When the Circus Leaves Town

Iowa Congressional Elections Will Lack Intensity of Caucuses

Posted January 4, 2008 at 6:14pm

Actually, the voting isn’t over in Iowa — although the June 3 Congressional primaries are expected to be anything but the competitive affairs that were last Thursday’s presidential nominating caucuses.

The closely fought caucuses and the expected heavy competition for Iowa’s five electoral votes in November notwithstanding, the six Congressional

incumbents up for re-election this cycle all are facing minimal opposition barely six months before their respective primaries and 10 months prior to the general election.

“Iowa just does not present the same kind of pickup opportunities that other states do,” said a Republican strategist based in Washington, D.C. “The two newly elected Iowa Democrats are sitting in seats that are much heavier lifts than some of the more Republican leaning districts [where the incumbents are Democratic freshmen] in Kansas, Texas and Pennsylvania.”

In the aftermath of the 2006 midterm elections, it’s the Democrats who now hold the upper hand in the Hawkeye State.

Freshman Reps. Bruce Braley (D) and Dave Loebsack (D) won Democratic-leaning seats that previously had been held by long-time Republican incumbents (then-Rep. Jim Nussle vacated his 1st district seat to run for governor; Jim Leach was ousted by Loebsack.) That leaves incumbent Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham as the entirety of the Hawkeye State’s House GOP delegation.

Given the political makeup of the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th districts, strategists on both sides of the aisle agree that it’s just not realistic for the party out of power to challenge for those seats — especially not with the wealth of other juicy targets available throughout the country.

In the competitively drawn, central Iowa 3rd district, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) is theoretically vulnerable. But after he survived a tough challenge in the previous cycle from then-state Senate Co-President Jeff Lamberti (R) — and with the Democrats currently ascendant in Iowa — there appears to be little interest among Republicans to take him on in 2008.

Ditto for Sen. Tom Harkin (D). Now in his fourth term, Harkin has never won more than 55 percent of the vote in his Senate races.

“He would seem to be an attractive target,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with Iowa politics. “The problem is, he’s such a bruiser. The margin is small, but it’s such an ugly, humiliating way to lose.”

Businessman Steve Rathje (R) is Harkin’s only announced opponent at this time. Latham, a favorite among Republicans to challenge Harkin, has decided to run for re-election in the 4th district rather than take his chances against the Democratic incumbent.

On the House side, the state’s five Members face varying degrees of nominal opposition, although the GOP believes ophthalmologist Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R) could do some damage against Loebsack if she enters the race.

When it comes to Iowa’s five House seats and Harkin’s Senate seat, a combination of factors is responsible for what looks to be a quiet cycle, according to both Democratic and Republican political strategists who follow elections in the state. Speculation that Iowa likely will lose one House seat in the next round of reapportionment could be one, as any Representative elected in 2008 could in 2012 be forced to run against a longtime incumbent as a result of having the state’s five seats folded into four.

“I think that’s something that candidates would think about,” an Iowa GOP insider said. “As a junior Congressman, you might be running against another incumbent in four years. When running for office you consider all of those aspects.”

Iowa has a nonpartisan redistricting process, which has been credited in the past for creating relatively competitive districts. But none of the current incumbents appear to be particularly vulnerable. Braley and Loebsack are freshmen, but both Democrats are sitting in districts that strongly favor their political party. King and Latham are in similar situations, and — like Boswell — have shown in the past that they would be tough to beat if challenged.

Harkin, in addition to having a reputation for always finding a way to win, has the luxury of running for re-election when Democrats are in good shape politically in the Hawkeye State. Not only did the Democratic Party gain two House seats in the previous cycle, they held onto the governor’s office and took control of the state Legislature.

One Iowa Democratic insider said this could be a key reason why Democrats serving in the Legislature are less prone now to explore running for Congress — whether in a Democratic primary or to challenge a GOP incumbent. The Democratic Party’s success in state legislative and constitutional office races last year have made serving in Des Moines at least as appealing as serving in Washington, D.C.

“The Democrats have a [legislative] majority for the first time in 48 years, so there is more incentive for Democrats to stay in the state Legislature,” the Democratic insider said.