IA-02 roundup: Miller-Meeks knocking on the glass ceiling

For your "no one could have predicted" file: going into today's election, Mariannette Miller-Meeks is the Iowa Republican U.S. House challenger considered to have the best chance of winning. When she announced plans to run in the second Congressional district again last year, I thought she was way too conservative to have a shot against two-term incumbent Dave Loebsack. IA-02 has a partisan lean of D+7, and Miller-Meeks received less than 40 percent of the vote in 2008. For months the district was considered safely Democratic, while Iowa's third Congressional district was rated a tossup.

Loebsack is still favored to win a third term, according to most election forecasters. The early vote numbers look strong for Democrats in his district. That said, Miller-Meeks has a realistic chance to become the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa, especially if Democratic House losses are on the high end of forecasts (60 to 80 seats).

Follow me after the jump for more on how Miller-Meeks and Loebsack have appealed to voters since the last time Bleeding Heartland discussed this race in detail.

Miller-Meeks' case against Loebsack resembles what many Republican challengers are saying around the country. In campaign appearances and on television, she has criticized the incumbent's votes for the stimulus bill, the cap and trade climate change bill, health care reform, and the Wall Street bailouts. Her closing argument to voters repackages those themes:

My transcript:

Female voice-over: Dave Loebsack: more lies and distortions. Why? [photo of Loebsack, big red words on screen, "MORE LIES!! DAVE LOEBSACK DISTORTIONS!!"]

Loebsack wasted 1 trillion of our tax dollars in failed stimulus [words on screen: "DAVE LOEBSACK $1 TRILLION WASTED"]

that created jobs in China [map of China with Communist flag colors and stars; words on screen "DAVE LOEBSACK OUR JOBS TO CHINA," with arrow pointing toward China]

and gave hundreds of millions to Wall Street fat cats. [Wall St sign, hand holding a lit cigar, words on screen "DAVE LOEBSACK $165 MILLION IN BONUSES"]

Loebsack voted for an energy tax that will kill jobs, cost you $1300 a year. [words on screen: "DAVE LOEBSACK ENERGY TAX," then "DAVE LOEBSACK KILL 30,000 JOBS," then "$1300 TAX INCREASE"]

And now Loebsack says higher taxes and Medicare cuts are on the table. ["DAVE LOEBSACK HIGHER TAXES MEDICARE CUTS"]

November second, Fix Congress: Fire Loebsack. ["NOVEMBER 2ND FIX CONGRESS  FIRE LOEBSACK"]

Miller-Meeks: I'm Mariannette Miller-Meeks, and I approved this message. [photo of Miller-Meeks, campaign logo, words "Create jobs Cut Spending Lower Taxes MillerMeeks.com" on screen]

It's neither subtle nor original, but that wouldn't bother me if the commercial were accurate. Miller-Meeks is wrong about the stimulus bill. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act cost less than $800 billion (not $1 trillion), and much of that went toward tax cuts. The stimulus spending wasn't "wasted"; it saved many public sector jobs and indirectly helped retail and service industries, as unemployed people received extended benefits. Public works projects have created construction jobs too. While the stimulus didn't instantly fix the economy, it added to GDP and prevented steeper employment losses.

The climate change bill died in the Senate, but even if it were enacted, it would not impose a so-called $1300 "energy tax" on Iowa families. Bleeding Heartland discussed that here in connection with Miller-Meeks' opening tv ad.

Loebsack has pledged to vote for extending most of the Bush tax cuts and (to my dismay) hasn't ruled out extending them even for top 2 percent of incomes.

Miller-Meeks started running a new radio ad last week featuring her 80-year-old mother. I haven't found the script online and don't live in the listening area. Bleeding Heartland readers who have heard the commercial are encouraged to post comments about its content and/or whether you find the commercial effective. Normally I'm not a fan of the cute political ad featuring family members, but maybe Miller-Meeks' mother could inspire women voters to help her daughter make history.

Miller-Meeks has been working hard around the district all year and has probably met far more voters face to face than Loebsack. Her campaign has done some creative things too, like having a small plane fly an "Elect Iowa's first Congresswoman" banner above Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City during the Iowa Hawkeyes' October 30 football game.

