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The Republican voter registration advantage in IA-04 has always been one of Vilsack's biggest obstacles. According to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State's office, the 39 counties in IA-04 contain 131,917 Democrats, 182,313 Republicans, and 174,857 no-party voters. Vilsack needs exceptional Democratic turnout and a huge lead among independents to make up for King's support among the hard-core conservatives of northwest Iowa.
The early voting numbers indicate that Democrats have turned out at a proportionally higher rate than Republicans in this district. As of November 5, county auditors in IA-04 had received 55,501 ballots from registered Democrats, 60,089 from Republicans, and 38,722 from no-party voters. Even though Republicans are more inclined to vote on election day, King should have been able to build up a bigger lead there.
Vilsack's campaign has released internal polls showing a close race in IA-04. Most recently, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner's survey taken October 24 and 25 showed "a statistical dead heat (48 percent King, 46 percent Vilsack), with Independent [candidate Martin James] Monroe receiving 2 percent of the vote."
Among early voters, a more Democratic group reflecting Democratic strength on the ground, Vilsack leads King 50 to 39 percent. (Ten percent refused to say who they supported.)
Steve King draws his highest negative personal appeal score we have seen this year (now 39 percent negative, up from 30 percent from last May). Among women, 42 percent react negatively, just 33 are favorably disposed toward the Republican. Similarly, his job performance ratings are very mixed at 44 percent positive, 43 percent negative. Fully 31 percent, nearly a third of this electorate, describe his work in office as "poor".
King has not been able to put the race away more than a year after Vilsack announced her candidacy. GOP internal polling shows a single-digit race with King picking up less than 50 percent of the vote. This week, one plugged-in national Republican privately named King as one of the five GOP incumbents most likely to not return to Congress next year.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appeared to be less convinced, announcing in early October that the DCCC had canceled its remaining IA-04 media buy. On the other hand, the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super-PAC, upped its spending against King during the final week of the campaign, suggesting it did not consider the race a lost cause.
In effect, Vilsack has tried to convey three things to voters: the kind of person she is, the kind of person King is, and the policies she wants to implement on behalf of constituents.
After watching or listening to most of the seven Vilsack-King debates, as well as all of her television commercials and many other campaign messages, I think she was far more successful in pressing the first two arguments than the third.
Vilsack's opening television commercial, discussed here, contrasted her desire to work together to solve problems with the way some politicians "scramble to the TV cameras to stir the pot." During every debate, she presented herself as a person who can contribute to finding a compromise on some of the big issues facing the country. For example, during the Iowa Public Television debate:
I think that there are times in a nation's history when you need people who are resolute and who dig their heels in, but I don't think this is that time. I think it was said best by a man who approached me at the Greene County Fair, who said I'm not a democrat, I'm a republican, I'm an American and I wish Congress would start acting like they're Americans too. And I want to go to Congress as an American and as a problem solver, not as a partisan fighter.
Her closing statement from the same debate hit on the same theme:
I think that I'm the kind of person who is a problem solver, not a partisan fighter. I want to expand the definition of being a congressperson to being a spokesperson for my state. I think I'm the kind of person - if you were going to hire somebody to be a spokesperson, you would hire somebody who could speak to all different sides of an issue who could bring disparate groups together and go out around the country and explain what we do here, that we do take care of our animals, that we are stewards of the land, and that we - and I could explain why biofuels and wind are important to the economy and the whole country. I think I can be a spokesperson in a way that Congressman King can't because it's so controversial.
One of the Vilsack campaign's most effective commercials was this radio spot featuring the legendary former Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger. It started running on October 10:
Chuck Offenburger: I'm Chuck Offenburger - the Iowa Boy and a long-time Republican. But, in this election, I'm endorsing Christie Vilsack for Congress.
Christie and I don't agree on everything. But I admire her solid Iowa values. She respects people with opposing views and is willing to listen.
More than that, Christie has always been a problem-solver, not a partisan fighter. She thinks that getting things done is more important than what political party you belong to.
From expanding literacy to providing more economic opportunity in small towns and rural areas -- and even to reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies -- Christie has been able to work with Iowans of all persuasions.
And don't we need a little more of that in Congress today?
So I hope you'll join this long-time, active Iowa Republican in putting partisanship aside and voting for Christie Vilsack.
