Looking at two of the 16 counties in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District can explain Congressman David Young’s loss to his Democratic challenger Cindy Axne on Tuesday night.

Young lost to Axne by a total of 5,230 votes. In Polk County, he lost to Axne by 31,024 votes. In Dallas County, he won by 2523 votes. In 2016, he won Dallas County by a total of 9,828 and lost Polk County by a total of 271 votes. 

Comparing 2018 with 2016 is comparing apples with oranges since 2016 was a presidential election year with then-candidate Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) at the top of the ballot to drive turnout. On Tuesday, Governor Kim Reynolds was at the top of the ticket and she performed worse than Young in both Dallas and Polk Counties. In Polk County, she lost to Fred Hubbell by 35,009 votes. Reynolds only beat Hubbell in Dallas County by  1,475 votes.

So it is best to compare with 2014, Young’s first election that was a midterm election. In 2014, he won Dallas County by 7,740 votes, a difference of 5,217 from 2018. Remember the margin of victory for Axne? 5,230 votes. He lost Polk County in 2014 by only 1,885 votes. Young defeated Staci Appel in 2014 by 29,705 votes. 

In 2018, Young, Reynolds, and all of the down-ballot candidates had a suburban problem. Let’s take a closer look at each county.

Polk County 

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office reported that the county had a turnout rate of 63.83 percent, with 198,268 residents voting out of 310,637 registered voters. Democrats have a significant voter registration advantage. Before Election Day, they had a 34,424 voter registration edge over Republicans (116,906 Democrats, 82,482 Republicans, and 88,764 independents). This was considerably higher than in 2014 when Democrats had an advantage over Republicans of 21,803 registered voters in the county (107,033 Democrats, 85,230 Republicans, and 88,962 independents).

Click the map for a larger PDF version.

You can see a stark contrast between Young’s performance in Des Moines’ suburbs in Polk County in 2014 and 2018.

Altoona (lost 4 of 5 precincts)
Ankeny (lost 10 of 15 precincts)
Clive (lost 3 of 4 precincts)
Grimes (lost 1 of 3 precincts)
Johnston (lost 3 of 6 precincts)
Pleasant Hill (lost all 3 precincts)
Urbandale (lost 9 of 11 precincts)
West Des Moines (lost 16 of 19)
Altoona (won 4 of 5 precincts)
Ankeny (won all 15 precincts)
Clive (won 3 of 4 precincts)
Grimes (won all 3 precincts)
Johnston (won all 6 precincts)
Pleasant Hill (won all 3 precincts)
Urbandale (won 10 of 11 precincts)
West Des Moines (won 13 of 19)

This was an issue down ballot as well. In Polk County three incumbent Republicans lost their seat, and Democrats flipped an additional open seat that was held by a Republican.

Iowa House District 38

State Representative Kevin Koester (R-Ankeny) lost re-election to Heather Matson by 445 votes – 51.4 percent (7,883) to 48.5 percent (7,438).

Headed into Election Day, Koester had a voter registration advantage of 268 voters (7,492 Republicans, 7,224 Democrats, and 7,475 independents). This advantage 202 voters less than the advantage he had in 2014 (6,823 Republicans, 6,357 Democrats, and 6,494 independents).

Koester faced Matson in 2016 and defeated her 52.18 percent (8,793) to 43.11 percent (7,264). Unlike Koester, Matson retained and expanded her voting base. In 2014, Koester sailed to an easy victory over Christine Sherrod – 59.5 percent (6,909) to 40.5 percent (4,695).

Koester did not outperform Young in his district. He lost the same Ankeny precincts (6, 7, 8, 9, 14, and 15). He also lost Des Moines 1 and Delaware 1. He only won Crocker 1 and Crocker 2.

Iowa House District 39

State Representative Jake Highfill (R-Johnston) lost to Karin Derry by 205 votes – 49.62 percent (9,318) to 48.53 percent (9,113).

Highfill saw his voter registration edge in his district cut by about one-third since 2014. Before Election Day, he held a 2,333 voter registration edge (9,761 Republicans, 7428 Democrats, and 8,940 independents). In 2014, Highfill had a 3,366 voter registration advantage (9,171 Republicans, 5,805 Democrats, and 7536 independents).

In 2016, Highfill easily won the district defeating Maridith Morris 57.34 percent (11.492) to 42.66 percent (8,549). Like in House District 38, Democrats retained and built upon their voting base garnering more votes in 2018 for a Midterm election than they did in 2016 in a presidential election year.

In 2014, Highfill also had a wider margin of victory defeating Tom Leffler – 55 percent (7,965) to 45 percent (6,529).

Highfill also did not outperform Young in his district. Like Young, he won the Grimes 1, Grimes 2, Jefferson, Johnston 3, and Johnston 6 precincts. Also like Young, he lost the Grimes 3, Johnston 1, Johnston 2, and Johnston 5 precincts. Unlike Young, he lost in Johnston 4, a precinct Young won by 60 votes.

Iowa House District 42

State Representative Peter Cownie (R-West Des Moines) lost to Kristin Sunde – 53.55 percent (7,952) to 46.40 percent (6,890).

The voter registration edge in the district flipped from Republican to Democrat since 2014 so the loss of this seat was not a surprise. In 2014, Cownie enjoyed a 896 voter registration edge (7,250 Republicans, 6,354 Democrats, and 6,306 independents). In 2018, however, he faced a 792 voter registration deficit (7,610 Democrats, 6,818 Republicans, and 6,240 independents).

