IA-01: A closer look at Ben Lange's case against Bruce Braley

Last night in Cedar Rapids, Republican Ben Lange formally announced his 2012 campaign to represent Iowa’s first Congressional district. The candidate who narrowly lost IA-01 in 2010 is not a lock for the GOP nomination. Unlike two years ago, Lange faces a primary rival with extensive business experience and a decent amount of money in the bank. For now, he is ignoring the Republican competition in IA-01 and taking aim at three-term incumbent Bruce Braley. Lange’s talking points merit a closer look.

Lange’s campaign sent out this press release on February 13:

CEDAR RAPIDS, IA – Addressing a room of supporters in Cedar Rapids, Ben Lange formally declared his candidacy in Iowa’s new 1st Congressional District Monday night.

After nearly knocking off Democrat incumbent Bruce Braley last cycle, and turning heads across the country, Lange told the crowd that he thought long and hard about running again in light of the divisive agenda and failed leadership of Bruce Braley and other incumbent politicians in Washington.

Looking back at this moment in 20 or 30 years, Lange said he wanted to be able to say he was the best possible husband he could be to his wife Kelly, the best possible father he could be to his three daughters, and he wants to be able to say he did everything he could to save not only the freedoms of the current generation, but the freedoms for his daughters’ generation.

Lange, who was first in his family to earn a four-year college degree, noted that he “grew up in a working class family” in Quasqueton, Iowa. “Both my parents had jobs and they both work full-time to this day,” Lange said. “But unfortunately, many today, they don’t have the opportunity to work. Bruce Braley and other politicians have been a part of government — both Democrat and Republican controlled — that has given us this 8% unemployment.”

Lange focused his remarks on the failed leadership of Bruce Braley on one of the most urgent threats facing the United States — our national debt. He noted that Braley has repeatedly voted to increase the debt ceiling and was the only member of the Iowa delegation to vote against a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Bruce Braley has failed on every single measurable statistic when it comes to reducing our national debt,” Lange said. “Some of you folks in Linn county haven’t had the pleasure to meet [Bruce Braley] and haven’t had the pleasure to know his voting record. But let me tell you — 98.6% in line with Nancy Pelosi — he’s the most liberal member of the Iowa delegation.”

Lange highlighted Braley’s support of the Wall Street bailouts on the backs of Main Street, Obamcare, and the failed stimulus program.

“He also claims to be for Veterans,” Lange said. “But recently he voted against an amendment that would allow our troops to defend themselves in hostile areas.”

Lange issued a challenge to Bruce Braley to reduce outside influence in the 2012 election cycle. “Tonight I am issuing a challenge to Congressman Bruce Braley,” Lange said. “I am willing to limit my contributions to only Iowans if Congressman Braley will do the same.”

Touching briefly on his 2010 race, Lange noted that he entered the race last cycle, in part, and against the odds, because nobody else would. “When everyone else laid down, I stood up,” Lange said at the event.

Lange will soon embark upon a district-wide tour of all 20 counties for the second time in Iowa’s new 1st Congressional District, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Lange is expected to roll-out his campaign team in the coming days.


Ben Lange challenged the liberal Democrat incumbent Bruce Braley during the 2010 midterms. As a political newcomer and, despite being outspent by Braley’s campaign committee nearly 5 to 1 in the General Election, Lange held Braley to less than 50% of the vote in the General Election and fell short by a mere 1.95% (46.52% to 48.47%). Today, Lange has established one of Iowa’s best organizational and financial campaign infrastructures. His exploratory committee reported $120,000 cash-on-hand at the end of 2011, more than any other Republican congressional challenger in the state.

Taking it from the top, launching Lange’s campaign in Cedar Rapids was smart. That’s the largest metro area by far in the new IA-01. Linn County leans Democratic but contains about 40,000 registered Republicans, more than a quarter of all Republicans in the district’s 20 counties. Quite a few major GOP donors live in Cedar Rapids or its suburbs. Lange’s primary rival Rod Blum has a natural advantage in Dubuque, the third-largest city in IA-01. Blum spent Iowa caucus night meeting and greeting Republicans in Black Hawk County, the second-largest in the district. Lange can’t afford to let Blum gain any advantage in Linn County. Cedar Rapids-based media reach some IA-01 constituents in other counties too.

The second paragraph is a bit of a stretch. Lange did make Braley sweat in a seat that wasn’t supposed to be competitive after the Democrat was re-elected by more than a 20-point margin in 2008. But in a year when 52 Republican challengers defeated House incumbents, a close second isn’t impressive. The head-turning aspect of the 2010 race in IA-01 was the American Future Fund dropping more than $1 million against Braley–not Lange’s generic message.

