DES MOINES, Iowa — Longtime Reps. Leonard Boswell and Tom Latham might have only one thing in common: They're running for the same House seat in 2012.
Otherwise, a Hawkeye State voter would be hard-pressed to find similarities between the two longest-tenured Iowa House Members.
The grandfatherly Boswell, a spry 77, rose through the ranks of Iowa politics for decades, and now the Democrat is one of the last members of the dwindling Blue Dog Coalition. Latham's colleagues know the 63-year-old as Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) closest confidant, but the soft-spoken Republican campaigns at home with the transactional practicality of the farm seed salesman he used to be before coming to Congress.
For the past 14 years, these men were colleagues, representing neighboring districts. But after Iowa lost a House seat in reapportionment and a nonpartisan redistricting commission redrew district lines, Boswell and Latham decided to face off in the reconfigured 3rd district in the southwestern corner of the state.
It was the first Member-vs.-Member race of the cycle to emerge and is one that will be among the most competitive campaigns in the country come next fall.
The election is 15 months away, but Boswell and Latham were in campaign mode during the August recess, working throngs of potential voters at the Iowa State Fair. Roll Call rates the new 3rd district a Tossup, and statistics show it exemplifies a true swing seat. The district backed President George W. Bush in 2004 and President Barack Obama in 2008, giving each man 52 percent of the vote.
"When you're from Iowa, there's no such thing as a guaranteed seat," Rep. Bruce Braley (D) told Roll Call outside the Iowa Pork Producers Association tent at the fair. "The way we do redistricting means that most of us have districts that are very balanced."
On a hot summer Tuesday, Latham asked fairgoers one question at the top of each conversation: Where do you live?
The annual fair attracts people from all over Iowa, but the fairgrounds are near downtown Des Moines in Polk County — the population center containing nearly 57 percent of the new 3rd Congressional district.
Lucky for Latham, Iowans' proud knowledge of presidential politics translates to Congressional redistricting. Almost all of the diners at the Pork Producers tent, the 4-H exhibition building and the Iowa Republican Party booth knew which redrawn House district that they lived in before Latham inquired.
"That's why we're first in the nation. Because we are aware, we keep up with it," said Roger Schonhorst, a server in the pork tent. He predicted the Boswell-Latham matchup would be "a good fight," adding, "I hope it comes to blows."
Schonhorst, a registered Republican, is from Polk County ­­­— and he said he loathes calling Boswell his Congressman.
"The good thing is you're going to be my Congressman now — the only person better would've been King," Schonhorst told Latham, referring to GOP Rep. Steve King, the conservative firebrand from western Iowa.
But Boswell has a geographical advantage over Latham — one of his only legs up in this race. His former state Senate district included a handful of rural southwestern counties in the new House district.
He's also represented Polk County for the past decade, and voters are familiar with him here. Earlier in the day, Veterans Parade watchers greeted Boswell with the friendly call, "Hey Boz!" as he waved and pointed at them.
"This will have to be a target for him," Boswell told Roll Call between bites of a platter of pork, applesauce and beans. "Of course it will, as it is for myself."
Latham has never represented Des Moines, but he's spent millions of dollars in advertising there during the course of his Congressional career. His current district circles around the counties southwest of Polk County and extends all the way to Iowa's northeastern corner.
"I like this new district. It's very good for me," Latham said in an interview at the fair. "An awful lot of people here think that I represent them now, and certainly in surrounding counties, I do. They're familiar with me. They know me."
Prepared for Battle
Boswell and Latham won't appear as foes on the ballot for more than a year, but their unusual contest is already making waves in Iowa and on Capitol Hill.
For example, Boswell mistakenly thought Roll Call's photographer snapping images of him participating in the parade was a campaign tracker. Meanwhile, Latham is in the process of selling his home in Story County to buy a place in the new district around Des Moines.
Above all, the money race is in full swing.
Latham continues to fundraise at a quick clip, posting $1.5 million in cash on hand, about five times as much as Boswell, as of June 30. That's an advantage that is likely to grow in the coming months, given Latham's friendship with Boehner.
Despite the financial disparity, Boswell declined to acknowledge that Latham may be his toughest competition to date.
"We've always had a contest," he said. "I've been in a swing district, when I was in the state Senate, when I was in Congress, I've had contested races, and he really hasn't. He's been able to accumulate [cash], and that's to his advantage right now, but it's a ways out there."
Boswell's bid for a ninth term has been dogged by retirement rumors, even though the Congressman says there's "no question about" his re-election campaign. If he were to step aside, several Des Moines Democrats would be eager to take his place, or former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack could switch House races from her current campaign versus King in the GOP-leaning 4th district.
Back on Capitol Hill, the dynamic in the Iowa delegation changed with two Members running for the same seat.
Latham recalled when Boswell on
July 12 used the procedural floor tactic known as a motion to recommit on the Flood Insurance Reform Act. The bill would provide resources to Missouri River flood victims — many of whom live in the new 3rd district.
Members briefly debated the motion, forcing Latham and King to quickly decide whether to buck their own party to voice their support for the extra funds offered by Democrats. The motion failed, 181-244, with only three Republicans voting in favor of it: Latham, King and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.). Boswell's office did not return a request for comment on the matter.
"I voted for the motion to recommit because the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] was all set to put out a press release that I'm not there to help flood victims on the Missouri River," he said. "It's very unfortunate, when you've got a serious disaster like that, people would play politics with that, but that's exactly what they were doing."
A Family Affair
The armed robbery attempt at his Lamoni, Iowa, family farm this summer wasn't the kind of publicity that Boswell was looking for this cycle. But fairgoers ask him about the incident — one diner even asks him whether it prompted him to revise his position on gun control.
"It's tailing off now, and I want it to. It's over, everything worked out OK. It's time to move on," Boswell said, his words punctuated by an uncomfortable silence.
On July 16, an armed intruder came into the home and physically assaulted Boswell's daughter, Cindy Brown. The Congressman, a Vietnam veteran, attempted to thwart the intruder on his own, but his grandson secured a shotgun that frightened the intruder away. Boswell sustained some scrapes and bruises during the incident.
His effort led local television news for several days and made headlines on national cable news networks. Boswell's wife, Dody, gave a local television crew a firsthand account of the incident in her home.
"We lock our house, but we just hadn't gotten around to it that night," the Congressman said. "Common sense, precaution, you know? A little reminder for everyone. Not a fun thing to be part of."
But there are lighter moments as the couple — married 55 years — campaign together at the fairgrounds.
Boswell dotes on his spunky wife, driving her around in their golf cart. In the middle of an interview, Dody Boswell plucked a piece of dirt from her husband's collar.
They tease each other about their traditional accommodations: a camper trailer that has served as a fairground home base for several years.
Dody Boswell told Roll Call that the trailer had "no water, no toilet, no nothing." Boswell chided his wife for revealing the personal details: "Thanks a lot, darling."
But if trips to the Iowa State Fair are any indication of the campaign to come, Latham's advantage is his hustle.
A senior member on the Appropriations Committee, Latham spent more hours at the fair than Boswell did the day prior. He gave an interview to WHO Radio at the Crystal Studio, manned the Iowa Republican Party booth, toured the 4-H exhibit hall and served ice water to pork tent diners — before devouring two pork helpings of his own. After all, pork might be a dirty word on Capitol Hill, but it's the meat of choice for Iowa politicians.