In one of the party's best pickup opportunities this cycle, Democrats have zeroed in on second-time candidate Monica Vernon to win Iowa's 1st District.
Freshman Rep. Rod Blum, a Republican, holds the seat. But the district's composition is competitive, if not left-leaning: In 2012, President Barack Obama won it with 56 percent. That makes it a ripe target for Democrats, who must net 30 seats on a GOP-friendly map to win the majority. “It’s probably our toughest chance to hold onto something we have,” said Iowa Republican consultant Cory Crowley.
The district's attractiveness has sparked a feeding frenzy on the left. Two Democrats have already announced their candidacies: Vernon and hotel executive Ravi Patel. Several other Democrats are considering it: Gary Kroeger, an alumnus of "Saturday Night Live," is mulling a bid; former Gov. Chet Culver is considering moving to the district so he can run; and sources said Iowa Utilities Board member Swati Dandekar might run again as well.
But Democrats interviewed for this story were focused on Vernon, whom they perceived as an early front-runner.
In a Feb. 27 phone interview with CQ Roll Call, Vernon said EMILY's List urged her to run, “so I’m very hopeful to earn their endorsement. And I was urged to run by the DCCC."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committe declined to comment. EMILY's List sent an encouraging tweet when Vernon announced, but did not comment for this article.
The Cedar Rapids city councilwoman placed second in the 2014 primary for the open seat behind state Rep. Pat Murphy, losing by 3,600 votes. Democrats criticized Murphy for taking the left-leaning district for granted and failing to build the necessary ground game, and he ultimately lost to Blum.
Vernon is working to avoid such pitfalls. She kicked off her campaign just weeks into the new Congress, quickly rolling out a list of impressive endorsements from the local teamsters union and a number of state legislators, including a few — such as state Sen. Liz Mathis — who had been considered strong possible candidates for the seat.
Democrats who spoke to CQ Roll Call said they have been impressed by Vernon's nascent organization. After her 2014 primary loss, she became the party's nominee for lieutenant governor as a running mate to Jack Hatch. It was a slaughter, as expected, and popular Gov. Terry E. Branstad won re-election with 59 percent of the vote. But her name became better known among Iowa Democrats.
Vernon’s Democratic opponents hope that is all her candidacy has in its favor.
There’s “not a high level of excitement about her,” said Democratic consultant Norm Sterzenbach, a paid consultant for Patel. Sterzenbach said most of her early support is a result of name recognition, and he said Patel could fill the void of “somebody that Democrats can get excited about.”
On the other side, there's concern in the state Blum might not get much help from Washington, D.C. after voting against John A. Boehner for speaker on his first day in office. Iowa Republicans noted Blum didn't make the National Republican Congressional Committee's initial list for the Patriot Program, which names vulnerable members who need help in 2016.
The NRCC declined to comment.
Vernon was quick to use that vote to attack Blum, tying him another Iowa Republican in the House.
“His first vote was to join Steve King and vote for the alternative speaker of the House from Florida," she said. "This district does not want a Steve King representing it, I’m quite certain of that."
Blum voted with Boehner — and against King — last week in support of a "clean" bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks without a rider aimed at blocking the president's executive orders on immigration.
But there are a few bright spots for Blum. The long list of Republicans making regular pilgrimages to Iowa as they consider presidential bids has created a myriad of fundraising opportunities for the congressman, as it did last year when several potential candidates appeared in the district on his behalf. Last month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker held a fundraiser for Blum in Dubuque and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul held one for him in Marshalltown.
Another boon for Blum: Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley is up for re-election this year. While the presidential race tends to cast the largest shadow over the ballot, Republicans are hopeful the incumbent boasting a 67 percent approval rating will help bring voters out for Blum.
“If Grassley weren’t on the ticket, whoo, it would be really bad,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director and editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican.
Republicans point out that before Democrat Bruce Braley won the seat in 2006, the district had been represented by a Republican since 1978. Braley's decision to run statewide in 2014 ended with Democratic losses of both a House and Senate seat in Iowa.
"Congressman Blum is 100% focused on the job Eastern Iowans elected him to do in November: working hard to increase opportunities for working families, holding the federal government accountable to the people, and reducing burdens on small business so our economy can get back on track," Blum spokesman Keegan Conway said in a statement emailed to CQ Roll Call.
Republicans are banking on a crowded Democratic primary to leave the eventual nominee — who most said they believed would be Vernon — battered, and force Democrats to spend a lot of money before they even got to focus on Blum.
Still, all signs point in favor of Democrats. Even Democrats who are underwhelmed by the likely candidate choices think the numbers are too good to mess up.
“There’s not a current field of tier ones," said Iowa Democratic consultant Travis Lowe, "but all of these people could beat Rob Blum.”
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