ERIN MURPHY: What were the biggest Iowa political stories for 2018?

December 29, 2018

The midterm elections provided plenty of political news for 2018 in Iowa. But not all the top political stories came off the campaign trail.

Here are the five biggest stories in state politics from 2018:

1) Reynolds defeats Hubbell

Kim Reynolds already made history in 2017 by becoming Iowa’s first female governor, when she was promoted after Terry Branstad became U.S. ambassador to China.

Reynolds made more history in 2018 when she won Iowa’s gubernatorial election, becoming the first woman elected to the Iowa governor’s office.

Reynolds, a Republican, won a competitive race against Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell, a retired Des Moines businessman.

Hubbell challenged Reynolds primarily on the state’s handling of its $5 billion Medicaid program, which is managed by private health care companies. Reynolds campaigned on a message that the state is prospering under Republican management after tax cuts and pro-business policies.

Reynolds won by just shy of 3 percentage points, earning a full four-year term.

2) Blue wave hits Iowa

While Republicans were very successful in state-level elections in Iowa, the blue wave that swept the country at the federal level across the country hit Iowa as well.

Democrats flipped two Republican-held seats in the U.S. House: Abby Finkenauer beat Republican incumbent Rod Blum in eastern Iowa’s 1st District, and Cindy Axne beat Republican incumbent David Young in central Iowa’s 3rd District.

In doing so, Finkenauer and Axne became the first Iowa women elected to the U.S. House.

In addition to those wins, the blue wave almost did the unthinkable in Iowa: sink 4th District Republican Congressman Steve King.

The seemingly untouchable GOP firebrand barely held off a serious threat from Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten, winning by just more than 3 percentage points. King, in previous re-election bids, has typically won by double digits in a district where Republicans have a registered voter advantage of roughly 70,000.

3) #MeToo

State Sen. Nate Boulton, a Democratic candidate for governor, never made it to the primary election after he withdrew from the race when three women alleged he touched them inappropriately approximately three years ago.

Boulton, an attorney who is from Des Moines, was viewed as a serious challenger in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But he withdrew from the race just days before the primary when three women made their allegations public in a story in the Des Moines Register.

Boulton’s exit came just a few weeks after Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix resigned from office after a video showed Dix, who is married, kissing a woman in a Des Moines bar.

4) Trade angst

President Donald Trump kept his campaign promise to alter U.S. trade deals with other countries, especially Mexico and China. But Trump’s move to renegotiate those deals disrupted markets, contributing to falling crop prices.

Iowa farmers and agricultural groups spent much of 2018 with a close eye on those trade negotiations and the impact on the ag markets. Some criticized the Trump administration’s approach to trade; others said they support the strategy, especially in renegotiating with China, which farmers say has been a bad actor in recent years.

5) 2020 parade steps off

The march to the 2020 Iowa caucuses will be one of the biggest political stories in 2019, but the parade of candidates started picking up steam this year.

The field of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for president is expected to be large -- perhaps as many as two dozen or more.

In 2018, many lesser-known potential 2020 candidates --- like Reps. John Delaney and Eric Swalwell, along with South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg and others -- made multiple trips to Iowa. And during the run-up to the midterm elections, some of the potential field’s bigger names -- like Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris --- also started showing up in the first-in-the-nation state.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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