IA-04: Did Democrats sell Christie Vilsack down the river?

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.

If Vilsack were running for Congress in IA-02, she wouldn't have to make her campaign about "civility, responsibility and respect" or lean heavily on conservative messaging to promote her jobs plan.

What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers? Have at it in the comments.

  • IA-03

    Why is there this insistence that CV should have challenged Loebdack, who has a not perfect but darn solid record? The Vilsacks were registered in Des Moines from the end of Tom's term. She should have challenged the Blue Dog of the delegation. (Or Leonard should have taken the hints that have been dropped for a few cycles now.) Boswell is going to lose to Latham; Christie could have won.

    • I don't think

      she would have been a very good fit for the new IA-03. The perfect district for her was IA-02.  

      • reasons?

        Who's more deserving of a primary challenge: a Progressive Caucus member or a Blue Dog?

        Who's been in office longer and is closer to retirement age? Which one chronically underperforms his district? Which one knocked off a 30 year incumbent?

        Why was it okee-dokee for Leonard to 'move' into Des Moines ten years ago when Matt McCoy was already up and running, and when he was living in IA-05? IA-03 doesn't take a Blue Dog to win, but Boswell could have stayed put and saved us from Steve King.

        And why when Boswell was home for the weekend and suffered the home invasion, why was he down on the farm? Isn't 'home' supposedly Des Moines?

        And why is it always Dave Loebsack who was supposed to take one for the team?

        I'm as frustrated as anyone at being in the No Grlz Alowd club with Mississippi. But there needs to be a better reason for a primary challenge than "it's my turn," and to her credit Christie Vilsack recognized that. But she should have recognized that those good reasons existed for a challenge to Boswell, from her ACTUAL new home in Des Moines.

        I wanted to come out of this with a delegation of Braley, Loebsack, Vilsack and King. We're gonna come out of this with Braley, Loebsack, Latham and King. Too damn bad that Boswell is being selfish.

        • missed a point

          Okee tokee for Leonard to move into a completely different district, but Loebsack is somehow a bad guy for basically moving back into his own.

          • I don't think Loebsack did anything wrong

            moving into IA-02 was the logical choice for him, since he had represented many of the counties before. At the same time, I don't think Vilsack should have felt obliged to defer to him. Let two good Democrats duke it out in the primary.

        • to paraphrase from a Clint Eastwood movie

          Deserve ain't got nothing to do with it.

          Christie Vilsack wants to serve in Congress. I think it made sense for her to run in the district where she had the best chance of being elected in Congress.

          If Vilsack loses in 2012 and Loebsack loses IA-02 in 2014, the Democrats who urged Vilsack to challenge King should feel foolish.

  • I agree with Deeth on this one.

    Loebsack is the best of the bunch if you care about progressive values.  Boswell is barely a Democrat.  King cannot be beaten by some no-name.  Vilsack will attract a lot of money and national attention.  If she can warm up a strong populist message and quit trying to sound like Shirley Temple on the stump, she will be fine.

  • Re Boswell

    Just look at your 9/23 diary http://www.bleedingheartland.c...

    Tell me why we want to keep him.

  • Boz

    This is a bit off topic, but why won't Leonard take the hints and step aside?  He could certainly extract a sweet appointment deal for something, in return for retiring.  There has to be A reason, and a political operative with ties to LB about three cycles ago told me there IS a specific reason why LB is hanging around, and this operative stated the he/she knew the reason, and it was a selfish reason, but I could not wheedle the specifics out of the operative.

    I am not counting CV out against King. Maybe I am too much of an optimist, but by Nov 2012, I am thinking the populace might rise up against the tin foilers and tea partiers.  And never count the Boz out against any opponent.

  • Vilsack

    What actually stopped Christie from running in IA-3?  Were the Boswell people actually going to challenge her signatures?  If she has enough broad base appeal whatever fundraising holes they might clog up can be overcome.  I'm a little surprised to tell you the truth in this anti-DC environment that some Tea Party type on the right who is well spoken hasn't tried to primary a long term incumbent like Latham.  

    Boswell's voting record has moved to the left since the Fallon challenge, there should be no denying that.  He might weaken a number of bills with a few letters or within the Ag committee, but if he's barely a Democrat than I certainly am not welcome in the party.  

    If you talk to "true" Republicans (Herman Cain, Ron Paul type supporters in the district (I live in IA-2), but have a few contacts there they call him comrade Boswell.  They claim that he's way out of the mainstream.  

  • In the end,

    Christie is a good soldier and did what she was asked.  This gives her some goodwill within the party, to be invested in a future race, if she is unsuccessful this time around.  But I would be willing to also bet that in the relatively near future, candidates like CV will be less likely to listen to party poo-bahs, make their own decisions and go for it.

  • This complaint makes no sense

    The DCCC and state party establishment did the right thing.

    It's a given that except under very unusual circumstances, a party wants to protect its incumbents first, and take the other party's seats second.

    So we have a shot to knock out King with the right candidate, barring the unusual circumstance of another wave year which isn't something to bother worrying about at the candidate recruitment stage.  Vilsack is as good a choice for that task as any.  Sure it's hard, but so what?

    Vilsack isn't entitled to Loebsack's seat, and she's free to primary him if she wants to.  And everyone in the state and national party is free to back Loebsack in response if they want to.  They don't care that she's a woman, they'd back her and try to squeeze out Loebsack if the roles were reversed and she were the IA-02 incumbent.

    I came to this diary expecting to be disheartened by news that somehow the state and national party had abandoned helping Vilsack vs. King.  I'm relieved to see this is just a senseless gripe about who the party establishment is backing in what districts.

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