An absurdly early look at the 2012 House races in Iowa (updated)

Thanks to the reader who suggested the correction and clarification I’ve added below.

The U.S. Census Bureau confirmed this week that Iowa will lose a Congressional district following the 2010 census unless we experience unprecedented (for Iowa) population growth in the next two years:

During the past eight years, Iowa has gained as many people – about 76,000 – as states like South Carolina and Virginia gained between 2007 and 2008 alone.

To retain the congressional seat, the state would have to gain nearly twice that number by 2010, according to projections by Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that analyzes the impact of demographics on politics.

Don’t get your hopes up: we are going down to four Congressional districts. No one knows what the new map will look like, but it’s likely that the 2012 race in the new third district will determine whether Iowa Democrats (who now hold a 3-2 edge in U.S. House seats) gain a 3-1 advantage or have to settle for a 2-2 split.

Note: A non-partisan commission draws up the new Congressional map after each census in Iowa, so Democratic gerrymanders will not take place, even if Governor Chet Culver wins re-election in 2010 and Democrats hold their majorities in the state House and Senate. (Clarification: if the Democrats maintain control of the legislature, they have the option of rejecting the first and/or second map produced by the non-partisan commission. Republicans rejected the first map proposed after the last census.)

Most of what’s now the fifth district, represented by Republican incumbent Steve “10 Worst” King, is likely to become the new fourth district. It makes no difference whether the new counties added to IA-04 come from the current third or fourth districts–that is going to be a safe Republican seat.

Given the voting trends in eastern Iowa, I assume the new first and second Congressional districts will still be relatively safe for Democrats. (Remember, fewer than 10 Republicans in the whole country represent districts with any kind of Democratic partisan lean.) Either Bruce Braley or Dave Loebsack may need to move if the new map throws Waterloo (Black Hawk County) in the same district as Mount Vernon (Linn County), but that should not present much of a problem.

The big question mark is what happens to IA-03. Polk County will remain the largest county in the district, but it won’t be as dominant in the new district as it is now. Roughly 75 to 80 percent CORRECTION: A majority of the votes in the current third district come from the county containing Des Moines and most of its suburbs.

In which direction will IA-03 expand? If the counties added to it come mostly from the southwest, Republicans will have a better chance of winning the district. One reason Greg Ganske beat longtime incumbent Neal Smith in the 1994 landslide was that Smith’s fourth district had lost Story and Jasper counties, and gained a lot of southwestern Iowa counties, following the 1990 census.

If IA-03 includes more counties from the southeast, Democrats would be better positioned to hold the seat, although it’s worth remembering that Ottumwa resident Mariannette Miller-Meeks carried seven southern counties in her unsuccessful challenge to Loebsack in IA-02 this year.

Speaking at an Iowa Politics forum in Des Moines last month, Miller-Meeks said she was leaving her ophthalmology practice at the end of 2008. She strongly suggested that she will run for office again. Whether that means another bid for Congress or a run for the state legislature was unclear.

Miller-Meeks has little chance of winning a district as strongly Democratic as IA-02, but I could easily see her taking on Leonard Boswell if Wapello County ends up in IA-03 after the next census. The Des Moines Register has endorsed Boswell’s challengers before and would back any credible Republican opponent against him.

The Republicans’ best chance in a third district stretching to the south, though, would be to run someone with strong Polk County connections to keep down the Democratic margins there. I don’t have any idea which Republicans have their eye on this race.

If IA-03 expands to the north, it’s good news and bad news for Democrats. Story County and Marshall County are reasonably strong territory for the party. On the down side, current fourth district incumbent Tom Latham lives in Story County. Latham is a mediocre Republican back-bencher; what else can you say about a seven-term incumbent whose big achievement on health care, according to his own campaign, was co-sponsoring a bill that never made it out of committee?

However, Latham has obviously used his position on the Appropriations Committee to build up a lot of goodwill in the district. He just won re-election by 21 points in a district Barack Obama carried by 8 percent, and he even carried Story County.

I don’t care to run Boswell or a non-incumbent Democrat (in the event of Boswell’s retirement) against Latham in a redrawn IA-03. I’m not saying Democrats couldn’t hold the seat in those circumstances, but I feel it would be a tough hold.

