The congressional race that could indicate just how red Iowa has shifted

Isabella Murray | ABC News >

The contest involves a newly redrawn swing district.

As the final speaker at the Iowa State Fair’s Des Moines Register Soapbox — a mainstay for presidential hopefuls and statewide candidates — Democrat Liz Mathis attacked her opponent — GOP Rep. Ashley Hinson — for voting against the Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 infrastructure bill.

“She’s been voting the wrong way. She’s been saying no to a lot of things where she should be saying yes. Let’s talk about infrastructure. Infrastructure will bring $5 billion, with a “b,” back to the state of Iowa. Your federal tax money, back to the state of Iowa,” Mathis said Saturday.

Both are former TV news anchors in Cedar Rapids running well-funded campaigns for the 2nd Congressional District — a newly redrawn swing seat in eastern Iowa — and both have been laser focused on economic issues ahead of November’s general election.

Mathis Beats Hinson
Iowa state Sen. Liz Mathis speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration, April 30, 2022, in Des Moines, Iowa.

But the outcome is more significant than who wins a debate over economic policy. It’s critical to Republicans hopes to take back the U.S. House in the midterms and an indication, by some estimates, of just how far the historically purple Hawkeye State has trended red.

Hinson, a freshman member of Congress cited by her mentor, Rep. Tom Cole, as an “emerging superstar in the House Republican Conference,” skipped the Iowa State Fair soapbox, instead roaming the grounds to meet GOP fairgoers along with former Vice President Mike Pence. She routinely hammers on Mathis’ past votes as a state senator against Republican-led tax cuts.

“My opponent voted against tax cuts this year at a time when we have record high inflation. She’s endorsed all of President Biden and Speaker Pelosi’s tax and spend sprees,” Hinson said in an interview with ABC News. “I think my biggest role going forward will be to be that check on the Biden administration because it’s clear what they’ve done with the trifecta of trouble in the last 18 months.”

“She’s far too liberal to represent Iowa, she’s masquerading as a moderate,” she said.

“That’s an interesting race. Because Liz has the name. You know, she was one of the most popular female newscasters in Iowa for 20 some years,” said Iowa GOP political strategist John Ellingston, referencing Mathis’ experience as a television reporter and anchor for 27 years at KCRG-TV out of Cedar Rapids and KWWL-TV and out of Waterloo — both of which cover the district’s television market. Mathis was an evening news anchor at KCRG while Hinson was a morning news anchor.

“If the Democrats got a chance, that’s going to be her. If she doesn’t beat Ashley Hinson, the state for Democrats is a dumpster fire,” Ellingston said.

After less than two years in the House, Hinson is well regarded as a fundraising heavyweight, a rising star who hasn’t ruled out a bid for GOP Conference chair if Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York vacates the No. 3 position for another spot.

Getting ousted by Mathis, a moderate who has support from national Democrats, could derail those plans.

Strategists and the campaigns have cited varied poll numbers on the race — some place the candidates in dead heat while others found that voters in the district prefer Republicans over Democratic nominees.

The seat, redrawn in 2022 to give Republicans a slight edge, flipped in 2020 when upstart Democrat and early Biden-backer Abby Finkenauer was unseated after one term by Hinson.

“This is a swing district. I remind people that we went from Bruce Braley to Rod Blum to Abby Finkenauer to Ashley Hinson,” Mathis said in an interview with ABC News. “I think it’s a huge opportunity for us. And I can feel the GOP absolutely knows that.”

Iowa continues to slip away from Democrats

This year, Republicans have gained significant ground in voter registration numbers.

In January, the district had 160,058 active Democrats and 148,675 active Republicans, according to state elections data. In August, 160,749 active Democrats were in the district, with 158,017 active Republicans. Across the entire state, The Republicans had over a 56,843 voter registration lead in January. In August, that lead had increased by 29,194, with a 86,037 registration vote advantage, elections data found.

