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Cover Story

August 11, 2011

Holy War

The upcoming battles for Iowa's new Congressional districts

By James Strohman

The fight is on for political control of Iowa's four new Congressional districts in the 2012 fall election. While the Iowa caucus race is garnering current political attention, the organizing, fundraising and posturing for these critical seats is in full gear.

Already, two of the five sitting incumbents have moved to new districts, as has former Iowa first lady, Christie Vilsack. The six chief contenders have amassed more than $2.7 million during the last reporting quarter — signaling these campaigns will be hotly contested and highly expensive.

Iowa has experienced a steady decline in House membership, from a high of 11 in 1933 to just four beginning with the 2012 election. That only intensifies the importance to the political parties of winning and holding these seats.

Without any gubernatorial or U.S. Senate races next year, the battle for Congress should dominate statewide political attention in the summer and fall. All four districts converge in the central Iowa media market, making guaranteed revenue winners of KCCI, WHO and WOI television, along with local radio stations.

While the candidates who prevail will be in strong positions to hold their seats for the next decade, several are also auditioning for anticipated opening in the United States Senate. When the election is over, it will leave standing a gang of four who may likely produce the next two U.S. Senators from Iowa. Many expect longtime Senators Harkin and Grassley to retire when their respective terms end in 2014, when Harkin will be 74, and 2016, when Grassley turns 83.

All of the races should feature strong elements of the national political parties' divergent view of the scope of the federal government. Republicans will criticize the Democratic candidates for support of Obama-care and work to tie them to the government bailout and stimulus measure, the federal deficit and debt, cap and trade legislation, the high unemployment rate and the assertion the President and Democrats are unable to lead the country out of the recession.

Democrats will counter with Medi-scare tactics and accuse the Republican hopefuls of wanting to cut other entitlement programs like Social Security, will call for tax increases for the wealthy and corporations in an effort to deal with the federal deficit and debt, and will continue to place the blame for the economy and the wars at the foot of George Bush.

A more divided nation we could not be.

While it is difficult to predict how voters will perceive the economy next fall, the campaigns which prevail will likely be the ones which raise the most money, organize their base for an effective turnout, make the strongest arguments to independent voters and do the best job defining their opponents in the most negative light.

Republicans are optimistic they are moving Iowa back into the GOP fold. Gov. Branstad's relatively easy victory last fall, the Republican takeover of the Iowa House and near capture of the Iowa Senate, along with the anticipated increased turnout brought on by the GOP presidential caucus, all leave Republicans with good reason to look ahead with some measure of confidence.

Iowa Republicans have increased voter registration numbers across the state every single month Obama has been President. In November 2008, Democrats held a 106,000 voter registration advantage. Today, that number has been slashed more than 70,000 with Democrats holding a much slimmer 645,963 to 610,155 lead.

Here is a rundown of the new districts and announced candidates:

First District

Bruce Braley

Waterloo Attorney Bruce Braley was first elected in 2006, defeating restaurateur and Harvard law school graduate Mike Whalen 55 percent to 43 percent in a spirited race. Braley was easily re-elected with 65 percent of the vote in 2008 but in 2010, survived a tea party scare from Independence attorney Ben Lange.

An11th-hour campaign of outside money shoveled $2 million into ads against Braley, and it almost knocked him out. He survived by a mere 4,209 votes. Had the Republicans ran a more mainstream candidate, like Whalen, they may have taken out an early favorite for a future U.S. Senate seat.

Despite the fact he is the most liberal member of the Iowa delegation, Braley gets high marks for his depth on policy matters and work representing his district. He serves on the Veteran's Affairs Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He is favored to be re-elected in 2012 and could be in an attractive position to take over the Harkin or Grassley Senate seat.

Steve Rathje

Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Rathje is the only announced candidate on the GOP side. He finished third in a Republican primary to face Tom Harkin in 2008 and lost another primary to face Dave Loebsack in 2010. Rathje sports a shotgun on his Facebook page and lists his "Likes and Interests" as Rush Limbaugh.

It's difficult to see how his candidacy will succeed in raising the necessary funds or attract independent support. The outside groups which nearly toppled Braley in 2010 will likely move their resources to more promising races in other districts.

