Did Avoiding the “Big Lie” Help the Iowa GOP Win Big?

Did Avoiding the “Big Lie” Help the Iowa GOP Win Big?

Did Avoiding the “Big Lie” Help the Iowa GOP Win Big?

With unified messaging and a reluctance to embrace election denialism, Republicans in Iowa were able to outperform the party nationally and secure nearly every statewide office.


While Democrats defied expectations of a national “red wave” sweeping the United States in the 2022 midterms, Republicans in Iowa gained a level of control in the state not seen in decades. Iowa’s four US representatives and its two senators are now Republicans. In Iowa’s state legislature, the party holds a supermajority in the state Senate and controls 60 of Iowa’s 100 seats in the state House. The Iowa GOP managed to secure every statewide office but one—state auditor.

Why were Iowa Republicans able to outperform Republicans nationally? One factor, according to some political scientists, was the Iowa GOP’s reluctance to embrace election denialism. In New Hampshire for example, the race between Democratic incumbent Chris Pappas and pro-Trump challenger Karolina Leavitt in the state’s First Congressional District was rated a toss-up by The Cook Political Report. Yet Pappas—like many House Democrats across the country—exceeded expectations and won by a more than seven-point margin. In general, the trend held across the country; a New York Times analysis found that in competitive congressional districts, Trump-aligned Republicans lost half a point from the Republican vote margin in the 2020 election, compared to a gain of over six points for other Republicans.

“None of the Iowa candidates went down that path,” said Peter Hanson, professor of political science at Grinnell College. “What we saw in Iowa was really what the midterm elections would have been expected to look like nationally if Republicans had fielded better candidates who ran on more typical issues.” Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who won reelection with a nearly 15-point margin, had campaigned with Trump in November. But merely supporting Trump, or receiving his endorsement, does not have the same effect as denying the results of the last presidential election, said Hanson. “These candidates are a pretty different mold than the candidates we saw in the races like Pennsylvania or Arizona, where you have Republicans who were flat-out attacking the legitimacy of the 2020 election.”

Republican operatives in the state, like Kush Desai, Iowa GOP communications director, attribute the success to what they see as transformational work by Governor Reynolds and unified messaging from Iowa Republicans. Unlike today’s national GOP, where 15 votes and a near-brawl proved necessary to bring together a majority in the House to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House, Iowa Republicans campaigned on messages marketable to Republicans and independents as well—which meant a shared distancing from election denialism, according to Steffen Schmidt, professor emeritus of political science at Iowa State University.

According to a June 2021 report by the Voter Study Group, a nonpartisan research project, the more rural a congressional district is—and the more Republican its voting history is—the more likely voters in the district are to say that the 2020 election was stolen. Up to 68 percent of Republican respondents agree with the statement that “Trump actually won the election” in 2020. So while election denialism isn’t a losing strategy everywhere, these midterms show that touting the “Big Lie” may not be a beneficial campaign strategy for Republicans in the future.

Iowa wasn’t alone in its internal red wave, even with Democrats’ performance exceeding pundits’ expectations. In Florida and New York, Republicans carried 31 of each state’s combined 54 House seats, a net gain of seven. While the reasons for the Republican pickups in each of these states vary to a degree—congressional gerrymandering organized by Governor Ron DeSantis was a strong contributor to Republicans’ success in Florida, whereas in New York, some media outlets attribute Republican success to the party’s capitalization on fears of crime—the combination of both victories is arguably responsible for the GOP majority in the House.

Iowa’s red wave hasn’t just impacted only those who live in the state, Hanson said, but has contributed to the loss of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus status in the presidential nomination process. For half a century, the process has proved immensely consequential for both major parties in the decision-making process. “I think the election was the nail in the coffin,” Hanson said. “If you look at this from the DNC’s standpoint, there is absolutely no reason Iowa should lead off in the presidential cycle for Democrats.” As President Biden wrote in a December 2 address to the Democratic National Committee, “Too often over the past 50 years, candidates have dropped out or had their candidacies marginalized by the press and pundits because of poor performances in small states early in the process before voters of color cast a vote.”

While the Republicans’ underperformance in the 2022 midterms may have left some Democrats relieved, their strong showing in Iowa introduces the possibility that other state Republican parties—especially in competitive states—may see similar, local red waves by simply adjusting their message and emphasis. “In Iowa, Republicans really didn’t have ‘Make America Great Again’ candidates,” said Schmidt. “The lesson is that the Republicans do better if they look and see and ask themselves, ‘Who is closer to the voter base that we’ve had, and that we can get from both Republicans and independent voters?’ If Republicans do that, they do better.”

But with Trump running for president in 2024, pulling entirely away from the shadow of the Big Lie seems increasingly difficult. The debacle over the House speakership and McCarthy’s eventual concessions highlight the hold that the far right still has over the party. In just the first two weeks of the 118th Congress, Trump’s continued influence has made itself clear. Nationally, party unification will not be so easy.

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