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Iowa’s sharp right turn: From centrist state to ‘Florida of the North’

Protesters are gathered at the LGBTQ Rally to Resist at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on March 5. (for The Washington Post)
13 min

DES MOINES — Republicans in the Iowa legislature, empowered by the state’s recent “red wave,” have embarked on an ambitious new agenda that includes a costly school choice bill and legislation targeting the LGBTQ community, a historic divergence from Iowa’s history as a civil rights bastion.

Even as teens draped in rainbow flags crowded into the Capitol rotunda chanting “We say gay” on March 8, Iowa legislators quickly passed three bills related to gay and transgender rights, culminating with a measure to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth, which has since been signed into law by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The votes were not only emphatic but were also a sharp reversal for the state: Iowa has veered so far to the right in recent years that its political landscape is virtually unrecognizable from the centrist place that chose Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and was one of the earliest states in the country to affirm same-sex marriage. A joke among statehouse reporters is that Iowa is becoming the “Florida of the North” — without the beaches.

“This isn’t the Iowa I know,” said Lee Schott, pastor of Valley United Methodist Church in West Des Moines, who called herself “progressive” politically. She was standing outside the House chamber on a recent weekday, hoping to lobby Republican legislators against the transgender bills — and not having much luck.

A Republican-led Iowa “used to mean welcoming immigrants, helping refugees, supporting our great public school system,” Schott said. “It doesn’t mean any of those things now. It’s ‘anti’ those things now.”

During last year’s midterm elections, Iowa bucked the national trend and delivered a commanding victory for Republicans — reelecting Reynolds, flipping the one remaining House seat held by Democrats, winning all statewide offices save one and widening GOP majorities in both the state House and Senate.

Political analysts in the state say that Iowa’s swing has solidified over the past seven years as reliably Democratic working-class voters abandoned the party in favor of Donald Trump’s message, and the state’s large percentage of independent voters also moved toward the Republicans.

Asked about the flurry of “anti-LGBTQ legislation” in a recent news conference, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley — the grandson of the state’s long-serving Republican U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley — said the Iowa lawmakers were acting with “common sense.”

“We laid out in session very early on some of these bills being part of our priority list,” Grassley said. “A lot of the bills we are working on, we’re taking concerns from Iowans across the state and trying to figure out how we have best policies.”

Reynolds, who was reelected to her second full term in November with Trump’s endorsement, has helped drive the state’s rightward tilt, shifting to focus on culture-war issues, gun rights and limits on abortion access. Critics accuse her of using her agenda to burnish her conservative credentials for the national stage in 2024, although she has so far said she has no intention of leaving Iowa.

At a February appearance at a raucous town hall co-sponsored by Moms for Liberty — the Florida-based group that has campaigned for book bans across the country — Reynolds celebrated her school choice victory and portrayed herself both as a grandma of 11 and a warrior against the “radical left.”

“They think patriotism is racist and pornographic library books are education,” Reynolds said, speaking over shouting protesters and supporters chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.” “They believe that the content of our character is less important than the color of our skin. They believe that children should be encouraged to pick their gender and the parents, well, they’re just in the way.”

Reynolds, 63, the former lieutenant governor, was elevated to governor in 2017 when business-oriented conservative Terry Branstad was named Trump’s ambassador to China.

A prime example of her activist approach is seen in education measures. She had long pushed for a school voucher program as the centerpiece of her agenda as governor. But two earlier bills failed to make it out of the Iowa House, over objections of Republicans whose constituents have no access to private schools in rural areas and where consolidation remains a constant threat. About 40 percent of Iowa counties have no accredited nonpublic schools, according to a state report.

So last year Reynolds took matters into her own hands, supporting a half-dozen primary opponents of recalcitrant Republicans, including the chairman of the House’s education committee, Dustin Hite, who, along with others, lost to a more conservative candidate.

With a new school-choice-friendly majority in place, an expanded version of the legislation passed easily in January. When fully implemented, it will allow all Iowa families to use taxpayer-funded “education savings accounts” for private school tuition, costing the state $345 million a year, according to a state analysis.

Such interference by a sitting governor was “unprecedented” in Iowa, said Melissa Peterson, the legislative and policy director for the Iowa State Education Association.

“That’s a red flag when your head of government is primarying her own party. It is an indication that the ideologies are becoming more extreme,” said Kelly Shaw, the former nonpartisan mayor of the town of Indianola who now teaches political science at Iowa State University. “The governor has effectively removed her opposition, and that is pretty extraordinary.”

Reynolds declined to be interviewed.

Iowa, with its “first in the nation” political caucuses, was long a high-profile early stop for presidential hopefuls glad-handing for votes and noshing on fried pickles at the state fair.

The state of 3.2 million has had a higher percentage of White and rural residents than the rest of the country, but it was nonetheless a reliable barometer of the national political mood through the Obama elections. Then in 2016, the voters who formerly sided with Democrats as well as independents shifted to Trump.

In 2020, Trump won 56 percent of independent voters and Biden 37 percent, according to an analysis by Timothy M. Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, compared with Obama’s 58 percent versus Mitt Romney’s 36 percent in 2012.

J. Ann Selzer, the president of Iowa’s best-known public opinion research company, said that while voter registration in the state has historically been split by thirds between Democrats, Republicans and “no party” voters, Republicans are more likely to vote than others. In the 2022 midterm elections, for example, she estimates that 42 percent of registered Republicans voted versus 34 percent of registered Democrats and 24 percent of “no party” voters.

Experts say Democrats have struggled not only to get out the vote but also to attract popular candidates and match Republican fundraising. The party also lacks a national standard-bearer like former senator Tom Harkin, who retired in 2015, analysts said, or a deep bench of inspiring younger politicians.