To set himself up for a successful U.S. Senate race, Braley will need to raise larger sums of campaign funds and spend heavily next year in the Des Moines media market in order to introduce himself to Iowans in anticipation of a statewide race.

Second District

Dave Loebsack

Like Braley, Dave Loebsack was also elected in the 2006 class, upsetting long-time Congressman Jim Leach in a district which had skewed away from Leach in voter registration numbers. Loebsack's thin 2 percent win over Leach was followed up by two successive victories over Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who was recently appointed to run the Iowa Department of Health.

Loebsack has been given the golden snitch of political districts with Democrats holding a commanding 40,000 person voter registration edge over Republicans, making it the most heavily Democratic district in the state. His recent move to Johnson County solidifies a strong new base and makes him a more difficult target for the Republicans to defeat.

While Loebsack is still far down on the Democratic leadership chart while serving on the Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Education and Labor, if he prevails in 2012, he appears to only have time to increase his stature and effectiveness in Congress.

John Archer

Running against Loebsack is John Archer, who works as senior legal counsel in the corporate office of John Deere. He also serves on the Pleasant Valley School Board. He resides in Bettendorf, which is in the largest county in the new district and one which Loebsack has not previously represented.

Also announcing for the seat are Dan Dolan, a housing developer from Blue Grass, and Keokuk machinist and tea party organizer Richard Gates. Gates helped create a local 912 Patriot Group. That is Glen Beck's organization which pushes nine principles and 12 values, one of which states, "I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life."

The new district includes Scott County, where Republicans continue to make strong in-roads in voter registration and have been effective in electing local officials. Scott accounts for 23 percent of the district's voter registration totals.

Gov. Branstad won 20 of the 24 counties in this new district and former Congressman Jim Nussle easily won the majority of the district when he served in Washington. Despite the Democratic voter registration edge, Republicans believe they can win this new district. Their chances of success may largely depend on the economic situation next fall and on whether they nominate a strong candidate who appeals to independent voters in the new district.

Richard Gates Dan Dolan


Third District

Leonard Boswel

Republicans have a long history of under estimating Leonard Boswell. The former Vietnam pilot, farmer, state senator and nominee for Lt. Governor, Boswell has put together an impressive string of eight straight Congressional victories across two different districts against fairly well-funded GOP candidates. Boswell, who beat back a potential Christie Vilsack primary challenge in his new district, has the solid support of Sen. Tom Harkin and is a friend of the Clintons, who have helped him in the past and will likely return.

In some past races, Boswell has been endorsed by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, a significant accomplishment for a Democrat in Iowa. His work on the House Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees has benefitted farmers and brought home the bacon for his districts over the years. Boswell is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in the House.

Tom Latham

His opponent is Tom Latham, the senior Iowa member of the House of Representatives. Originally elected from his home in Alexander to the Fifth Congressional District in 1994, Latham moved to Ames in 2002 to run from the newly created Fourth District and is now moving again into the newly minted Third.

Democrats cannot figure out why they haven't been able to put a glove on the calm and collected Latham. The closest race they could muster was his 55 percent - 43 percent victory over former Gov. Vilsack's Chief of Staff, John Norris, in 2002. Otherwise, Latham has racked up impressive victories in the 60 percent range in nearly all of his nine races.

He gets high marks from the business community, the agriculture sector and from his recent representation of Iowa State University. He ranks ninth of 23 Republicans on the powerful Appropriations Committee and chairs the subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development. His personal friendship with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is well known.

Latham has thrown down the fundraising gauntlet, bringing in more than a half-million dollars in the last period to push his campaign account to a whopping $1.5 million, more than five times Boswell's total.

It has always been difficult to gauge Latham's political ambitions. Some thought he would challenge Harkin in 2008. Still others thought he would be a candidate for governor in 2010. Until his latest fundraising success, he has hardly looked overly aggressive about anything political. At the same time, he has made no political missteps and has enjoyed a carefully groomed political career.

Republicans are wasting little time going after Boswell. American Crossroads, a national conservative organization which includes Karl Rove as an advisor, recently announced a two-week media buy for advertisements attacking Boswell and nine other targeted Democrats. The group spent $70 million supporting Republicans in 2010 with the current advertising against Boswell estimated at $100,000.