Reading the third paragraph, I couldn’t help thinking that Lange may look back on this moment and wish he’d taken a shot at Iowa Senate district 32, where Republicans do not yet have a candidate. Lange’s home town of Quasqueton is in the southeast corner of that district, and Independence (where he lives and practices law) is one of the larger towns in the district. If Lange wants to be the best husband and father he can be, he might consider that the Iowa legislature is usually in session only four months of the year. Being a state lawmaker is a much more family-friendly than serving in Congress.

The next paragraph highlights Lange’s working-class roots and the unemployment problem. Both Blum and Braley come from modest backgrounds and worked their way through college. Iowa’s unemployment rate is well below the national average of 8 percent Lange mentioned, but two counties in IA-01 have unemployment rates above 7 percent. Anyway, economic issues are at the top of voters’ concerns across the country.

The disconnect comes in the next paragraph about Braley’s “failed leadership” on talking the national debt, “one of the most urgent threats facing the United States.” I realize that these talking points are in vogue with Congressional Republicans, but making debt reduction a top priority will only make the unemployment problem worse. Ireland imposed tough budget cuts in 2010, only to see unemployment and the “brain drain” increase. The United Kingdom faces a rising jobless rate and perhaps a double-dip recession precisely because of austerity measures designed to pay down that country’s debt. Austerity policies the Estonian government began in 2009 contributed to a surging unemployment rate of 19 percent. Late last year, unemployment was still around 13 percent in Estonia.  

Lange correctly notes that Braley was the only Iowan in the U.S. House to vote against the balanced budget constitutional amendment last year. That speaks well of Braley, because the balanced budget amendment would be disastrous for the U.S. economy, especially during a downturn.

If anything, Braley has talked too much like a deficit hawk. Job creation should be a much higher priority than deficit reduction now. One would expect the founder of the House Populist Caucus to understand that. Braley shouldn’t apologize for any effort to increase government investments in infrastructure projects, for instance.

The next paragraph plays the inevitable “Nancy Pelosi liberal” card. Lange’s closing television commercial in 2010 linked Braley to “the Pelosi agenda.” Several Republican challengers have tried the same line against Representative Leonard Boswell in IA-03, without success.

Lange has some basis for calling Braley the “most liberal” member of the Iowa delegation. Braley’s Progressive Punch score gives him a ranking of 106th among the current House Democrats, ahead of Dave Loebsack (138th) and Leonard Boswell (169th). But can you really call someone a “liberal” when more than 100 House Democrats have more progressive voting records than Braley?

The links below take you to each Iowa Democrat’s voting record in more than a dozen categories:

{{Bruce Braley}}

{{Dave Loebsack}}

{{Leonard Boswell}}

Getting back to Lange’s pitch, attacks on the Wall Street bailouts, “failed stimulus” and “Obamacare” have become standard-issue rhetoric for Republican challengers. Blum makes similar points, and I’m sure talking this way won’t hurt Lange during the GOP primary. During the last campaign, the American Future Fund’s direct mail, radio and television advertising slammed Braley on all of those issues. If that triple-pronged attack didn’t take Braley down in 2010, I question whether it can convince enough voters to fire the incumbent this year.

From my perspective, the 2009 stimulus only “failed” by being not large enough or focused on spending that provides the biggest “bang for the buck.”  Even so, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the stimulus supported about 3 million jobs.

The next paragraph was the most intriguing for me:

“He also claims to be for Veterans,” Lange said. “But recently he voted against an amendment that would allow our troops to defend themselves in hostile areas.”

Having no idea what that referred to, I sought clarification from the Lange campaign. Staff pointed me to this vote on an amendment to the 2012 defense authorization bill in May 2011. I wouldn’t say “recently” when talking about a vote from nine months ago, but I’ll give Lange some poetic license there. Indeed, Braley was one of the 142 Democrats and 18 Republicans who voted against this amendment. That vote didn’t jump out at me when I covered the House consideration of the defense authorization bill last year. Here is the summary:

Amendment requires that the rules of engagement allow any military service personnel assigned to duty in a designated hostile fire area to have rules of engagement that fully protect their right to proactively defend themselves from hostile actions.

The amendment’s sponsor claimed it would help U.S. troops serving in war zones. Some gun rights groups hailed the provision as a “second amendment for the troops.”

