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Congressional Hopefuls Cozy Up to Iowa Caucus Circus

Mowrer, who's running for the Democratic nod in the 3rd District, says he has benefited from all the presidential activity in his backyard. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As presidential candidates storm their state ahead of next week's caucuses, Iowa's congressional candidates are struggling to be noticed. But behind the scenes, they're taking advantage of an energized electorate and organized political infrastructure to help build their own campaign operations.  

"Normally in January, 10 months until Election Day, people are not too politically involved. Having the presidential candidates investing time and money and fielding efforts in the state — that helps a lot to get people involved," said Iraq War veteran Jim Mowrer, who's running for the Democratic nomination in Iowa's 3rd District.  Mowrer would know. Having run for Congress in 2014 in the 4th District, he's seen the difference between a midterm and presidential election cycle. "You can feel the difference between the level of engagement and the number of people involved," he said.  There are practical benefits, too. "It's a huge boost because you don’t have to spend resources to get on the ballot," said Travis Lowe, a Democratic consultant working for former state Rep. Pat Murphy in the 1st District and businessman Mike Sherzan in the 3rd District, both of whom are vying for the Democratic nods. "In  other cycles," Lowe said, "you have to knock on doors" to get the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot. When there's a competitive presidential caucus, "it all happens on caucus night." The 1st and 3rd districts, both held by freshmen Republicans, are rated Tilts Democrat and Tossup , respectively, by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.  

First District Rep. Rod Blum is one of the most vulnerable members  of the cycle. After voting against John A. Boehner for speaker, Blum isn't getting a lot of help from the National Republican Congressional Committee , and he faces a tough presidential-year race in a district that President Barack Obama carried by 14 points in 2012.  

Democrat Monica Vernon , who placed second to Murphy in the 2014 Democratic primary, has emerged as a party favorite to take on Blum , and while she hasn't endorsed any of the Democratic presidential candidates, she has attended events at which they all appeared.  

"From a campaign perspective, it’s been an amazing tool for us to organize," a staffer on the Vernon campaign said. In particular, the campaign has signed up more than 150 precinct chairs — essentially active volunteers — who will try to sign up other Vernon supporters at their respective precincts during Feb. 1's presidential caucuses. The ability to recruit those precinct chairs, the staffer said, is the direct result of voters' increased political engagement. After winning the Democratic nod for the 1st District in 2014, Murphy went on to lose the general election to Blum by 2 points. His campaign is using the caucuses to highlight his longstanding participation in the Democratic caucus process and attack Vernon . "Murphy is a known entity, but it’s actually a great opportunity for us to introduce our opponent," Lowe said. Iowa's congressional primaries are June 7.  

"Saturday Night Live" alumnus Gary Kroeger , another Democrat running in the 1st District, has publicly endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders and has spoken at rallies for him across the state. "It’s a shorthand to understanding myself," he said of his alignment with Sanders. "The Bernie Sanders world had opened up to me," Kroeger said. "I’ll be walking around with a notepad asking people to take a look and sign up," he said of his plans for Monday night. "I’m hoping to emerge from this caucus stronger." But having the presidential circus in their backyard isn't always a boon for down-ballot candidates .  

"Trying to get Iowa political media to try to pay attention to anything is virtually impossible at this point," Mowrer, one of the 3rd District Democrats, said. The local media's response? "'That’s great; we’ll get back to you on Feb. 2,'" he added.  

"Right now if I have a Jim Mowrer for Congress event, it’s hard because Hillary Clinton was in town yesterday," he said. And it's not just the presidential candidates. "We have to compete with surrogates as well," Mowrer said, noting that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was two blocks from his house last weekend campaigning for Clinton. He admitted, however, that he sometimes gets shout-outs from surrogates on the stump.  "On the congressional side, our job is, No. 1, to tap into that. No. 2, to try to capture that so that we can message that once the presidential [candidates] leave, " he added.   Mowrer's hoping to take on GOP Rep. David Young, the former chief of staff to Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley who won the 3rd District seat by 10 points in 2014. Obama has twice narrowly carried the district.  

"If you do it the right way, it can be a great organization and building activity," Mowrer said. "And if you don’t take advantage, you’re missing out."  

Contact Pathé at  simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at  @sfpathe .

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