Miller-Meeks received $85,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee but no media buy from them. She hasn't received as much help from outside groups as many other Republicans, probably because IA-02 was never considered one of the GOP's top pickup opportunities. For the past few weeks, however, the American Future Fund ran a commercial targeting Loebsack as well as first district incumbent Bruce Braley. The commercial blamed Loebsack and Braley for going home "instead of stopping a huge tax hike for Iowa families."

Transcript by PoliticalCorrection.org:

Home sweet home. It's where you go after a hard day's work. Or for Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack, where they run, instead of doing their jobs. Braley and Loebsack voted for trillions we can't afford and millions in job-killing taxes. And with the biggest tax hike in history looming, Braley and Loebsack voted to go home instead of stopping a huge tax hike for Iowa families. Maybe we should just send them home - for good. American Future Fund is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Just about every assertion in this ad is false. PoliticalCorrection.org provides the details and supporting evidence. Loebsack made clear many times that he wanted Congress to vote on extending the Bush tax cuts before the election. He also has called for keeping lower tax rates for all but the wealthiest taxpayers.

After going negative on Miller-Meeks in early October, Loebsack's campaign shifted to a positive message for the final days. Loebsack swept the major newspaper endorsements this year: Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register, Ottumwa Courier, Burlington Hawk-eye, and the student newspaper at the University of Iowa, and his closing argument incorporated some of those endorsements, along with some of the themes from his opening tv ad. This spot went on the air a week before election day:

Loebsack: I'm Dave Loebsack, and I approve this message.

Male voice-over: He pulled himself up from poverty and worked as a janitor. Put himself through college. It's why Dave Loebsack will never stop fighting for us. [footage of Loebsack walking in a farm field, talking with voters, speaking at a campaign event]

To close tax loopholes for corporations outsourcing jobs. [Loebsack speaking to small crowd, words on screen "CLOSE TAX LOOPHOLES FOR OUTSOURCING JOBS   DAVE LOEBSACK"]

And instead help small business create Iowa jobs. [Loebsack talks to woman in what looks like a science lab; words on screen "CREATE IOWA SMALL BUSINESS JOBS   DAVE LOEBSACK"]

The Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Register endorsed Loebsack: "bipartisan" and "relentless" in working for Iowa communities devastated by the floods. ["BIPARTISAN" "RELENTLESS" ENDORSED BY CEDAR RAPIDS GAZETTE DES MOINES REGISTER OTTUMWA COURIER DAVE LOEBSACK]

Dave Loebsack will always stand up for what's right. [audience from earlier scene applaud Loebsack, words on screen "DAVE LOEBSACK FOR CONGRESS"]

This commercial isn't anything special, but it is smart for Loebsack to emphasize work he has done focused on the second district. That refutes Miller-Meeks' talk about how Loebsack is nothing more than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's puppet. In interviews and stump speeches, Loebsack has tried to focus on future plans to create jobs:

Loebsack touts the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success Act, which would cultivate partnerships between community colleges and potential employers. He's also pushing a bill to give employers a tax break for hiring recently unemployed workers.

One reason Loebsack could stay positive toward the end is the intervention by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which wasn't anticipated even two months ago. The DCCC started spending money in IA-02 in mid-October and launched a second television commercial here last week:

My transcript:

Male voice over: Mariannette Miller-Meeks. She comes with strings attached. [Puppet with large Miller-Meeks head and skinny wood-like body drops onto a stage; a curtain in the background reads Mariannette Miller-Meeks]

See, Mariannette is exactly what you'd think: a special interest puppet. [strings make the puppet dance around on stage, words on screen SPECIAL INTEREST PUPPET]

She wants to reduce federal income taxes for corporations to zero. [shot of high-rise buildings in background, photo of Miller-Meeks in foreground, words "REDUCE CORPORATE TAXES TO ZERO" and "MARIANNETTE MILLER-MEEKS" on screen. In smaller letters, source given is Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4/08/08.]