In 2016, Cownie defeated Claire Celsi 53.28 percent (9,065) to 46.72 percent (7,948). He had an easier race in 2014 defeating Daniel Fessler 60.2 percent (7,419) to 39.8 percent (4,911).

Cownie did outperform Young in two precincts. He won West Des Moines 318, a precinct Young lost, and tied Sunde in West Des Moines 316, another precinct Young lost. He also won two West Des Moines precincts that Young also won – 213, 317. Both Cownie and Young won Cumming/West Des Moines, the only precinct for this House District located in Warren County. Cownie also lost nine West Des Moines districts that Young lost – 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 218, 311, 314, and 315.

Iowa House District 43

Democrats were expected to flip this district, and, for that reason, Iowa House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow moved from the district to Iowa House District 19 when State Representative Ralph Watts (R-Adel) announced he would not run for re-election.

The Democratic nominee Jennifer Konfrst defeated the Republican nominee Michael Boal soundly – 56.55 percent (8,495) to 41.41 percent (6,223).

The voter registration edge flipped from Republicans to Democrats in this district as well. In 2014, Republicans held an 861 registered voter advantage (7,704 Republicans, 6,843 Democrats, and 5,754 independents). In 2018, Democrats held a voter registration advantage of 1,113 (7,970 Democrats, 6,857 Republicans, and 5,739 independents).

Hagenow in his last election in the district in 2016, defeated Konfrst by 536 votes in a “red wave” – 51.53 percent (8,809) to 48.43 percent (8,273). In 2014, he won by over 1500 votes, but in 2012 he won his district, as an incumbent, by only 22 votes.

This district was going to be difficult for a seasoned, likeable incumbent to hold.

Dallas County

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office reported that Dallas County had a turnout rate of 67.94 percent for the 2018 midterms. The county has 61,433 registered voters and had 41,738 residents cast a ballot this cycle. Before Election Day, Republicans held a sizable registered voter advantage – 5,471 (19,996 Republicans, 14,525 Democrats, and 22,091 independents). In 2014, Republican held a 7,143 registered voter advantage (18,358 Republicans, 11,215 Democrats, and 21,238 independents).

Click on the map for a larger, pdf version.

In Dallas County, you can also see a stark contrast between Young’s performance in suburban districts located in the county in 2014 and the results in 2018.

Clive – Won both precincts
Urbandale – Won all 3 precincts
Waukee – Lost 4 of 6 precincts
West Des Moines – lost 6 of 8
Clive – Won both precincts
Urbandale – Won all 3 precincts
Waukee – Won all 6 precincts
West Des Moines – Won all 8

As in Polk County, the changes in the Waukee and West Des Moines precincts led to the loss of a Republican-held Iowa House seat.

Iowa House District 44

Anna Bergman, a Republican member of the Waukee City Council, lost to Kenan Judge, a retiree from HyVee’s corporate headquarters in West Des Moines – 51.67 percent (11,136) to 46.11 percent (9,937).

The seat was an open after State Representative Rob Taylor (R-West Des Moines) announced he would not run for re-election.

Republicans had a sizeable voter registration edge of 2,429 voters before Election Day (10,072 Republicans, 7,643 Democrats, and 11,296 independents). In 2014, however, they had a larger advantage of 3,595 (8,269 Republicans, 4,674 Democrats, and 9,229 independents).

The last two election cycles Taylor ran unopposed in the district. It’s telling, however, that even though there was a contested Republican primary, Democrats still had more participants – 2,049 Democrats voted in their 2018 primary compared to 1,058 Republicans who voted in theirs.

Bergman underperformed Young in her district badly. Like Young, she won Clive 5, Clive 6, and Waukee 4. Also like Young, she lost Waukee 1, Waukee 2, Waukee 3, West Des Moines 221, West Des Moines 222, West Des Moines 225, West Des Moines 226, and West Des Moines 321. Unlike Young, she also lost Waukee 5, Waukee 6, and West Des Moines 223.

What I find most remarkable is that a sitting city council member lost five of six precincts in her own hometown.


The first thing that is obvious to me is that Republicans had a turnout problem. When several Iowa House candidates surpass the number of votes they received in 2016 during a presidential election year that tells me they had a solid GOTV mechanism.

Not having a contested primary at the top of the ballot hurt Republicans. Democrats having a hotly contested primary for Governor and in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District gave them a leg up for general election. Democrats were out door knocking and canvassing long before most Republican candidates because they had to. We’ll have a clearer picture of turnout for each party when the Iowa Secretary of State releases their statistical report for the election.

Considering Democrats erased the voter registration edge Republicans held in the Congressional District demonstrates the advantage of contested primaries that helps boost voter registration. Republicans saw this in 2014.

Also, it’s apparent independents swung toward Democrats. Without exit polling data it’s impossible to say with certainty why. I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume we saw a Trump effect, particularly among independent women. Medicaid privatization and mental health were also contentious issues that Republicans, according to polling, were not helpful issues for them.

The good news for Republicans is that Iowa House District 38, 39 and 44 are in play in two years and if they recruit good candidates and work hard to get out the vote it’s possible Republicans can retake these house districts in 2020.

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