Fairfield, Iowa - Photo credit Bill Whittaker (CC-By-SA 3.0)
Fairfield, Iowa – Photo credit Bill Whittaker (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Democrat candidate Phil Miller defeated the Republican candidate Travis Harris in the special election in Iowa House District 82 to fill a seat left vacant after the death of State Representative Curt Hanson (D-Fairfield).

The unofficial results from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office shows:

  1. Phil Miller (Democrat) – 53.8 percent (4,021)
  2. Travis Harris (Republican) – 44.5 percent (3,324)
  3. Joshua Miller (Libertarian) – 0.9 percent (71)
  4. Edward Hee (Constitution Party) – 0.7 percent (58)

Miller is a veterinarian from Fairfield who also served on the Fairfield School Board. Harris works with Farm Financial Strategies, Inc, and also served as President of the Moulton-Udell School Board.

Ordinarily, Iowa House District 82 is a swing district. President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the district in 2016 – 57.8 percent to 36.4 percent. The late Representative Hanson ran unopposed in that election.

Miller’s margin of victory was larger in 2017 than Hanson’s in 2014 when he defeated Republican challenger Jeff Shipley 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent with only 398 votes separating the two. As President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 49.7 percent to 47.9 percent in 2012, Hanson defeated the Republican challenger James Johnson – 59 percent to 41 percent in the Iowa House election.

Republicans and Democrats split voter registration in the district with Republicans having a slight edge with 6,611 registered voters compared to Democrats’ 6,257 registered voters. There are 5,738 registered independent voters.

Two keys to Miller’s victory were:

  1. Miller was well known especially in Jefferson County the largest county in the district. Miller won the county by over 1700 votes. Harris beat Miller in Davis and Van Buren Counties.
  2. Democrat absentee ballot effort was stronger than Republicans in an election with a low turnout. Only 7,474 people voted in the special election compared 11,372 in the last contested midterm election in 2014. Iowa Starting Line reports that Miller received 1,886 absentee ballot votes in Jefferson County to Harris’ 376 there representing 67.6 percent of Miller’s vote count in the county and more than the 1200 votes that Harris received. That was game, set, and match before people even went to the polls.

Simply put, Democrats ran a better ground game than Republicans in a district that could have gone the other way. This race does not change the makeup of the Iowa House which Republicans still control 59 seats to 41 seats. Had Republicans swung this seat back it would have given them momentum heading into 2018.

Update: Jeff Burkett, a conservative activist familiar with Iowa House District 82, made the following observations to me and gave me permission to share them here:

  1. I think in fairness, for a summer time special election that was actually a pretty solid turnout.
  2. Absentee ballots should be reason #1….i think that drum needs beat loudly, relentlessly, Republicans will never learn this lesson I swear.
  3. Bloggers making this into a Trump country victory are ridiculous….ignoring a) this was STRONG Bernie country and b) a lot of blue-collar conservative voters turned out for Trump that wasn’t turning out for local Joe Schmoe.
  4. This district is a faux-R district at best…you also have a HUGE number of Green Party / No Party liberals in this district, specifically among the Maharishi who ultimately will come out and support D’s every time on this local votes.

Great points. I want to clarify that the numbering of my two points above was just marking the order of my thoughts, not that I thought the lower turnout was more important than the absentee GOTV effort, it obviously wasn’t. That won the election for Democrats hands down. Also noting the lower turnout, I agree with Burkett that it is good for a summertime special election. Generally, for a special election with a lower turnout, it boils down to who has the most motivation. Which then goes back to who has the best GOTV effort. Democrats did, Republicans didn’t.

Republicans, in order to close the gap in Jefferson County, have to do much, much better on that front.

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