Thanks for your time.
Christie Vilsack: I'm Christie Vilsack, candidate for U.S. Congress, and I approve this message. Paid for by Christie Vilsack for Iowa, Inc.
Even King's admirers have to admit that he will never be the guy who gets people together in a room to solve a problem. He will always be the guy screaming outside the room, trying to scuttle the compromise.
Three weeks ago, the Vilsack campaign launched this commercial, featuring excerpts from President Bill Clinton's speech on her behalf at a Sioux City rally.
President Bill Clinton: There are so many Republicans supporting Christie Vilsack for Congress because she is a practical problem solver.
She has got a good set of practical proposals, she's got a great head on her shoulders.
And I'm just telling you, you're not going to have many chances in your life to vote for somebody who knows as much, who's lived through as much, who's done as much and can do as much for you as Christie Vilsack.
Not right, not left, forward. That's Christie Vilsack!
Christie Vilsack: I'm Christie Vilsack and I approve this message.
I've continued to see that commercial even in the last couple of days on Des Moines television. I wish they'd run it more often, but they've been alternating with one of Vilsack's negative spots on King instead.
The flip side of "I'm a reasonable, practical problem solver" is "he's an extreme, ineffective partisan fighter." During debates, Vilsack repeatedly referred to King's sparse record of legislative accomplishments. (King responds that he focuses on passing amendments to other people's bills instead of shepherding his own bills through Congress.) She pressed him on failing to solve the national debt problem. For instance, during the debate hosted by WOI-TV in Ames, King warned that we can't keep borrowing from China. Vilsack countered that the debt is higher now than when King went to Congress, and that he'd supported tax cuts, Medicare Part D, and two wars without paying for them.
"I'm sitting in a position where I expect to be on the [farm bill] conference committee and we'll have a voice of Iowa there when we hammer the last bill out," King said.
Vilsack replied: "I don't think that you're going to be on a conference committee. You haven't shown leadership in other situations either and I don't think you're going to show leadership here."
Vilsack suggested there was a reason King was the only member of Iowa's congressional delegation who did not sign a petition calling for a vote in the House on the Farm Bill.
"I think there are $136,000 reasons why he didn't do that and those are the dollars that he is receiving from the Club for Growth," Vilsack said.
Vilsack spent a lot of her campaign fund on commercials trying to convince voters that King doesn't represent Iowa well. "Speak" was her third ad, which started running in mid-September:
Vilsack's voice I'm Christie Vilsack, and I approve this message.
Male voice-over: Here in Iowa, we work HARD to pay the bills. So why doesn't Steve King SEE it?
Congressman King says jobless benefits create "a nation of slackers."
He says "working age" should include seniors who are seventy-FOUR.
And he'd slap Iowans with a twenty-THREE percent sales tax - sending the cost of gas, groceries, and medicine SOARING.
If King can't see the middle class struggle, how can he speak for US?
Generic ad in content and style. I'm skeptical that compiling King's "greatest hits" will win over voters, although these ads may have helped drive up King's negatives.
Vilsack's campaign backed up the assertions in "Speak" with quotations from King. He objects to how his challenger portrays the "fair tax," because under that plan, a national sales tax (more accurately a value-added tax) would replace income taxes. Still, independent analysis confirms that the "fair tax" would increase the burden on most middle-income Americans while reducing taxes on the very wealthy.
Vilsack's fourth ad drew a contrast between Republican policies on Medicare and her promise to preserve that program in its current form. "Protect" went up during the last week of September.
Male voice-over: Who can Iowans trust on Medicare?
Steve King voted for a budget the Wall Street Journal says would essentially end Medicare as we know it. For future retirees, King's plan would replace guaranteed benefits with vouchers.
AARP opposes the voucher scheme, which analysts say could cost seniors over six thousand [dollars] a year.
Christie Vilsack will protect guaranteed benefits. An iron-clad commitment to keep the Medicare promise.
Vilsack's voice: I'm Christie Vilsack, and I approve this message.
King's campaign questioned the accuracy of this ad, but he did vote for Paul Ryan's budget in April 2011. It is accurate to say that the Republican plan would end guaranteed benefits for future retirees.
With so many commercials back and forth on Medicare, I doubt many minds were changed on the issue.
