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Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (left) at the State Capitol in Des Moines on April 9, 2019. Iowa State Senator Rita Hart (right) at Yotopia on June 30, 2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan) Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (left) at the State Capitol in Des Moines on April 9, 2019. Iowa State Senator Rita Hart (right) at Yotopia on June 30, 2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (left) at the State Capitol in Des Moines on April 9, 2019. Iowa State Senator Rita Hart (right) at Yotopia on June 30, 2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

By Stephanie Gutierrez November 13, 2020
By Lyle Muller November 13, 2020

The election results for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District seat in 2020 were so close no one could declare victory right away. Good thing, because the results kept changing until a winner finally was certified.

Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Ottumwa Republican, held a thin 282-vote lead over Rita Hart, a Wheatland Democrat, after votes were counted on Election Day. Miller-Meeks claimed victory, although more votes were to be counted.

What she or Hart didn’t know was that the vote count in one of the district’s counties, Jasper County, had been reported to the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office incorrectly and that Hart actually was leading by 163 votes, pending final canvasses in each county in the district on Nov. 9 and 10.

A recount in Jasper County was held Nov. 7 under supervision of the Secretary of State’s Office, and then a hand-count audit was conducted Nov. 9. As the audit wrapped up, though, another one of the 24 counties in the southeast Iowa congressional district — Lucas County — was determining that it had skipped counting a precinct. Adding that precinct gave Miller-Meeks an unofficial 34-vote lead. Secretary of State Paul Pate ordered another re-count and audit on Nov. 10, this time for Lucas County. 

Meantime, county supervisors were canvassing. By mid-day Nov. 10, Miller-Meeks was leading by 47 votes. Miller-Meeks declared victory, while Hart declined to toss in the towel. Nothing changed on Nov. 11 in either camp or with the vote totals. 

Wildest Congressional election ever for Iowa? Nope. This election would have to go a long way to become Iowa’s most contentious, chaotic race to represent the state in Congress. That honor goes to the U.S. Senate race of 1924 in Iowa.

In the early 20th century, the Republican Party suffered a bitter divide between progressives and the traditional conservatives. Disunity within a political party is normal but the complexity of this conflict led to the 1924 U.S. Senate election in Iowa between Republican Smith Wildman Brookhart and Democrat Daniel F. Steck to be decided by 764 votes. The close vote, alone, shows how tight the contest was. But, a back story of campaign turmoil and fraud accusations — most often from within the winner’s own party — makes a compelling case for the 1924 Senate election being Iowa’s most contentious.

Brookhart was a progressive Republican, passionate about economic and political legislation and initially worked in alignment with others in his party. However, a disagreement with Albert B. Cummins, a colleague and former Iowa governor who was serving in the Senate, led Brookhart to run against Cummins for the party’s 1920 U.S Senate nomination. Although Cummins won the primary,this began a fight between Brookhart and conservative Republicans who wanted to retain power in the party. In February 1922, Iowa’s other U.S Senate seat became vacant when William Squire Kenyon, a Republican who held the seat, was appointed to be a federal judge. Brookhart campaigned and won that seat in November of 1922. He ran again, this time for re-election, in 1924 as a Republican and won his party’s nomination.

That divide between progressives and conservatives came to a head at the Iowa Republican Party’s convention after the 1924 primaries. In that year, presidential Republican nominee Calvin Coolidge and his vice presidential pick Charles G. Dawes were running against Democratic nominee John W. Davis. Party leaders expected that a Republican senator would endorse Coolidge and denounce communism, the party’s history shows. But Brookhart denounced Coolidge and Dawes. While Brookhart did not openly support the Progressive third-party presidential candidate, Robert M. LaFollette, rumors spread that he might because it fit progressive Republican ideals, the party’s history shows. 

Conservative Republican leaders were outraged and rejected their support for Brookhart. A report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections in March 1926 that supported Steck’s election explained in detail what happened. The Republican Party had announced on Oct. 4, 1924, it had no Senate candidate, the report stated. 

Brookhart was on the ballot, so a group called the Republican Service League spread a sample ballot throughout Iowa newspapers favorable to the Republican Party that showed an "X" in the circle where voters could cast straight-ticket ballots for Republicans but also an "X" in the circle for Democratic nominee Dan Steck, the party’s written history shows. The sample had an arrow pointing to an "X" by Steck’s name, party historians wrote. 

It took two days for results of the November 1926 election to be clear and The Des Moines Registerdeclared on Nov. 6 that Steck had won. However, over the next few days vote totals for both candidates fluctuated and on Nov. 24, The Des Moines Register declared Brookhart the winner.

Brookhart was seated in the Senate on March 4, 1925 and his opponents — Steck but also Iowa’s Republican State Central Committee —immediately claimed that Brookhart should be removed. The Senate referred the dispute to its Committee on Privileges and Elections on March 10, the Senate’s history shows. That committee appointed two Republicans and two Democrats to serve as a subcommittee that started its investigation on July 25, 1925. The subcommittee concluded that numerous ballots for Steck were incorrectly rejected because voters casting the ballots had copied the Republican Service League’s sample ballot by drawing an arrow to their "X" in Steck’s box.

Armed with the subcommittee report, the committee reported on March 27, 1926, with Sen. Hubert Stephens (D-Mississippi) the lone dissenter, that Steck won the plurality of votes and should be admitted into the Senate. Senate floor debate on removing Brookhart from the U.S. Senate and replacing him with Steck began on April 5. 

Finally, the Senate voted across party lines 45 to 41 to seat Steck. Neither Brookhart or Cummins participated in the debate or vote. Vice President Charles Dawes, president of the Senate and at the proceedings, swore Steck into the U.S Senate. Brookhart returned to the U.S. Senate later in 1926 after defeating Cummins and he served until 1933.

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Our Sources

State of Iowa Official Register 1925-26, pages 540-541

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Smith Wildman Brookhart

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Daniel Steck 

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, William S. Kenyon

United States Senate, The Election Case of Daniel F. Steck v. Smith W. Brookhart of Iowa (1926)

U.S. Senate Archives, "Records of the Committee on Rules and Administration and Related Committees, 1825-1988," Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 17

McDaniel, George W. "The Republican Party in Iowa and the Defeat of Smith Wildman Brookhart, 1924-1926." The Annals of Iowa 48 (1987), pages 413-434

Briley, Ronald F., "Smith W. Brookhart and the Limitations of Senatorial Dissent," The Annals of Iowa 49 (1985) page 71

Mariannette Miller-Meeks Twitter post

Dunlap, Natalie, "Miller-Meeks and Hart see-saw lead again in 2nd District race," The Daily Iowan, Nov. 10, 2020

State of Iowa Official Register 1925-26, pages 559

State of Iowa Official Register 1925-26, pages 421

State of Iowa Official Register 1923-24, pages 495-496

Report of the Committee on privileges and elections Senator from Iowa

Des Moines Register (1871-2008) November 25, 1924 (page 1 of 14)

Des Moines Register (1871-2008) Retrieved from November 6, 1924 (page 1 of 18)

Des Moines Register (1871-2008) November 11, 1924 (page 1 of 14)

The New York Times. Sept. 27, 1924 (page 3)

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Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District vote controversy nothing compared to the 1924 election