The party’s fortunes took an embarrassingly public dive in 2020, when the Democratic presidential caucus was marred by a software failure and a days-long delay in announcing the results.

“The Democratic Party seems highly ineffective right now,” said Mark Kende, a constitutional law professor at Drake University in Des Moines. “We botched the last caucus completely, which suggests a level of disorganization that is troubling, and there are no real leaders, no statesmanlike figure leading the party like Tom Harkin.”

That contributed to the Democratic National Committee’s recent move to end Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus status in lieu of holding early primaries in more diverse states such as South Carolina. That decision has not been finalized, but the DNC has indicated that Iowa will be punished if the state party tries to hold its vote as usual along with the Republicans, who have not changed their calendar.

While Obama’s message of “hope and change” once resonated with working-class Democrats — and the state’s independents — the Democrats’ current struggle to focus their message on the economy amid culture war noise has put off some centrist voters, analysts say. Reynolds was able to capitalize on this during her campaign against Democrat Deirdre DeJear, who is Black, running an ad that featured a different Black female lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), calling for defunding the police; Democrats called Reynolds’s ad misleading and “racist.”

Republicans suggest that Democrats have simply forgotten how to talk to their down-to-earth Iowa brethren, particularly on LGBTQ issues.

“My own personal feeling is that we’re moving from a purple [state] because the message the Democrats are using is not the message the average Iowans want to hear,” said state Rep. John H. Wills (R), who helped shepherd the governor’s school choice bill through the legislature. “I think in general Iowans support all Iowans but not teaching those types of things in third grade and having underage people doing transition surgeries and taking hormone blockers. We’re trying to be supportive of all Iowans but the other side is happy to promote the most egregious, far-left agenda and that is where we are at.”

So far this year, many of the bills that have drawn the most attention have been aimed at the LGBTQ community — a total of 29, according to a tally by One Iowa Action, the statewide LGBTQ equality organization. About 12 are still in process, including proposals to prohibit spending on diversity and inclusion offices in state universities and to allow health-care providers to refuse care on the basis of religious beliefs. The House has passed a bill that would prohibit the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through sixth grade.

One bill that limits bathroom use in schools to “biological sex” has been signed into law by the governor; another, a curriculum and school library measure that removes the requirement to teach students about HIV, is awaiting the governor’s signature.

A March poll by Selzer’s firm for the Des Moines Register found that a majority of Iowa adults favor bills that would ban public schools from teaching about gender identity (54 percent) and instruction on sexual orientation (also 54 percent) in kindergarten through sixth grade, and that a slightly smaller majority — 52 percent — support a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth including puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgeries.

“From about 2019 until this year, attacks on LGBTQ Iowans have been exponentially increasing,” said Keenan Crow, One Iowa Action’s director of policy and advocacy. “I believe it’s primarily because of the governor and her shifting priorities. It seems for whatever reason, she wants Iowa to be more like Florida.”

But Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader, a social-conservative organization in Iowa, said that parents across the political spectrum in Iowa are still angry over pandemic measures and are concerned about transgender youth using bathrooms that don’t match their sex as assigned at birth and library books perceived as too sexual or adult for certain age groups.

“When you talk to parents, and I talk to a lot of parents not just who are conservative but liberal as well, they still believe a boy is a boy and a girl is a girl and there is a restroom to use and a restroom not to use,” Vander Plaats said. “It’s common sense.”

The measures mimic bills passed in other states like Florida, Crow noted, but stand in contrast to the state’s deeply held tradition of being on the forefront of civil rights. Iowa was the first state to desegregate schools in 1868, amended its civil rights law to protect sexual orientation and gender identity in 2007 and legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, only the third state in the nation to do so.

Legislators this year proposed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which did not make it past the legislature’s winnowing process and would have been unconstitutional in any case, Drake law professor Kende said, given the federal protection granted in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage.

Teen LGBTQ rights activist Will Larkins spoke to The Post about fighting this controversial bill less than a month after it was signed into law. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

But the proposal nonetheless sent a chill through many in the LGBTQ community.

Elinor A. Levin, a Democrat and Iowa City legislator who identifies as queer, said she decided to run for her state House seat last year because most of the people she knows in their 20s and 30s “don’t see a future for themselves in Iowa.”

“They don’t see a career here or they don’t want to raise a family here or they themselves don’t feel welcome,” she said.

“The big surprise this session is how far some of this hurtful legislation is going,” Levin continued. “In the past some of these bills would never have gotten a subcommittee hearing, and now we’re passing these bills and trying to make them law. That’s incredibly frustrating and shortsighted in my opinion.”

Levin said that she was concerned that the bills would ultimately harm Iowa’s ability to retain college graduates or recruit highly skilled workers.

Iowa already has the 10th-worst “brain drain” in the country, according to an analysis of federal data by economists at the University of North Carolina, the W.E. Upjohn Institute, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, which shows the percentage difference between the number of college graduates Iowa produces versus the number of college graduates living in the state at minus-34 points.

Ankeny resident and former state Democratic Party official Andrea Phillips, the mother of a transgender boy, Jaxx, age 14, said that she and her husband, Tom, a consultant, were beginning to discuss whether they should move from Iowa to somewhere more politically liberal in the Pacific Northwest. When they first moved to Iowa in 2009 after a decade of living overseas, she and her husband viewed the state as very centrist and supportive of civil liberties. That’s no longer the case, she said.

“With a lot of these bills, they’re solidifying the message to young kids, people my age, that they’re not normal, they shouldn’t be thinking these things, and if they voice them they’re going to get in trouble,” Jaxx Phillips added. “It’s very intimidating, and very dangerous.”

Emily Guskin, Michael Scherer and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.