Latham Targeted, But Still Favored to Win

Posted October 20, 2008 at 6:14pm

A few short weeks ago political strategists in both parties agreed that 2008 would be the quietest election Iowa had seen in years. Then the bottom fell out of the economy and the scope of Democratic Congressional pickup opportunities seemed to grow overnight.

Iowa’s 4th district is no exception as Democratic challenger Becky Greenwald has appeared to gain on Rep. Tom Latham (R) in the closing weeks of the campaign.

“I think people are so hungry for something different; they’re hungry for change — that was evident by our financial filings this quarter,” Greenwald spokeswoman Erin Seidler said. “We outraised a 14-year incumbent, and Becky is a relative unknown, first-time candidate.”

Federal Election Commission records show Greenwald raked in more than $308,000 in the third quarter, including $12,000 from her own pocket. Without that deposit, Latham would have claimed the fundraising lead as he raised more than $297,000 in the three-month period. And if you take away the financial support from employees of the Garst Seed Co., which is owned by Greenwald’s family, Latham spokesman James Carstensen argued it’s hard to see where there’s growing momentum behind her campaign.

“If you take a look at what she has put in and what the Garst family seed company has put in, it’s 33 percent of all the money she’s raised in the campaign,” Carstensen said. “There is no ground swell of support. It’s a campaign that has been paid for by her and her Garst family seed company connections. It looks like a ground swell. It’s just not there.”

Greenwald’s office counters this claim, contending family money accounts for only 1.8 percent of funds raised last quarter while 55 percent of Latham’s money came from political action committees, which are supported largely by donors who live outside the district.

“It is interesting for a 14-year incumbent who says they are confident in their re- election to pick apart their opponent’s financial filings,” Seidler said.“We must be doing something right.”

But for Greenwald to be successful against Latham, she has to tap into the independent vote. The victor will be decided by who can best appeal to voters in the middle — and Latham’s campaign is banking on their belief that a vote for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president will not necessarily translate into support downballot for Democratic contenders.

“They [independents] are saying that they are going to vote for Obama, and the majority of them are still saying [they will vote for] Latham,” Carstensen said. “We’ve had Democrats call our office asking for yard signs, and they said they want to put a Latham sign right next to their Obama sign. We’ve had independents come off the street saying, ‘How do I volunteer?’”

Carstensen said Iowans have a history of looking past party label and not voting a straight ticket.

“It’s a tradition. They look at the person,” he said.

In the strong Democratic year of 1974, in the wake of Watergate, voters narrowly elected Republican Chuck Grassley to Congress. He was later elected to the Senate in the GOP presidential wave of 1980.

Latham has hardly faced a difficult re-election race in his 14 years in Congress. The one exception was 2002, after the last round of reapportionment and redistricting. When the lines were redrawn, Latham’s old 5th district was split between the new 4th and 5th districts. He chose to run in the 4th, where his home is located, instead of the 5th, which is decidedly more Republican.

In 2002, Latham faced a strong challenge from John Norris (D), former chief of staff to then-Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). It was an expensive contest, and in the end, Latham was re-elected by a comfortable margin of 55 percent to 43 percent in what turned out to be a strong year for the GOP nationwide.

In 2004, President Bush narrowly won the district with 51 percent, but with political winds now blowing in the opposite direction Obama is expected to easily win Iowa this year.

After Democrats picked up two seats in Iowa in the previous cycle, Latham and Rep. Steve King are the only two Republicans left in the Hawkeye State House delegation.

Seidler claims independents are taking a shine to her boss.

“Independent voters are responding really well to Becky and to Barack Obama’s campaign,” she said. “It’s a focus of our field operation to get as many registered independents to vote for Democrats. What we have seen is a shift from registered independents and Republicans to Democrats after the [presidential] caucuses and after the primaries.”

Registered Democrats in Latham’s district outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 9,000, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. Greenwald’s campaign said the figure is closer to 14,000.

“There has been a massive shift in registration here,” Seidler said. “This is the first time that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the 4th district.”

Two staffers from the Obama campaign are stationed in Greenwald’s headquarters and are working the district, while similar muscle is not apparent on the Republican side.

“You can’t even compare it to what the Republican Party is doing here,” Seidler said. “We’ve never see a presidential campaign with staffers based right here. The number of offices and the sheer number of staff we have working on the ground to get Obama and Becky elected — you just can’t compare.”

Carstensen cautioned against claiming victory before ballots are cast.

“I think that has been a very dangerous assumption on anyone’s part that because of an 8,000-registration advantage that that’s a clear advantage for anyone,” he warned.

He added that voter agitation over the $700 billion bank bailout legislation could work against the challenger. Greenwald would have supported the bill if she were in Congress. Latham opposed it.

“Iowans overwhelmingly did not want taxpayers to bailout the greed, corruption and mismanagement of Wall Street,” Carstensen said, adding that the campaign has seen a groundswell of support after the rescue package vote.

A recent online poll conducted by the Times-Republican, a central Iowa newspaper, found that 68 percent of those surveyed would refuse to back a lawmaker who supported the bailout, while 21 percent would re-elect a candidate who favored the package and 11 percent said the plan would not affect their vote.

Seidler said her boss originally opposed the plan until flood relief was added to it.

“We believe that was incredibly important for those people recovering from the floods this summer,” Seidler said. “Latham likes to call them ‘sweeteners.’ We call them ‘necessary’ for our families that are still recovering.”

Greenwald’s campaign was also recently added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “Red to Blue” program, giving her greater access to the finances and infrastructure needed to unseat Latham. Carstensen claims the designation is a red herring because it gets voters believing there is national momentum behind a campaign when there isn’t.

“This Red to Blue thing is a good tool to build momentum in local press and get some local money without [the DCCC] going in at all,” he said. “And that’s what they have done. They haven’t put any money in.”

According to the latest FEC filings, Greenwald will need the DCCC’s financial support to win.

As of Sept. 30, Latham had $775,000 in stockpiled campaign funds, and he had already spent $755,000 on his re-election race. Greenwald, meanwhile, showed a paltry $24,000 in the bank. She had spent $430,000 on the race as of the end of last month.

For the past two weeks, Greenwald has been dark on the ad front — likely because she doesn’t have any money left. Without TV advertising, Carstensen doesn’t see how she can win her campaign.

“You can’t go down for two weeks in the heart of a campaign. She has no chance to respond other than through earned media,” he said. “By all political theories she’s going nowhere.”