Both Boswell and Latham have had success when switching districts. When Boswell faced his first re-districting in 2002, only 7 of the new 27 counties had been in his prior district. Despite that, he still went on to a comfortable 10 percent victory. Latham also switched districts in 2002, having previously represented half the counties of his new district. All he did was sweep all 28 counties on his way to an easy 12 percent win.

While the registration numbers in this district are nearly dead even, Gov. Branstad won every county in the district last year. The party which wins the White House next year may likely be the same party which wins this district.

Fourth District

Steve King

As much as Republicans underestimate Leonard Boswell, Democrats are guilty of the same when it comes to colorful Congressman Steve King. Democrats simply loathe the fact that King continues to win re-election. But they have been unable to do much about it. His margins of victory in his five races have been 62 percent to 38 percent, 63 percent to 37 percent, 57 percent to 35 percent, 60 percent to 37 percent, and 66 percent to 32 percent.

Democrats point out that he has never had such a strong challenger as Christie Vilsack promises to be and many Democratic activists are giddy about the prospect of ousting King. But Democratic enthusiasm should be strongly tempered by King's previous electoral success and the overwhelming Republican Party registration advantage in the new district.

Republicans hold a commanding 40,000 voter edge in registrations over the Democrats in the district. The new Fourth District will be 36 percent registered Republicans, 27.6 percent registered Democrats, with the remaining 36.3 percent independent voters. If the Republican base turns out for King, he only needs a relatively small portion of independents to get over the 50 percent mark.

Christie Vilsack

Vilsack should be favored in the urban areas, but the four largest cities in the district — Sioux City, Ames, Mason City, and Fort Dodge — are in counties which account for just one-third of the vote with Democrats holding a paltry 6,400 voter registration advantage. And, of the 39 counties in the new district, Gov. Branstad won all but Story and Floyd in 2010.

King has moved up the ladder in Congress, holding moderately powerful positions on the House Agriculture, Small Business, and Judiciary Committees. But he was thwarted by Speaker Boehner in his efforts to lead the subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, instead receiving the vice-chairmanship.

The National Review once labeled King, "The Great Right Hope," and it is his comments on immigration, race and social issues which have garnered him national attention and airtime on Fox News.

At a closed door meeting at the Iowa Statehouse, Tom Vilsack indicated his wife's campaign against King would be a "Holy War." Vilsack's remark conjured up images of the Crusades. While his wife quickly moved to quiet those comments, it seems clear this race could become nothing short of a 13th-Century blood bath.

A Holy War implies that social issues could be a focus of the campaign. But Democrats may not want to push the social card, as it's difficult to see how her liberal social views — abortion rights, gay rights, and immigration — will play in the predominately conservative district. Meandering off of economic issues may only make the hill harder to climb for Vilsack.

Democrats can point to a whole slew of "King-isms" in their assertion that his comments will drive the thinking voter into their corner. There certainly is a long list, such as his sponsorship of the God and Country bill which would have required Iowa schools to recognize the U.S. "has derived its strength from biblical values," or that if Obama was elected, "then the radical Islamists, the al-Qaida, the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on Sept. 11 because they will declare victory in this War on Terror."

But King can push back on some of these issues if need be. His sponsorship of Iowa's "English Only" bill was signed into law by Gov. Vilsack (who later called it a mistake which almost made him not seek re-election), and King won a court battle to remove bilingual voting forms from the Iowa Secretary of State's website.

King is comfortable in his ultra-conservative skin, and voters in his district don't seem to mind what Democrats view as embarrassing rants. Some Democrats think they can beat King by airing compilation commercials showing his various comments, but they might think again with voters in this largely rural, conservative district.

Christie Vilsack will raise the Democratic sword in the latest battle against King, and it will be a weighty and expensive sword indeed. Vilsack, who wanted to run from Polk County, was stymied by Boswell's firm instance that he would seek re-election and intended to take no primary prisoners. Vilsack was turned away from the Third like an intruder in the Boswell home.

Vilsack could have opted to run from her Mount Pleasant base in the new Second District, which looked to provide the easiest opportunity for victory. Many Democrats were puzzled that she chose not to stake her ground on her home turf in Henry County.

Loebsack was not an incumbent to the new district. Vilsack could have claimed the district was fair game. Her decision to, instead, take on a multi-term incumbent in a heavily Republican district has many scratching their heads.