The final Vilsack television commercial ditched the narrator altogether. Other than the "I approve" message at the beginning, there are no spoken words in this ad, just words and images on the screen while somber music plays. "Not Iowa" went up on October 21 and continued running right up to election day.
Vilsack's voice: I'm Christie Vilsack, and I approve this message.
[viewer sees blurry black and white picture of Steve King, words on screen Who is Steve King?]
[He compared immigrants to livestock and dogs. The Hill 7/13/06 Des Moines Register 5/22/12 ]
[Compared torture of Iraqi prisoners to college "hazing." Associated Press 5/14/04]
[Says opposing Hurricane Katrina relief was "the best vote that I cast." The Hill, 9/22/09]
King's picture begins to come into focus. [Called efforts against sexual harassment "a terrible concept." Slate.com, 11/02/11]
[Said the Violence Against Women Act interferes "in the relationship of marriage." Draft Rules Committee Transcript 9/27/05]
King's picture is finally in sharp focus. [That's Steve King. Not Iowa.]
While I doubt the "highlight reel" is the best weapon against King, the technique was used in an effective way here. I didn't like this commercial as much as the Bill Clinton spot, but it did make King look bad.
I've said of one of her previous commercials that by the time I eliminated the questions and the misstatements and the dishonesty, the only thing left was "I'm Christie Vilsack and I approved this message." This one actually has in it, though, the one statement that is true, and the rest are false. The one that is true is a statement that I made about the vote on Hurricane Katrina. I believe that was $51.8 billion. I said that there will be all kinds of wasted funds. There's no plan to spend it. I got beaten up on by many of the newspapers around, but I stood on that and I said it's a principled vote and it will be easier to defend every day. As a matter of fact, here is King was right, that's the Sioux City Journal's response to that after they saw what happened when I voted no on Katrina funding. So I'll stand on what's true. The balance of that is false. But this was a good vote. I've had several better ones since then, and that is the repeal voting against Obamacare - voting for the repeal of Obamacare, voting against cap and trade, voting against Dodd Frank. Those were all better votes from a big policy perspective. But that was a good principled vote that I put up and the rest of those allegations are false.
The third prong of Vilsack's case was advancing a non-controversial policy agenda with a strong local focus on educational and employment opportunities for Iowa's small towns and rural areas. From where I'm sitting, she was much less successful on this front. You can't run as a policy-focused candidate when you repeatedly refuse to take a clear stand on some issues. King exploited this weakness of Vilsack's well in his early commercials and continued to do so in the final weeks, as we'll see below.
Two of Vilsack's tv ads presented the "policy" side of her candidacy. During the Democratic National Convention, she launched the "Potluck" ad.
Christie Vilsack speaking to the camera: When I go to a potluck, I like to bring a seven-layer salad. Lettuce, onion, bacon, peas - there's something for just about everybody.
We need to create layers of economic opportunity to rebuild our middle class - expanding access to Head Start and community college; cutting wasteful spending to create jobs; targeting tax relief to small businesses instead of millionaires.
Please read my ideas for strengthening small town Iowa.
I'm Christie Vilsack and I approved this message.
Note the combination of conservative catch phrases (cutting wasteful spending, targeting "tax relief" to business) with progressive ideals (Head Start, community college, letting tax breaks for millionaires expire). However, this ad doesn't work for me. The "something for everyone" approach isn't very convincing when your opponent's main selling point is always standing up for what he believes.
Vilsack returned to her policy ideas during a commercial called "Plan," which started running on October 8.
Vilsack speaking to camera: I've spent my whole life as a teacher, trying to ensure that our children have the knowledge and skills to succeed. And as Iowa's first lady, I got to know many of you as we worked to improve literacy and college-readiness across our state.
Iowans want problem-solvers representing us, not just partisan fighters. And nothing is more important than creating economic opportunity, so our children can stay in Iowa, and raise their own families here.
I hope you'll log on to ChristieVilsackforIowa.com. I'm Christie Vilsack, and I approve this message.
I like that Vilsack read the script herself, rather than relying on a professional narrator. She did squeeze in the "problem solver, not partisan fighter" line too. But this ad doesn't leave the viewer with an impression of her plan for creating economic opportunity.
