Will Iowa finally send a woman to Congress this year? (revised)

Thanks to corncam and John Deeth for pointing out omissions in my earlier diary on this topic.

Last year I bristled whenever Hillary Clinton supporters brought up the fact that Iowa and Mississippi are the only two states never to have elected a woman governor or sent a woman to Congress. I understood that they were trying to lower expectations for Hillary in Iowa, and possibly also trying to goad Iowa Democrats into supporting her to “prove” that we aren’t sexist.

But I didn’t like the implication that Iowa Democrats are to blame for our state’s unfortunate record on electing women. We have nominated two outstanding women for governor: Roxanne Conlin in 1982 and Bonnie Campbell in 1994.

State Senator Jean Lloyd-Jones was the Democratic nominee against U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley in 1992.

In addition, we have tried to send women to the U.S House of Representatives many times.

In fact, thanks to Becky Greenwald’s victory in the fourth district primary last Tuesday, Iowa Democrats can proudly say that there isn’t a single district in which we have never tried to send a woman to Congress.

In IA-01, we chose Ann Hutchinson, the former mayor of Bettendorf, to run against Jim Nussle in 2002.

In IA-02, Cedar Rapids doctor Julie Thomas ran against Jim Leach in 2002.

Lynn Cutler ran against Cooper Evans in IA-03 in 1980 and 1982.

Elaine Baxter, then Iowa’s Secretary of State, faced Jim Ross Lightfoot in IA-03 in 1992 and 1994.

Two women have tried to win IA-05 for the Democrats: Sheila McGuire, who ran against Tom Latham in 1994, and Joyce Schulte, who ran against Steve King in 2004 and 2006.

I’ve discussed some of the reasons these women all lost before. Iowa has had a lot of long-serving incumbents, who are always difficult to beat. We have had relatively few open races for Congress, because we keep losing Congressional districts following the census.

Three Democratic women have run for open seats in Congress here. Cutler came close in 1980, but the Reagan landslide was working against her. Baxter came close in 1992, but the redrawn third district had more of a Republican lean. McGuire not only had to compete in the heavily Republican fifth district, but also ran for the open seat in a non-presidential year (when Democratic turnout is always lower).

Meanwhile, Iowa hasn’t experienced some of the circumstances that give an extra boost to a woman candidate. Of the 245 women who have served in Congress, 46 have been widows who directly succeeded their husbands. Happily, we haven’t had any incumbents die in office for many decades.

Nor have our women candidates benefited from other family connections that have helped women get to Congress in some states. Former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum was the daughter of that state’s legendary politician Alf Landon. Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin benefited from the fact that many South Dakotans had voted for a Herseth before.

Tuesday was a good day for women candidates here, as John Deeth pointed out in this post. Not only did Greenwald win convincingly in IA-04, Iowa Republicans nominated Mariannette Miller-Meeks for Congress in the second district. She is the first Republican woman nominated for Congress in Iowa in more than 30 years. Deeth informed me that Republicans nominated Sonja Egenes to run against incumbent Neal Smith in the fourth district in 1962. Berkley Bedell beat Joanne Soper in Iowa’s sixth district in 1976 (we lost the sixth district after the 1990 census).

Will 2008 be the year Iowa finally leaves Mississippi behind? As challengers facing incumbents, Miller-Meeks and Greenwald go into the general election as underdogs. The partisan lean of the second district (D+7) will be an additional hurdle for Miller-Meeks, especially in a presidential election year. If Barack Obama has coattails anywhere, it will be in the People’s Republic of Johnson County (the Iowa City area).

Greenwald’s district is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans (D+0), but she is facing a seven-term incumbent who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

What do you think? Will Iowa voters make history this year?

  • "a seven-term incumbent who sits on the House Appropriations Committee"

    That sentence fragment alone ought to give Becky all the impetus she needs to help Iowa dump Latham.

    This will be an historic political year in so many ways, and Iowans have a great opportunity to add even more to that history than they already have.

    By boosting Obama into frontrunner status in the caucus, they broke the old rules and changed the game forever.  

    And now, by getting Becky elected as Iowa’s first congresswoman, Iowans can make an even bolder statement that YES, we are ready for something completely new both at home and in DC.  

    Iowa’s activist and staff Democrats need to remember this golden opportuntiy at every level, and include Becky’s  literature and information whenever and wherever you canvass or network in her district.  And that goes for ANY upticket or downticket candidate, from Obama to Harkin to the statehouse and local mayoral and city council races.

    All Iowa Democrats should take this opportunity to work together, and weld a working bond between the Democratic candidates at every level, a bond that is reflected in everything the party does between now and November.

    This way, candidates like Becky Greenwald will get the benefit of the whole party machine, that is already growing and thriving and pushing all the old envelopes, in order to change the future we now fear into one we can be proud of.

    Congratulations, Iowa Democrats, you have a chance to make history TWICE in one election cycle.  GO FOR IT!

  • Elaine Baxter

    I hate to say it, but Baxter’s loss in 1992 was not because the Third District had “more of a Republican lean.”  It was actually drawn to be less Republican than Rep. Lightfoot’s old district, and Baxter started the campaign well ahead of him in the polls.  She lost for the same reason why Democrats usually lost in the early 90s: the Republicans played very dirty, and the Democrats didn’t respond until it was too late.  I remember seeing a poll in the Des Moines Register just a few days before the election showing Lightfoot ahead and hoping against hope it was either a typo or an outlier. As we all know now, it wasn’t.  

    • it was less Republican than Lightfoot's old district

      but it was more Republican than the third district had been in the 1980s, when Lynn Cutler almost won there and Dave Nagle did win several elections.

      Lightfoot was first elected in Tom Harkin’s old district, as far as I remember.

      • That's correct

        Lightfoot did indeed represent Harkin’s old district in the ’80s.  But since Lightfoot was the one constant in the change from the old map to the new (different constituencies, different district numbers, and for that matter a different number of districts), I don’t think it’s fair to compare the 1992 3rd District to the one where Nagle ran.  

        Sorry, I’m still slightly bitter about losing that race.  Baxter really snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on that one!  (As did Nagle the same year, come to think of it.)  But that did make it all the sweeter when I checked the results online bright and early on the day after election day 06 and saw we suddenly had three out of five. 😉

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