Some leading Republicans have dismissed Vilsack chances in the district. They too should be wary of overconfidence. Christie Vilsack is a known quantity across the state and in the nation's Capitol. She is extremely personable, bright, and straightforward in her interactions with Iowans. She is energetic, a tireless campaigner and she may have a tremendous fundraising advantage, garnering the help of not only President Obama and the Obama network, but also former President Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Vilsack's first foray into fundraising yielded impressive results and she has already surpassed King's total. The Congressman has never raised large sums of campaign funds although he had a recent event with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is close friends with Michelle Bachmann, and could tap into the vast financial network created by his former chief of staff, Brenna Findley, in her recent race for state attorney general.

Most pundits thought Tom Vilsack couldn't win his first gubernatorial race in 1998, but he prevailed in the same manner with which Christie intends to run — raise enough money, work extremely hard, stay on message and finish like a thoroughbred that gallops from the back of the pack to the lead just at the finish line. They have done it before, and they may well do it again.

Vilsack's announcement focused on civility, responsibility and respect to solve the nation's problems. She said Iowans need to "lower our voices and lift our sights." But she also said "I'll do what it takes to win."

The race promises to be the loudest, most vicious and most unendurable of all four. Iowans may be willing to watch just about any reality show after the months of malicious commercials this race promises to unleash. Voters may want to check back on the civility thing, as it may give way to unbridled hostility.

This race has already garnered national attention (Politico, the DC-based newspaper, listed this as one of seven 2012 dream races) and has all the trappings of a donnybrook.

There is no early polling yet for any of the races, although Public Policy Polling conducted an April survey. The results measured favorable versus unfavorable ratings. Braley was +2 percent, Loebsack +5 percent, Boswell -2 percent, Latham +9 percent, King -7 percewnt, and Vilsack +15 percent.

The 2012 Congressional races have the real potential to further divide Iowa into urban versus rural and east versus west. Democrats are favored to capture the eastern Iowa First and Second districts. If Republicans can win the western Iowa Third and Fourth districts, Interstate 35 could essentially become the Berlin Wall of Iowa politics.

Just which side of the Interstate Iron Curtain is occupied by the Russians and which side the Americans is open for debate. CV

James Strohman lives in Ames and writes about Iowa government and politics.


First Congressional District

Democrat Bruce Braley, 53, Waterloo

Republican Steve Rathje, 55, Cedar Rapids

Number of Counties: 20

Registered Democrats: 170,077

Registered Republicans: 135,378

Registered No Party: 186,961

Braley has previously represented nine counties which account for 47.5 percent of the vote

Braley's National Journal ranking: 74th most liberal House member, 353rd most conservative House member

Cash on hand:



Second Congressional District

Democrat Dave Loebsack, 58, Iowa City

Republican John Archer, 39, Bettendorf

Republican Dan Dolan, 51, Blue Grass

Republican Richard Gates, 52, Keokuk

Number of Counties: 24

Registered Democrats: 178,582

Registered Republicans: 139,189

Registered No-Party: 183,595

Loebsack has previously represented 14 counties which account for 53.1 percent of the vote

Loebsack's National Journal ranking: 104th most liberal House member, 324th most conservative House member

Cash on hand:





Third Congressional District

Democrat Leonard Boswell, 77, Des Moines

Republican Tom Latham, 63, likely Dallas County

Number of Counties: 16

Registered Democrats: 161,727

Registered Republicans: 158,503

Registered No-Party: 148,793

Boswell has previously represented 7 counties which account for 67.3 percent of the vote

Latham has previously represented 3 counties which account for 17.8 percent of the vote

Boswell's National Journal ranking: 153rd most liberal House member, 274th most conservative House member

Latham's National Journal ranking: 295th most liberal House member, 133rd most conservative House member

Cash on hand:



Fourth Congressional District

Republican Steve King, 62, Kiron

Democrat Christie Vilsack, 61, Ames

Number of Counties: 39

Registered Democrats: 135,511

Registered Republicans: 176,290

Registered No-Party: 177,331

King has previously represented 18 counties which account for 45.8 percent of the vote

King's National Journal ranking: 392nd most liberal House member, 35th most conservative House member

Cash on hand:



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