John Carlson’s latest column for the Sunday Des Moines Register was provocatively headlined, “How Iowa Democrats sold Christie Vilsack down the ol’ river.” Rarely have I ever agreed with Carlson’s political columns, but he makes a strong case here.
Carlson’s main point is that Democrats pressured Vilsack not to run for Congress in Iowa’s newly drawn second district, which would have been a great fit for her. In his words,
Iowa was on track to elect its first female member of Congress. The only problem is that Christie Vilsack’s liberal, enlightened, pro-woman, progressive party sold her down the river. The Missouri River, as it turns out.
They sent her west, to a place she’d never lived, to run against Steve King, the most dominant Iowa vote-getter this side of Chuck Grassley. Why, you ask? She is being sacrificed to protect the political careers of a couple of men.
The men were incumbent Representatives Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack. The redistricting plan put them both in Iowa’s first Congressional district. Loebsack announced immediately that he would move into the new second district, containing most of the territory he had represented since 2007.
When I first saw the proposed map of Congressional districts, I thought the plan was great for only two Democrats: Bruce Braley and Christie Vilsack. I expected Vilsack to run against Loebsack in the Democratic primary to represent the new IA-02. Bleeding Heartland user BJazz argued that case in this post. I thought it made little sense for Vilsack to move into IA-04, for the same reasons Carlson mentions:
Vilsack could establish residency back home in Mount Pleasant – not some phony move to a place she’d never lived – with a better than good chance of taking the U.S. House seat.
The thing is, the lords of the Democratic Party told Mrs. Vilsack to back off. […] “My party wants me to run against Steve King,” she told friends after the new districts were drawn. “That’s what I’m doing.” […]
The numbers show what she’s up against. The new 4th District comprises 39 counties. Two years ago, the Republican candidate for Congress won nearly 183,000 votes in those counties. The Democratic candidate received fewer than 89,000 votes.
The Democratic candidate in 2010 won a couple thousand more votes than the Republican candidate in the counties making up the new southeast Iowa district. Republicans don’t even have a candidate there yet, and the well-known Mrs. Vilsack very likely would have won in 2012 – if she’d been allowed to run there.
But she supposedly is moving to Ames, just like Loebsack supposedly is moving to Iowa City, just like Republican Tom Latham (fleeing a primary against King) supposedly is moving to somewhere in the new 3rd District to run against Leonard Boswell, who supposedly moved to Des Moines a decade ago when his old district’s lines were redrawn.
The sad thing is, Christie Vilsack is the one person in that group who could have looked people in the eye and said, yes, she really is from the district she wants to represent. The others are pretenders. Now she is too.
Carlson omits one point: Vilsack wasn’t responding only to pressure from Iowa party leaders. When she met with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Steve Israel in April, he reportedly warned her not to run against Loebsack in IA-02. Israel said the DCCC would back Loebsack in a competitive primary but would support Vilsack if she took on Steve King instead. The DCCC followed through by giving Vilsack money shortly after she declared her candidacy in IA-04.
I will never understand why professional Democrats are so terrified of contested primaries. What would have been so bad about Loebsack and Vilsack running a good clean race against each other in the new IA-02? The party would have two candidates out there identifying and mobilizing supporters before the primary, which would probably help Democratic candidates in down-ticket races later in the year. Several Iowa House and Senate seats in the new IA-02 will be competitive in 2012.
IA-02 leans Democratic, with a partisan voting index of D+4. That means that in the last two presidential elections, the district voted about 4 points more Democratic than the national average. It’s far from a slam-dunk for the next decade. Loebsack came close to losing the old IA-02 in 2010, and that district had a PVI of D+7. I believe a 2012 Democratic primary would have improved the party’s chances of holding IA-02 in the longer term.
What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers? Have at it in the comments.