A conservative Iowa county ousted the Republican official in charge of administering its elections in a special election landslide on Tuesday night after social media posts surfaced in which Auditor David Whipple had spread election conspiracy theories.
The development stands out because Warren County, which is located just south of Des Moines, had once been competitive turf but voted for Donald Trump by a 57-41 margin in 2020. Nevertheless, Whipple, who'd been appointed to his post earlier this year, was defeated in a 67-33 drubbing by Democrat Kimberly Sheets, whom he'd previously suspended from her job as deputy auditor.
Sheets had applied to be appointed to replace the previous auditor, Traci VanderLinden after she announced in May that she'd resign for personal reasons. But while VanderLinden, the last Democrat left in countywide office, recommended that the county's Board of Supervisors pick Sheets, the all-GOP body instead unanimously went for Whipple, a construction professional with no government experience. One of the three supervisors, admitting that she was friends with Whipple and his wife, acknowledged that it "look[ed] weird" to choose him, but she argued he was a "detail-oriented person, especially in elections."
Things only got weirder from there. Whipple's critics soon uncovered Facebook posts from just after the 2020 election, including one in which he wrote of the president, "Joe admits MASSIVE VOTER FRAUD during brain fart." Whipple also shared a QAnon video days before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and followed up with one promoting a Sept. 11 conspiracy theory. Kedron Bardwell, a professor at local Simpson College, publicized Whipple's posts, though he concluded that Republican leaders weren't bothered by them. "I think it's highly likely that [the county supervisors] didn't see them as problematic because in large part they agree," he told the BBC.
Democrats, of course, disagreed, and they had a small window of opportunity to do something about it. While Whipple ordinarily would not have gone before voters until November of 2024—and had the chance to oversee next year's elections—Iowa law gives voters 14 days to sign petitions to force a special election for any appointed county officials. Whipple's foes quickly worked to collect the roughly 2,400 signatures they needed, a figure that represents 10% of the votes cast in the most recent election for governor in Warren County.
On the same day the campaign turned in approximately 3,000 petitions in June, Whipple announced that he was putting Sheets on leave. The auditor claimed he wanted to avoid putting staffers in an awkward position since Sheets was already being talked about as a potential opponent, though Sheets sharply objected. "I can still do my job with no problem," she told Iowa Starting Line. "I just wasn’t given that opportunity."
During her campaign, Sheets zeroed in on Whipple's social media posts. "You need somebody in that office that can curb that misinformation, that can tell them exactly where they can go vote, if this rumor is true, if this is what really happened," she told voters.
Whipple distanced himself from his election-denying posts on the trail, even telling the BBC that he acknowledged Joe Biden had won and that what he'd written was "ridiculous." But he soon reverted to his old ways when he fired off a Facebook missive days before the election in response to Sheets' call for Simpson College students to vote.
"Several have notified me that Kim is soliciting votes from New college students to decide your election outcomes in Warren county," he posted. "While it may be legal, it isn't always right." Sheets responded by telling students, "You're part of our community and deserve to have a say in its leadership."
Sheets ended up pulling off a giant win in a county that had swung hard to the right over the last decade and now rarely supports Democrats. Whipple reacted to his loss by telling Starting Line he didn't know much about local government before his appointment yet didn't rule out another bid for office.
The new auditor, meanwhile, declared on election night, "When the county supervisors tried to take away the voice of the people, the people of Warren County stood up for our democracy and said with one voice: We trust competence over conspiracies."
Correction: The winner of Tuesday's special was Kimberly Sheets, not Kimberly Shields