We would be better off electing a new, ambitious Democrat to Iowa’s third district in 2010, so we can run a rising star in the majority party against Latham, if it comes to that. Actually, we’d have been better off if Boswell had retired in 2008, allowing someone new to compete for this seat as a two-term Democratic incumbent in 2012. But what’s done is done.

Anyone think there’s a chance Boswell will reconsider his promise to run for re-election in 2010?

If Democrats still control the state legislature after 2010, should they reject the first new Congressional map suggested by the non-partisan commission if that map puts Story County in IA-03?

What kind of map would give Democrats the best chance of holding the third district?

I look forward to reading your absurdly early speculation about the 2012 races in the comments.

For those who are interested in the national implications of the post-census reapportionment, DavidNYC created a chart showing which states are likely to gain or lose Congressional districts.

Chris Bowers has already created a 2012 electoral college map, and even with one fewer electoral vote, Iowa will remain important to Obama’s re-election chances. You should click over and read the whole post yourself, but the good news is that Obama has a clear path to 270 electoral votes in 2012 even if he loses Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina.

UPDATE: John Deeth looked ahead to the 2012 Iowa races in this post last week. He concluded that in order to win three out of the four Congressional districts, Iowa Democrats will need to 1) beat Latham in 2010, and 2) get Boswell to retire in 2012. Click over to read how he reached that conclusion.  

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  • My thinking...

    My thinking (I’m trying to crunch the numbers on it) goes like this:

    IA-01 is going to take a lot of the old IA-04 territory in northeast Iowa–Decorah, Charles City, all the way west to Mason City. This might make Braley’s job a little tougher, but I think won’t have any trouble. The new IA-01 might be D+3 or 4.

    IA-02 is going to take some of the old IA-03 territory to the east, just moving east by one or two counties or so, including Benton, Iowa, Tama, and Mahaska counties. I haven’t quite figured where to put Marshalltown yet, though.

    I think the border between IA-01 and IA-02 to stay the same, so neither Braley or Loebsack will have to move. The new IA-02 would run a little more rural and a little more red, maybe coming in around D+5.

    IA-03 will change to become sort of a “Greater Des Moines” district, made up of Polk County and the ring of counties that surround it (including Ames and WDM), with maybe a spur to the north (Ft. Dodge?) or south (Osceola?)

    I think the Des Moines area has grown to the point that it should have more or less its own dedicated district, as in other states. Yet, since it contains the western suburbs, it will probably come in at D+3 or 4.

    IA-04 will look like a giant C on the maps. It will have all the old IA-05 counties plus a lot of the old IA-04 counties north of the Ames area. It’ll probably stay about a R+8 district.  

    • in the old days

      when Iowa had six or seven districts, there was a “greater Des Moines” district. That’s what IA-04 looked like when I was a kid.

      It makes more sense for Dallas, Warren, and Story counties to be part of the same district as Polk. The current IA-04 is weird.

      My husband says the Iowa Code is fairly restrictive in terms of what criteria the commission can use in drawing the districts, but I haven’t read that part of the code yet.

  • Boswell won't quit

    He’ll run till he loses or dies.

    If Story and Ames get put together, I think Latham beats Boswell. Which is why Dems need to beat Latham in `10.

    More on that in this post from last week.

    • thanks--I had missed that post

      I agree with you on almost everything, but if we couldn’t beat Latham in a big Democratic presidential year with a weak Republican at the top of the ticket, we’re not going to beat him in an off-year where the overall environment is much less favorable to Democrats and Grassley is at the top of the ticket for Republicans.

      I wish there were a hot shot in the fourth who could take out Latham, but 2008 was the year for taking out GOP incumbents. 2010 is probably not going to be the third wave election in a row for Democrats.

      You are absolutely right that some Democrats act like they’d rather lose IA-03 to a Republican than hurt Leonard Boswell’s feelings. He needs some tough love from old friends soon, or else we are going to lose in 2012. He votes like he still represents the rural district that first elected him in the 1990s, and that isn’t good enough.

      I also agree with you that Braley is settling in for a career in the House, and that is fine by me. We need some rising progressives in our House caucus.