Mathis is keenly aware of the tight voter registration numbers, saying her focus now is to get voters to the polls, specifically on hot-button issues like abortion, which moved the needle in Kansas last month.

“I’ve been looking at the registrations, we know it’s going to be tight. So all hands on deck, get people to the polls. And get them to vote, get them to vote absentee. Just get them to vote,” said Mathis, who has long focused on bolstering Democratic turnout. “I worked really hard, during 10 years as a state senator, to work on Democratic registrations in my district. It took 10 years for that district to be changed from a plus 2,000 to 2,500 Republican lead to a plus 2,000 Democratic lead in registrations.”

Hinson, meanwhile, said she’s confident she’ll clinch the November race — noting that Iowans remember the state’s Democrat trifecta as recently as a decade ago, when she says the blue state “disrespected” taxpayers by overspending.

“What a slap in the face to taxpayers under Democrat leadership. Now here we are in a Republican state where we have a surplus. Our governor and our legislature did tax cuts this year,” Hinson said. “we’re returning money to taxpayers. That’s why this state is trending Republican.”

Hinson’s freshman term has been hastily successful as she’s earned the support and friendship of GOP leaders, authored key legislation on in-person learning and landed a prestigious seat on the House Appropriations Committee — not typical for a first-term member. She was also tapped by House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy to co-chair the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program which helps recruit other first-time Republicans in winnable districts.

“She noticeably demonstrates a level of maturity and legislative sophistication that is unmatched among her peers. Her raw talent and polished delivery have quickly made her a member to watch and also one of Republicans’ most reliable and thoughtful messengers,” said her mentor Cole said in a statement to ABC News.

“She noticeably demonstrates a level of maturity and legislative sophistication that is unmatched among her peers. Her raw talent and polished delivery have quickly made her a member to watch and also one of Republicans’ most reliable and thoughtful messengers,” said her mentor Cole said in a statement to ABC News.

She’s also maintained massive fundraising hauls — bringing in $5,213,155 for the race so far, with more than $2 million on hand, according to June 30 Federal Elections Commission filings.

By comparison, Mathis has raised a sizable $2,627,504 with a little over $1,700,000 on hand.

“I’ve done a lot of work on that task force, pro economic policies, pro worker policies that are going to help us be successful and jumpstart our economy again,” said Hinson. “I’m prepared with policy solutions, and I think the people who support me know that and that’s why they’re willing to make that investment,” Hinson said.

When asked by ABC News, Hinson did not rule out a bid to be GOP Conference chair if Rep. Stefanik, the current No. 3 Republican, does not seek the position again.

“Well, I am 100% focused on winning my race and where I’ve been able to already be a leader is on the Appropriations Committee,” Hinson said. “I ran for office to stand up for taxpayers. First and foremost. That’s my number one job. And I think that’s still going to be my priority come November, but we’re united and in making sure we fire Nancy Pelosi as speaker and take back a Republican majority. So, we can right the direction of this country.”

Mathis has a winning streak

But Mathis has a long history of victories across purple districts.

Mathis came to the Iowa State Legislature in 2011 after running in a special election to save the single Democratic seat so that the party could maintain a majority in the chamber. At the time, Republican Terry Branstad held the governor’s mansion while the GOP controlled the state House. Mathis won by 12 percentage points, winning again the next year’s general election by 16 points.

“During the Trump wave I held on to my seat, and then in 2020, I was uncontested so I’m not sure what that means, but maybe they didn’t want to spend the money because they thought it was gonna win. I’m hoping that that was it,” Mathis said. “I’m highly motivated. I have not lost a race yet. And I don’t plan on losing this one.”

Mathis early in the cycle was selected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as one of 12 candidates to receive funding and support from their “Red to Blue” program, a coveted slot for competitive House races.

“I feel honored that they are, you know, that they’re backing me. They’ve looked at my budgeting. They’ve looked at our campaign strategy, and they feel that we have a great chance to win and with their support, that gives me wings. It really helps out,” she said.