Iowa Republicans are deluding themselves if they think Representative Leonard Boswell is highly vulnerable this year. The more I see of the Republican primary campaigns, the less worried I am about holding Iowa’s third Congressional district in the Democratic column.
Four of the seven Republicans running against Boswell have no chance of winning the nomination. Jason Welch hasn’t attended any candidate forums, and I wonder why he went to the trouble of qualifying for the ballot. Pat Bertroche and Scott Batcher are ill-informed sideshows who will be lucky to win 5 percent of the vote. Mark Rees seems to have the firmest grasp of the issues, but there aren’t enough moderate Republicans anymore for someone like Rees to win a primary. Rees could affect the election, because a strong showing for him (10 to 20 percent of the vote) would increase the chance that no candidate receives at least 35 percent in the primary. But whether Republicans pick a winner on June 8 or at a district convention later, Rees will not be Boswell’s general election opponent.
That leaves the Washington establishment candidate Jim Gibbons, State Senator Brad Zaun and tea party favorite Dave Funk. After watching yesterday’s forum featuring six of Boswell’s opponents, Graham Gillette argued that Funk, Gibbons and Zaun “are all capable of putting together a strong general election effort.” After the jump I explain why I disagree.
Whenever I read about a Gibbons public appearance, I get the impression he has no idea what he’s talking about. I already knew he was ignorant about fiscal and economic policy. At yesterday’s candidate forum, the Republicans were asked whether there was any provision in the new federal health care reform that they would keep. Today’s Des Moines Register published Gibbons’ response:
We need to really take a look at untangling insurance from employment. What that would look like is you would have a plan that stays with you the rest of your life… We were moving in that direction, but the government steps and basically becomes the 800-pound gorilla in the room and now we all have to adjust to that.”
Understating things a bit, Kathie Obradovich found Gibbons’ comment “hard to fathom.” Gibbons knows nothing about our current health insurance system if he thinks we were trending away from employer-provided insurance. If you want people to be able to keep one insurance policy for their whole lives, that would require more government regulation than the new law contains, not less. Opening up Medicare for any American who wants to buy into the program would be the simplest way to achieve Gibbons’ stated goal; other alternatives would require new rules for employers and/or insurers.
Boswell isn’t the biggest policy wonk in the Iowa delegation, but he will look like a genius next to Gibbons.
Gibbons has raised an impressive amount of money in the past six months and will run more radio and television ads than any other candidate before June 8, but it takes more than money to win an election. Gibbons might not even win the primary. Many people in the Des Moines area expect the nominee to be Zaun.
Zaun is the most experienced campaigner in the Republican field, and he has support from part of the Iowa Republican establishment, but he doesn’t have a firm grasp of the issues. For instance, he wasn’t aware that the health insurance reform law prohibits denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, beginning in 2014. Asked if there were any provisions in that law he would keep, Zaun answered, “There’s nothing in the health care bill that I like. I don’t like the government taking over my health care decisions.” Boswell will be able to point to many benefits for central Iowans in the current law; money for hospitals, subsidies for small businesses, allowing adult children to remain on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, and so on.
Also, it’s one thing for Zaun to campaign against earmarks in a Republican primary, but bringing money to your district tends to be popular, and Boswell has a long list of Iowa projects he’s helped support through federal funding.
Funk speaks clearly at the candidate forums, but like his Republican rivals, he isn’t always well-informed. For instance, he thinks lowering taxes is the best way to get businesses to stop hiring illegal immigrants.
Funk’s central campaign themes seem way outside the mainstream. If he wins the nomination (which could happen if it goes to a district convention), he will talk about abolishing the Department of Education, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, while Boswell can describe dozens of good programs those agencies support in Iowa. According to Funk, federal agencies not mentioned in the constitution have no authority to exist, but if we extend that logic, we would need to abolish the FBI, NASA and many more agencies. (Funk counters that the FBI relates to national defense, but the FBI is a law enforcement agency, and one could argue that the framers of the constitution deliberately left law enforcement to local governments.)
Funk has taken a few shots at the front-runners, but hasn’t always hit his mark. At the recent Des Moines Tea Party forum he criticized Zaun for supporting an anti-bullying bill in the State Senate. It speaks well of Zaun he defended his vote on that bill, saying kids shouldn’t be bullied. (Not that Zaun is a civil rights hero; he opposes marriage equality and voted against adding sexual orientation to the civil rights bill in 2007.) I also think Funk is overdoing it on the Gibbons residency issue. The fact that Gibbons leases an apartment in Des Moines while his family remains in Perry is not going to be the deciding factor in this election.
Boswell will begin the general election campaign with a big financial advantage no matter who wins the GOP nomination, but Zaun and Funk would be particularly hard-pressed for money. A Gibbons loss in the primary would humiliate many Iowa major donors and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Perhaps the Gibbons supporters would pony up large contributions to Zaun or Funk, but I doubt it. I wouldn’t expect help from the NRCC either.
In fact, even if Gibbons wins the nomination, I stand by my prediction that national Republicans won’t spend heavily against Boswell. The NRCC is running way behind its Democratic counterpart in terms of cash on hand. IA-03 is far from a top-tier pickup opportunity for Republicans. Analysts outside Iowa have characterized it as the 52nd most vulnerable Democratic-held seat, or the 64th most vulnerable by a different methodology. Given that Iowa will lose a Congressional district in the next cycle, any Republican who beats Boswell would probably end up facing Representative Tom Latham in a 2012 GOP primary.
If the NRCC does invest in the race against Boswell, I don’t think their blah blah blah Nancy Pelosi blah blah blah liberal message will resonate. Yesterday Democrat Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns by 53 percent to 45 percent in Pennsylvania’s 12th district. John McCain won that district by 8 points, and President Obama’s approval has been measured at 33 percent there. The NRCC ran a typical Republican campaign against “Obamacare” and Nancy Pelosi, but they fell short—way short—in a district that should be much more favorable to them than IA-03. (Obama’s approval is close to 50 percent here, and our unemployment rate is much lower than in Pennsylvania.) In the closing days of the PA-012 race, President Bill Clinton campaigned for Critz and mocked the Republican message: “Maybe [Burns] should move to California, if he wants to run against Nancy Pelosi.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see President Clinton in Iowa later this year if Boswell needs his help. Boswell endorsed Hillary Clinton before the 2008 caucuses and vowed to stick with her as a superdelegate when she was still battling Obama for the Democratic nomination.
Your thoughts on the race in Iowa’s third district are welcome in this thread.