King's closing arguments
I feel that this year's political advertising was generally poor on both sides of the spectrum. In contrast, King's commercials were solid, with a unified look and feel. Bleeding Heartland covered King's early television and radio ads here. Three more hit television screens across the district during the past few weeks. "On the Brink" went on the air October 11.
[Viewer sees protest marches, words on screen "...8 billion shortfall in Illinois budget" (Associated Press 4/27/11)
King, speaking to camera: With Europe crumbling; Illinois and California on the brink. And debt crushing our economy. This isn't the time to spend and tax us more.
We need less spending and more jobs. [words on screen Less spending. More jobs.]
How hard can that be to understand?
Mr. President, come home with me to Iowa. We'll show you how to make a dollar work hard.
I'm Steve King and I approve this message.
King's wrong about the relationship between government spending and job creation, but unfortunately, this looks like an effective ad to me. Many people believe that cutting government spending will magically create jobs.
"Choice" was probably the least successful King ad, because it reverted to the scary voice-over technique.
Male voice-over: Christie Vilsack, Nancy Pelosi, Labor unions and radical animal rights groups are spending millions trying to defeat Steve King. Cause that's what liberals do.
Governor Branstad, Senator Grassley, all major Ag groups and the Chamber of Commerce are supporting Steve King. Because that's what common sense Iowans do.
So, Vilsack and Pelosi? Or, Steve King? Tough choice?
King's voice: I'm Steve King and I approve this message.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey recorded a 60-second radio ad for King, which started running on October 23.
Hi, this is Bill Northey, Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture. I'm a farmer myself. We've heard a lot of things this election, but the truth is - Iowa's farmers could ask for no better advocate in Washington than Congressman Steve King.
Steve's smart and understands the modern AG world. He's a senior member of the AG Committee in Washington - and one of the most outspoken and effective Members.
Congressman King has the full backing of the Agriculture industry, winning the support of sixty AG organizations, including The Farm Bureau and Corn Growers. Sixty AG groups! That speaks volumes.
Steve's our hardworking, commonsense conservative Iowa voice in Washington.
I'm Bill Northey and I sure approve of Steve King.
I'm Steve King and I approve this message. Paid for by King for Congress.
King's campaign did not respond to my repeated requests for a list of the 60 agricultural organizations that supposedly endorsed the Congressman. I suspect many of them were county branches of just a few groups.
The final King television commercial is called "Tuesday."
King's voice: I'm Steve King and I approve this message.
King's voice continues: Well it's almost over. I've been to your town, all 382 of them. [footage of different people and scenes]
King speaking to camera: I want you to know that I'll never quit racing back to Iowa each week. I'll work harder than anyone. I'll watch your dollars like I watch my own. And, I've told you exactly where I stand. I hope I've earned your vote on Tuesday.
During all of the debates, King emphasized that unlike his opponent, he has always lived in the IA-04 counties. Unlike his opponent, he doesn't dodge questions about the issues. This is the best possible spin on King's mouthy tendencies.
I would rather have my views represented in Congress than have my representative race back to Iowa every week, but Iowans do respect hard work. It's smart for King to close with his work ethic, a theme from his earlier ads.
The main groups advertising against King were the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the super-PAC called House Majority PAC, and the Humane Society. CREDO Super-PAC spent a lot of money on field staff working against King, but did not pay for broadcast advertising.
Working against Vilsack were the National Republican Congressional Committee, Karl Rove's group Crossroads GPS (focusing on health care reform), and the National Federation for Independent Business, which falsely claimed Vilsack "supports a tax hike on small businesses" and therefore "doesn't have a clue on jobs."
The outside advertising in IA-04 was so boring and cookie-cutter that I wonder how it could be worth the money all these groups spent in the district.
Any comments about the King-Vilsack race are welcome in this thread.
"He obviously has a very strong feeling about his own children and his family as he talks about his grandchildren," said Vilsack, first to answer based on the rotation of questions. "That is certainly a value that we would share."
King took a different approach.
"I was hoping to have 60 or 90 seconds to think that over," King said. "It was easier to say nice things before this campaign started."
That considered, King said he had "zero animosity" toward either Christie Vilsack, or her husband, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who was seated 20 feet away in the front row of an auditorium at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. King also said to Christie Vilsack, "As a first lady, you're a nice first lady."