Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, shown during a recent debate with her GOP primary opponents, is attempting to become the first female Republican to win her party's nomination to run for U.S. Senate in the Hawkeye State.
In its 168 years, Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress or picked one as its governor.
For many residents who pride themselves on a progressive civil rights history that predates statehood, that political reality has become an exasperating distinction shared with only one other state — Mississippi.
"It's very irritating to be grouped with Mississippi," says Roxanne Conlin, a Democrat and former U.S. attorney who ran for governor in 1982, the first Iowa woman to do so, and for Senate in 2010. "When I tell people, they just can't believe it."
But this year the Hawkeye State — which claims that back in 1869 it became the first in the nation to elect a woman to public office — could write a new modern-day chapter.
There's an abundance of competitive major party female candidates vying for an open U.S. Senate seat and two open U.S. House seats. While GOP Gov. Terry Branstad is expected to win re-election, all three congressional races are wide open.
- Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst is competitive in a five-candidate primary to take on Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in the contest to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. If nominated, she would be the first GOP woman to run for U.S. Senate in Iowa.
- Three women will compete in the Democratic primary to run for the seat left vacant by Braley in Iowa's 1st District.
- Democrat Staci Appel, a former state senator who has drawn national attention and money, will face the winner of a six-candidate GOP primary in a contest to fill retiring GOP Rep. Tom Latham's 3rd District seat.
In addition — in a congressional race with long odds — Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist, is expected to emerge from a party primary to launch her third challenge of Democrat Rep. Dave Loebsack in the 2nd District.
"I'm very optimistic about this year," says Dianne Bystrom, who, as head of Iowa's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, has long tracked the state's female politicians and helped train future ones.
"Women have run here for congressional seats before, but almost without exception as challengers," she said. "Now, we have the opportunity of open seats, no incumbents, and competitive races."
Some Democrats thought they might achieve a first with the 2012 candidacy of former Iowa first lady Democrat Christie Vilsack, who challenged GOP Rep. Steve King.
Despite strong fundraising — she raised $3.35 million to King's $3.75 million — and attention (her husband, former Gov. Tom Vilsack, serves in the Obama administration as U.S. agriculture secretary) she was soundly defeated in the conservative-oriented district.
Puzzling out why Iowans have never elected a woman to Congress, or the governor's office, has become something of a political parlor game in the state over the past decade or two. There are more than a few theories, though "no single reason," says Bonnie Campbell, a Democrat and former Iowa attorney general who ran for governor in 1994.
The most plausible?
Shrinking opportunities: Iowa, which until the 1930s had 11 U.S. House seats, has lost more than half of them since, owing to reapportionment. After the last U.S. census, the state went from five to just four seats, one of 10 states to see their House delegations reduced as population growth in the South and West continued to remake the congressional map.
And a lack of a "throw the bums out" mentality: Iowa voters have been, with a few notable exceptions, comfortable with long incumbencies.
Harkin, 74, the retiring Democratic senator, has held his Senate office since 1985 and yet is still the state's junior senator. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, 80, has been in the Senate since 1981. Both men previously served in the U.S. House — Harkin for a decade and Grassley for six years.
Branstad, 67, this year is seeking an unprecedented sixth four-year term in a state with no gubernatorial term limits. He was elected to the first of four consecutive terms in 1982, defeating Conlin to succeed four-term GOP Gov. Robert Ray. After a 12-year hiatus, Branstad successfully ran again in 2010.
"We do love our incumbents," says Conlin, one of just seven Iowa women — two Democrats, and five third-party candidates — who have run for governor.
So while Iowa women have been running for congressional seats, they have almost exclusively been challengers, and statistics show that challengers — no matter their gender — win just 15 percent of the time, Bystrom says. The last open congressional race in which a woman competed was two decades ago, when Latham was elected in the 1994 Republican wave that ended nearly four decades of Democratic control of the House.
Iowa ranks smack in the middle of the pack in terms of percentage of women serving in its state Legislature, one of the surest paths to statewide or congressional offices.
"Iowa has a pipeline problem," says Campbell, the former gubernatorial candidate who President Clinton in 1995 appointed to head the U.S. Department of Justice's Violence Against Women office. "More women need to run for local and state offices so that we have a larger bench from which women can run in congressional and gubernatorial races."
Steve Scheffler, a longtime fixture of Iowa Republican politics and a national Republican Party committeeman, dismisses the notion that there is something particular to Iowa that has led to the lack of women in its top elective positions.
"I don't think there's any prejudicial reason why Iowa hasn't elected a woman as governor or congressperson," says Scheffler, who's president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
"Politics is about timing — being in the right place, at the right time, with the right person, and the right message," he said. "Look at the theory that a white state like Iowa was bigoted — that was thrown out the window when Barack Obama won the caucuses."
Conlin was clearly not in the right place at the right time when she ran for governor in 1982.
She recalls making a campaign stop at a grain elevator and watching farmers "collapse in laughter" when she told them she was running for governor.
"That was the kind of thing I faced all the time back then," she says. "It was just plainly bizarre."
That streak of traditionalism is something Conlin says she loves about her home state, but that has also gotten in the way of political progress for women.
But a lot has changed since the 1980s, she says, adding: "I think we're going to get there this time."