Iowa's first Congressional district race was long assumed to be safely in the Democratic column. Two-term incumbent Bruce Braley won by a 25-point margin in 2008, outperforming President Barack Obama in the district. No well-known Republican stepped forward to challenge Braley in 2010, and as of July, the incumbent had more than six times as much cash on hand as Ben Lange, the little-known attorney from Independence who won the Republican primary.
Lange's campaign has produced some web videos with a generic message: Braley increased the national debt, voted for bailouts, "Obamacare," the "failed stimulus," and supports House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 98 percent of the time.
Lange's website and web advertising portray the national debt as a huge threat to our national security. But the former Congressional staffer to a Minnesota Republican seems to have little grasp of the federal budget. He wants to replace our current income tax structure with two tax brackets: everyone making less than $125,000 per year would pay 10 percent in income taxes, while everyone over that threshold would pay 25 percent. I would love to see the Congressional Budget Office estimate on how much that plan would add to the deficit over 10 years. I couldn't find any details on Lange's website about spending he would cut to pay for his tax plan while balancing the budget. He has asserted (wrongly) that "unspent bank bailout and stimulus funds, as well as a freeze on federal hiring and pay increases," would cover the $3.7 trillion it would cost over 10 years to extend all of George W. Bush's tax cuts and fix the alternative minimum tax. He claims (wrongly) that the health insurance reform bill didn't address the Medicare reimbursement formula.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Lange doesn't seem ready for prime time. Nor can he afford much of what would raise his name recognition in the district, such as direct mail, radio and television advertising.
Lange has something most unheralded Congressional challengers don't have, however: a 501(c)4 group willing to spend roughly a million dollars on his behalf. The American Future Fund began television advertising against Braley last month and has reserved another $800,000 in advertising time before the November election. The group has also paid for robocalls and direct mail to district voters, attacking Braley's record. Last week the American Future Fund's PAC formally endorsed Lange, gave his campaign $5,000, and launched a 60-second radio ad hitting Braley on the usual Republican talking points (read the ad script here).
Unsolicited advice for Lange: when you're benefiting from a million dollars in outside spending by people who won't say where they get their money, it's not wise to accuse your opponent of taking too many campaign donations from outside the district.
Braley didn't fundraise heavily during the first half of the year, probably assuming he didn't have a serious challenger. He now faces the prospect of being outspent between Labor Day and election day. Without the American Future Fund in this race, it would probably be sufficient for Braley to run a standard incumbent campaign with positive advertising. He could tout the more popular elements of financial reform, consumer credit card protections, health insurance reform and federal fiscal aid to Iowa. Braley was a key architect of the "Cash for Clunkers" program, which stimulated hundreds of thousands of new car sales last year. He also was a leading advocate of the "plain language" bill the House has passed twice, which finally got Senate approval on September 27.
Now Braley has to balance defending his own record with responding to the American Future Fund's attack ads. Lange can sit back and be the generic Republican on the ballot.
In recent weeks, Braley has tried to taint Lange by association with the American Future Fund, which doesn't disclose its donors and has a sleazy ad consultant. Braley's campaign has also accused Lange of illegally coordinating campaign activities with the 501(c)4 group. I don't know how they could prove that, because Republican candidates around the country are using the same kind of rhetoric we've heard from Lange. It's not as if the American Future Fund came up with a unique set of talking points against Braley.
I haven't seen any internal polling on this race, so I don't know whether Lange is in striking distance. A poll commissioned by the American Future Fund found Braley ahead of Lange by 50 percent to 39 percent, and by 47.1 percent to 42.7 percent among the most likely voters. I also don't know the margin by which Democratic Governor Chet Culver and U.S. Senate candidate Roxanne Conlin are trailing their opponents in the first Congressional district; that would affect Braley's prospects too.
Share any thoughts on the IA-01 race in this thread.
UPDATE: The American Future Fund's latest television commercial against Braley is after the jump.