While slapping hard-working Iowa families with a 23 percent national sales tax [Miller-Meeks photo in foreground, country road with silos in background; words on screen "23% NATIONAL SALES TAX" and "MARIANNETTE MILLER-MEEKS". In smaller letters,  source given is Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4/08/08.]

on groceries, gas, even medicine. [back to the cartoon stage, where easel holds pictures of groceries, old-fashioned car and prescription medicine containers]

Mariannette Miller-Meeks--what a puppet. It's time to cut her loose. [Puppet animation of Miller-Meeks dances around on stage, then strings are cut and puppet falls off the stage. Words on screen: MARIANNETTE MILLER-MEEKS A puppet we can't afford.]

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

This has to be the worst DCCC commercial I've seen all year, which is saying something. A sneering male voice takes cheap shots at Miller-Meeks' name, while the animation could hardly be more belittling. I strongly disagree with Miller-Meeks' "fair tax" idea, but she is an accomplished woman, not a puppet. The Republican establishment didn't want her to win the 2008 primary and recruited the hapless Rob Gettemy in a last-ditch effort to stop her from winning this year's primary. She has largely self-funded her general election campaign, as opposed to other Republican challengers who are being carried by outside groups.

Disclosure forms show the DCCC has spent about $578,000 in IA-02, but I truly feel Loebsack would be better off if this commercial had never aired. It's not kind for Miller-Meeks to mock Loebsack as "Pelosi's puppet," but as we all learned in kindergarten, two wrongs don't make a right. I'll be shocked if the ad doesn't drive more women to vote for Miller-Meeks. The average viewer is not going to realize that Loebsack's campaign can't coordinate with the DCCC and doesn't control the content of the advertising.

Miller-Meeks would need a strong showing among women and independent voters to beat Loebsack, even in a Republican year. The election forecasters all see this race tilting toward Loebsack. Tim Sahd's final House rankings for the National Journal see IA-02 as the 75th most likely district to change hands. In other words, Loebsack would be expected to survive even a 1994-scale GOP landslide. Miller-Meeks has touted three Republican internal polls, one just last week, that that show her within a point of Loebsack. As far as I know, there have not been any public polls of the race. I'm skeptical about the Miller-Meeks internals partly because her campaign declined to release details about the sample and questionnaire. In addition, Washington-based forecasters would be rating this district a tossup if they saw polling supporting the topline numbers Miller-Meeks has released. The DCCC spending suggests that they still see Loebsack as potentially vulnerable, though.

Miller-Meeks is upbeat about her chances, in part because she sees voters more open to Republicans now:

Two years ago, Republicans were discouraged and independents were indifferent, even hostile. Miller-Meeks recalls GOP floats in parades being boo-ed.

"The mood is much more positive," said Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist who has put her practice on hold while campaigning. "People are more willing to engage and interact even if you're not of their party."

Many politicians lose their first Congressional race but win their second (Tom Harkin comes to mind). Miller-Meeks sees advantages in being a repeat challenger:

One, I'm a more knowledgeable candidate.  You learn from your mistakes and you go forward...I have better name recognition than I did before.  I'm not working, which prevented me from getting to areas I need to be...Our grassroots network and support is much more expansive than it was '08 and I think all of those things lead to better outcome.

Whether or not Miller-Meeks breaks through Iowa's glass ceiling tonight, she doesn't sound ready to give up on politics. Speaking to Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson in September, she said,

But I think people that are resourceful -- and given my background in the military, you improvise, you adapt and I think there's going to be other things and other challenges for me as I go ahead.  I recently was described by one of my previous professors at the University of Iowa who said to me: 'Mariannette, I've finally figured you out.  You climb to the top of one ladder and instead of getting to the top and looking down, you see the bottom rung of another ladder.'  So there's going to be another ladder for me so regardless of the outcome of the election, I'm looking forward to whatever phase of my life is going to be beyond this, and then taking on that challenge."

I hope Loebsack holds on, but I give Miller-Meeks a lot of credit for winning her primary decisively and making a district like this one competitive. If Wapello County were in Iowa's third district, she would probably be beating Leonard Boswell right now.

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