties whole, the new districts deviate from ideal populations by margins of less than one one-hundredth of a percentage point.

The new maps are also likely to create some ill feelings among sitting members of the Iowa state legislature, many of whom have been drawn into districts alongside their fellow incumbents. Twenty of 50 Iowa state senators and 38 of the 100 members of the state House find themselves drawn together with their colleagues.

Kochel, the Republican strategist, said that is not unusual in a scenario in which the cartographers cannot legally account for an incumbent’s home.

But it is unlikely to impact the balance of power in a state where Republicans have controlled the legislature in recent years. The GOP currently holds 32 of 50 Senate seats and 59 of 100 state House seats.

Tags Cindy Axne congressional districts Donald Trump Gerrymandering Hillary Clinton Iowa Mariannette Miller-Meeks Randy Feenstra Redistricting

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