Aug 3, 2021 - Politics

Iowa's Republican-dominated school boards

Illustration of a chalkboard with the alphabet written on it, but every letter is "R."

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Democrats make up less than 25% of Iowa's school board members, according to research conducted by some of the party's leaders and obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: It's a wake-up call for Democrats trying to turn Iowa blue again.

  • The data signals that Republicans have a strong foothold in the state, even in areas the Democratic Party believed were progressive stalwarts.

Driving the news: A group of "unapologetically grassroots" Democratic organizers this year launched the New Iowa Project, which aims to build a statewide database of resources for groups affiliated with the party.

  • The school board information, which members say had never been collected before, is being used to target local recruiting efforts, including in nonpartisan races.
  • But it could take years for some of their efforts to pay off, said Polk County Democratic Party Chairman Sean Bagniewski, who's also one of the project's founders.

By the numbers: Researchers tracked down the names of 1,852 school board members from all of Iowa’s 99 counties — using voter registrations to determine party affiliations. Here's what they found:

  • Republicans: 914 (49.4%)
  • Democrats: 459 (24.8%)
  • The rest are independents (370 or 20%) or unknown (109 or 5.8%).

Of note: Iowans can easily change their voter registrations, which means it may not accurately reflect their current politics.

  • Yes, but: While the data isn't precise, it's still reflective of the general political makeup of Iowa school boards, Bagniewski told Jason.

The big picture: Recent years have been tough for Iowa Democrats. In 2010, Democrats lost full majority control when Republican Gov. Terry Branstad returned to office and the GOP won the Iowa House.

  • Republicans then took control of the Iowa Senate in 2016.
  • And last year, the GOP gained additional Iowa House seats and took two more in the U.S. House, leaving Cindy Axne as the lone Democrat in Iowa's congressional delegation.

What they're saying: Republicans have generally been better at "populating the pipeline" with candidates. That's helped them build support in statewide races, Drake University political science professor Rachel Paine Caufield said.

  • Yes, but: Republicans haven't targeted nonpartisan races, and to do so is risky, Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann told Jason yesterday. He likened the efforts to a "political hit list."
  • "What are we going to do next, politicize the office of dogcatcher?" Kaufmann, a former school board president, asked.

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