Down the Road in Iowa, a Surprising Quiet

Posted September 2, 2008 at 5:53pm

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Throughout the past decade, Iowa was one of the nation’s prime Congressional battlegrounds. The state boasts just five House seats, but during that time, then-GOP Reps. Jim Nussle and Jim Leach almost always faced strong challengers in their Democratic-leaning districts, and more often than not, Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell had to fend off a serious Republican opponent to keep his marginal seat. On occasion, GOP Rep. Tom Latham faced a top-tier opponent as well.

But in 2006, Democrat Dave Loebsack ousted Leach, and Nussle left the House in an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid; his open seat went to Democrat Bruce Braley. Now, strategists in both parties agree that 2008 is shaping up to be the quietest Congressional election for Iowa in years.

With Republicans holding their national convention just up Interstate 35 in Minnesota, neither the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee nor the National Republican Congressional Committee has committed to targeting a single seat in this once high-profile state. And Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who has had to fend off a succession of House Members to retain his seat, is all but skating to a fifth term this year.

In addition to the dynamics of each race, one factor that is complicating matters for challengers in both parties is the massive flooding that hit the state earlier this year. The floods dominated local media coverage, not to mention the lives of many Iowans. This made it hard for challengers to introduce themselves to voters.

Braley lucked out when no top-tier Republican stood up to challenge him. State Sen. David Hartsuch filed to run just before the deadline, but while analysts say that Hartsuch is respected in the district, his campaign is not yet a match for a Congressional incumbent — much less one who is one of three chairmen of the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, which helps elect Democrats to Republican-held seats.

Hartsuch “admitted to a gaggle of reporters at the Iowa State Fair that he did not even have enough money to buy materials to hand out,” said O. Kay Henderson, a longtime observer of Iowa politics and news director at Radio Iowa.

Meanwhile, Boswell — whose hold on the seat was in jeopardy last cycle after serious health problems — seems to be in the clear this time. He faced his biggest threat in the Democratic primary, when he defeated Ed Fallon, a former state legislator targeting him from the left, 61 percent to 39 percent. Now Boswell faces Republican Kim Schmett, a former aide to ex-Rep. Greg Ganske (R), but Boswell is strongly favored.

As in past years, GOP Rep. Steve King is not in serious jeopardy. This fall, he will face Rob Hubler, a retired Presbyterian minister and former state legislator, but King’s staunchly conservative views mesh well with his largely rural district.

That leaves at most two districts that will be contested to any serious degree this year — the seats held by Loebsack and Latham. However, neither contest is prominent on either party’s national radar screen.

The somewhat longer shot of the two is the bid by Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R), a physician, to oust Loebsack.

Miller-Meeks said she embraces the moderate label, but she does back core Republican ideas such as the military “surge” in Iraq and placing a portion of Social Security benefits into private accounts. She blames Loebsack for having an ineffective first term.

While Miller-Meeks had only about $5,000 in cash at the end of June, she said that is due in part to her decision to suspend her fundraising during the floods. She promises a significant increase by the next reporting period, at the end of September.

Observers here agree that Miller-Meeks is showing potential, but they add that the rough year Republicans face nationally and locally will be hard for her to overcome.

“Miller-Meeks is an interesting candidate, but raw,” said one Iowa political reporter. “She could make the race interesting because she’s a very feisty, won’t-back-down candidate. If she is willing to make another run in two years, she might grow into the role and be a much more formidable candidate.”

The issues, Miller-Meeks said in an interview, are “much more important than whether it’s a Democratic district or a Democratic year, or whether the Democrat has raised more money or whether [Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama] has been able to drive up Democratic support.”

The Loebsack campaign did not return inquiries by press time Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Democratic energy in this state will be key to making the race for Latham’s seat competitive.

For the first time, Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in the district (though independents are a plurality). In the gubernatorial election two years ago, Democrat Chet Culver won 22 of the district’s 28 counties, even though he ran against a credible Republican, Nussle.

Latham’s challenger is Dallas County Democratic Chairwoman Becky Greenwald. She’s never run for political office, but she has deep roots in the district, literally — her stepfather ran an Iowa-based seed company that she later worked for. (Latham’s family is also in the seed business.)

In the past, Greenwald said, Democratic challengers have lacked a direct connection to agriculture, even though that sector accounts for a sizable share of the district’s economy. As a marketing executive with the seed firm, “I met and visited with everyone,” she said in an interview next to the lake that gives this town its name. “I spent my career really listening.”

Greenwald is attacking Latham for being “tied at the hip” to President Bush. She’s also touting alternative energy; not only is ethanol big here, but rows and rows of wind turbines dot the drive south from St. Paul.

Dallas County is the state’s fastest- growing, and it includes affluent suburbs of Des Moines. But she takes pains to note that she lives down a gravel road in a rural part of the district — a notable distinction given that ties to the more urbanized and “liberal” area around Ames, the home of Iowa State University, may have hurt Latham’s strongest challenger to date — John Norris, a former chief of staff to then-Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). Norris failed to unseat Latham in 2002, losing by an unexpectedly large margin.

But despite the Democrats’ improved playing field this year, Latham will still be difficult to defeat. As an incumbent, he will almost certainly outraise Greenwald, and he can tout his seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee as a reason to keep him in Washington, D.C.

Latham’s camp cites the fundraising differential as well as internal poll numbers that show the incumbent with 70 percent favorability and the challenger with little name recognition.

“If you look at how much time is left in the race, and that she has no cash, no name identification, the factors are not in her favor,” said James Carstensen, Latham’s chief of staff. “When you put it all together, it’s really not a race.”

Meanwhile, analysts disagree about the impact that Iowa’s unusual redistricting system has had on Congressional races over the last decade. Unlike a majority of states, Iowa does not leave line-drawing to state legislators, who are often eager to stack the deck in their own party’s favor. Rather, a nonpartisan office of the Legislature draws lines without regard to voting patterns or Members’ hometowns. This map is then presented to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote and gubernatorial approval.

In theory, this system should make districts more competitive, as it seems to have done over the past decade. But some redistricting experts say that the state’s competitiveness has less to do with the redistricting rules and more to do with the dynamics of the particular districts that have been in play. Once the Democratic-leaning Braley and Loebsack seats went Democratic, it was only natural that they became less competitive, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University and an expert on redistricting.

However the campaign of 2008 shakes out in Iowa, the state’s unusual redistricting system guarantees at least one thing: In 2012, control of the state’s House districts will once again be up for grabs.