A Look at Iowa

Posted March 21, 2003 at 6:07pm

No state better symbolized the fight for House control in the 2002 cycle than Iowa.

Four of its five seats were hotly contested by both national parties and its fifth played host to an open-seat battle that saw its new Congressman picked in a historic Republican convention.

“We had more targeted Congressional races than California, Texas, Illinois and Michigan combined,” said state Republican Party Chairman Chuck Larson. “We were very happy to retain our Congressional delegation.”

Republican Reps. Jim Nussle, Jim Leach and Tom Latham all beat back the most serious challenges of their Congressional careers with 57 percent, 52 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

Freshman Rep. Steve King, the other GOPer in the delegation, easily won his strongly Republican seat after securing the nomination over three other opponents in a convention — the state’s first since 1964.

All the news was not good for Republicans, however, as Sen. Tom Harkin (D) and Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) were re-elected against highly touted opponents.

Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) took 54 percent in a Des Moines-based district that he moved into after the decennial redistricting process.

The results of the 2002 races reaffirmed the Hawkeye State’s place as one of the last real political battlegrounds left in the country. In the 2000 presidential election, then-Vice President Al Gore carried Iowa by 4,200 votes, the third-closest vote margin of the 50 states.

Redistricting in Iowa bucked the national trend of firming up incumbents, thanks to the state’s Legislative Services Bureau, a nonpartisan agency charged with redrawing the state’s lines.

The new lines forced Leach to move from Davenport — his political base since being elected in 1976 — to Iowa City in order to avoid a primary race against Nussle.

Boswell, who was placed in the 2nd district, moved to Des Moines to run in the 3rd district, which then-Rep. Greg Ganske (R) was vacating to challenge Harkin.

Latham’s home was moved into the 4th and rather than move into the 5th district he had held since 1994, he ran in a substantially new — and significantly more competitive — seat.

All of this movement led to high hopes of turnovers, and, although none materialized in the last cycle, three of the seats (in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) are likely to be extremely competitive for years to come.

Nussle, who is currently the chairman of the Budget Committee, is rumored to be considering a gubernatorial run in 2006, a race in which he could face a primary challenge from Larson and King among others. He crushed Bettendorf Mayor Ann Hutchinson (D) in 2002 in a bitter campaign that reinforced Nussle as the Republican that Iowa Democrats most love to hate.

“We are always going to be on Nussle’s back,” pledged Iowa Democratic Party spokesman Mike Malaise.

If Nussle does opt for a gubernatorial run, an open seat contest would be hard fought in a district where George W. Bush would have taken only 45 percent in 2000.

“The Nussle seat is competitive but it can be retained by the Republican Party,” Larson said.

A likely candidate for Republicans in an open-seat scenario, Larson said, would be state Sen. Bryan Sievers.

On the Democratic side, two legislators are mentioned: state Sen. Bill Dotzler and state Rep. Pat Murphy. Also in the mix is Terri Goodman, an activist on economic development issues. Dotzler and Goodman live in Dubuque County while Murphy is based in Blackhawk County, which also contains Nussle’s hometown of Manchester.

Although many Democrats thought 2002 was the year they would finally topple Leach, they were disappointed yet again when he defeated well-financed pediatrician Julie Thomas (D) 52 percent to 46 percent.

Leach won in spite of his refusal to raise money in an off-year. He also would not accept contributions greater than $500 and took no out-of-state money.

As a result, Leach was one of the top recipients of soft-money, issue ad spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee, a luxury that he will not enjoy in the post-campaign finance reform world.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 20,000 in the new 2nd district, and Gore would have won 57 percent of the vote there in 2000.

All of this makes Leach an extremely appealing target for Democrats in 2004. And if the Congressman retires, even Larson admitted that “without Jim Leach it will be very tough” to hold the district.

Thomas is considering another run, though after spending $210,000 of her own money in 2002 she may not be as willing — or able — to dip into her own pocket again.

State Reps. Swati Dandekar and Todd Taylor are also mentioned as potential Democratic candidates. Taylor has close ties to labor, which would give him a decided advantage in a potential primary.

In the 3rd district, Boswell was seen as a likely retirement this cycle due to his self-term-limit pledge but he reversed course last week, announcing that he would run for a fourth term.

“It’s as simple as this — I made a mistake,” Boswell said.

Boswell’s decision is likely to disappoint a number of Des Moines-based Democrats who have long been eyeing the seat. Included in these ranks are state Sen. Matt McCoy, who briefly challenged Boswell in a primary last cycle before dropping out, and state Reps. Geri Huser and Janet Petersen.

Secretary of State Chet Culver, the son of former Sen. John Culver, lives in Des Moines but may have his sights set higher, with a bid for either Senate or governor on the horizon. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) is up in 2004, but it is unlikely Culver would take on such a Herculean task that could damage his political future, and there is unlikely to be any top-tier Democrat willing to challenge Grassley.

Republicans believe Boswell is ripe for the picking after his decision to break his term-limits pledge.

“That won’t sit well with Iowans,” said Larson. “In Iowa, a person’s word is his word.”

The leading candidate for Republicans is attorney Stan Thompson, who took 46 percent against Boswell in 2002. Another name rumored to be considering the race is state Senate President Mary Kramer.

Latham is not likely to be a target for Democrats in cycles to come but his 2002 opponent, John Norris, is seen as a bright star on the Iowa political horizon.

“He will be on the ballot somewhere,” predicted Malaise, the state party spokesman. “He is going to continue to be a favorite son of the Democratic Party.”

Norris is currently managing the Iowa caucus presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Although King just won the 5th district last year, he is already being rumored as not only a candidate for governor in 2006 but also as a challenger to Harkin in 2008. In the event King vacates his seat, 2002 primary candidate Jeff Ballenger (R) is eager to run again. Debbie Durham, who ran as the lieutenant governor candidate on the losing Republican ticket in 2002, is also interested.

Surprisingly, Democrats believe they can provide a serious challenge in this western Iowa district that would have given Bush 57 percent in 2000 if they can convince state Sen. Steve Wornstadt (D) to run.

“He would draw in a lot of money and make that more competitive than it has been in the past,” Malaise said.