When the Dubuque County election results started coming in, incumbent District 29 State Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, knew he was in trouble.

He walked up to a quiet group of men sitting a bit apart from the other 100 or so people watching election returns at The Timber Center Tuesday night. He somberly told the table — some of his friends and family — that Carrie Koelker of Dyersville led the race by about 2,000 in Dubuque County, while he led Jackson County by about 1,200. 

Jones County results weren’t yet known, he told supporters with an impassive face.

When all the votes were counted, Republican Koelker remained on top, unseating the eight-year state senator from Maquoketa. Koelker had 15,472 votes to Bowman’s 13,410, unofficially.

Bowman thinks Koelker won because of negative campaign ads. 

“The fact that the Dubuque County results came back significantly different from Jackson leads me to believe that the negative ads had a very strong impact on the race,” he said.

Ads attacked Bowman on a variety of fronts, from claims of wasteful spending to saying he supported benefits for illegal immigrants. These are claims he refutes.

Meanwhile, a Bowman mailer included an image of a hand reaching for cookies, claiming that Koelker had her “hand in the cookie jar” for running a deficit while taking pay raises as director of Eastern Iowa Tourism.

“That is all that I said about her record,” Bowman said. “She’s never voted (in the legislature), so how could I say anything else?”

Koelker credits her win to grassroots campaigning. 

“We really went out and connected over the past year with people in the 42 communities, knocking on doors, listening,” she said. “Sometimes people just need a listening ear.”

The targeted race was expensive for both the Democratic and Republican parties, which brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars and included spending on television advertising.

“Our first step out of the gate was to raise money,” Koelker said. “We had over 250 contributors to my campaign at all levels, and the party saw growth and potential. The party backed me significantly.”

The day after the election, Bowman said he was proud of his campaign and his record as a legislator. He said it was far too early to consider whether he’d run again.

“I don’t think we could have done anything different,” he said of the campaign. “I’m very proud of my record representing Jackson, Dubuque and Jones counties to the best of my ability, working with Democrats, Republicans and independents to build consensus and make Iowa a great place to work and live.”

Koelker described her “passion for Iowa” as a lifelong resident and said she wants to focus on rural Iowa and workforce issues.

Koelker was a small part of the “pink wave” that elected a record number of women to office Nov. 6. In Jackson County, women defeated men in the race for governor, Congressional representative and state senator.

“I don’t think it was necessarily gender,” Koelker said. “I think it goes on the person… when people see you get up and see you as a leader.” 

She expressed her admiration for Gov. Kim Reynolds, another Republican woman who won her campaign this year. 

“She’s dynamite to me,” Koelker said.

News editor Kelly Gerlach contributed to this report.