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How Iowa Fell in Love With the Republican Party

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Back in 2014, Iowa politics were at an inflection point, though it wasn’t yet apparent at the time. Back then, Iowa was still one of the quintessential purple states. Barack Obama had won two years prior, but longtime Democratic Senator Tom Harkin was retiring, and Tea Party firebrand Joni Ernst was to take his place. Democrats held on to their majority in the state Senate despite national trends favoring Republicans.

But perhaps the most telling race was the one least in doubt. Terry Branstad was running for his sixth term as governor, and his reelection was so predetermined that he primarily concentrated on winning just one place, Lee County. Over the course of his career, the Republican had won 97 of the state’s 99 counties at least once. Johnson County, the left-wing enclave that includes the University of Iowa, was out of reach. But Lee County was doable, and his campaign went out of its way to invest resources there, even airing ads in the full media market that covers Quincy, Illinois, and Hannibal, Missouri, just to reach voters in that traditionally Democratic jurisdiction. It worked, and Branstad earned his bragging rights.

Looking back, Branstad’s narrow win in Lee County was an early sign that the state’s politics were about to flip from purple to deep red. Over the course of the next six years, Iowa Democrats would become a largely endangered species, and Donald Trump would win Lee County by 20 percent. Alongside Trump winning the state for the second time, Republicans held complete control of all major state offices and three of the state’s four seats in the U.S. House, along with both Senate spots. Iowa Democrats woke up on Election Day in 2020 believing they were still in a swing state. They went to bed in a red one.

Iowa has always held an outsize place in the national political imagination. It’s not just because of the key role that it’s first in the nation caucuses play every four years, but because of its seemingly perpetual status as a battleground. Invariably, the state has had competitive races with national implications. And thanks to its location, nestled on the borderlands between the Midwest and Great Plains, it became a convenient barometer for sentiment in Middle America. But unlike other Midwestern states, it is not governed by a single large metro area. Des Moines does not have the dominance of the Twin Cities or Milwaukee, let alone Chicago.

The question........

© New Republic

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