If you’re thinking, “But surely current rules of engagement allow military personnel to defend themselves,” you’re not alone. The U.S. Central Command spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that the amendment wouldn’t change anything, because “Troops always have the right to protect themselves in combat.” Three military experts consulted by Politifact agreed that this amendment would not change the current rules of engagement. One of them characterized the amendment as being about “military ignorance combined with political opportunism,” not protecting soldiers.

Braley’s office declined to comment on why he voted against the amendment Lange mentioned last night, so we can only speculate. Perhaps he thought it was pointless, or perhaps he was swayed by a point Democrat Rob Andrews made during floor debate. Andrews argued that the amendment “supplants the decision of the commander in the field with the judgment of the Congress.”

I expect Braley to emphasize his work for veterans and U.S. troops during the 2012 campaign. He has served on the Veterans Affairs Committee since January 2011, and my in-box contains dozens of press releases about legislation or policies he has advocated to help veterans or troops on active duty. We’re talking about a guy who finds a veterans angle to rural post office closures. Just today Braley publicized his letter asking Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to “remove all remaining barriers restricting the service of female members of the US Armed Forces.” Bleeding Heartland will cover Braley’s record on defense and veterans’ issues in more depth in a future post. The veterans page on his Congressional website previews some points IA-01 voters are likely to hear in campaign advertising.

Before last night I hadn’t heard Lange challenge Braley to limit campaign contributions only to Iowans. That’s a clever move, because in the process of out-raising Lange, Braley did collect quite a few contributions from donors around the country. Obviously, no incumbent would ever accept Lange’s challenge, especially with the threat of big outside spending from the American Future Fund and others.

The final point in Lange’s press release is a veiled swipe at Blum, who flirted with a Congressional bid in 2009 but stayed out. You can’t win if you don’t play. Lange entered the 2010 race when few people believed Braley could be threatened. Privately, Blum may wish he had not “laid down” when Lange “stood up” two years ago. Blum would have had a better chance of winning the GOP primary in 2010 than he does now.

Any comments about the IA-01 race are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Lange sent out this e-mail blast on February 14:

Dear [desmoinesdem],  

I’m all in. Are you?

After months of listening to Iowans and gauging the interest of donors and activists in ending the failed leadership and divisive agenda of Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA), I officially announced my candidacy for U.S. Congress last night.

Why? Because we are losing America.  

We live in a time when our national debt has skyrocketed past our gross national product and is threatening to bankrupt our country. And yet our own Congress hasn’t passed a budget in three years and still increases the debt ceiling!

Where is Braley? He’s sitting on his hands. In fact, he was the only member of the Iowa delegation to vote against a balanced budget amendment!    

We live in a time when our troops are deployed in multiple theaters of war and Bruce Braley, along with 142 other Democrats, voted against an amendment to “allow any military service personnel assigned to duty in a designated hostile fire area to have rules of engagement that fully protect their right to proactively defend themselves from hostile actions.”

Where is Braley? He’s pushing the extreme Democratic agenda.

We live in a time when our own government is threatening our fellow citizens’ religious freedoms. It wasn’t enough for the Obama administration to force all Americans to buy health insurance against our will, now they are seeking to force Catholics, evangelicals, and other religious organizations to provide health coverage for activities that violate their moral conscience.

Where is Braley? He’s silent. We must stop him NOW.

I’m willing to be your voice and take the arrows, but I can’t do this alone.

Your contribution of $5, $25, $100, or whatever you can afford is critical to our success.

We are losing our place as the most free and prosperous country in the history of the world and I refuse to allow it to continue. My three little girls deserve better. You deserve better.

Respectfully yours,

Ben Lange

SECOND UPDATE: Here’s another sign that veterans’ issues won’t provide a promising angle for Lange against Braley.

Rep. Bruce Braley (IA-01) introduced the Veterans Access to Care Act today [February 15], legislation that seeks to expand veterans’ access to quality healthcare by helping the Veterans Administration and state veterans’ homes recruit more highly-qualified doctors, nurses, and mental health providers to provide services to America’s veterans.

The legislation would make veterans’ care facilities eligible to hire National Health Service Corps fellows, helping attract recent medical school graduates to careers helping veterans.

Braley said, “The Veterans Access to Care Act will allow veterans’ healthcare facilities to hire from a top-notch pool of medical talent committed to practicing in the public interest.  This will improve veterans’ quality of care by encouraging the nation’s best and brightest young doctors to work in veterans’ healthcare facilities.

Braley continued, “The National Health Service Corps is a program with a well-established track record of attracting high quality medical professionals who have chosen to give back to their country by serving those who are most in need.  What better group of people to have caring for our veterans, who share this commitment to service?”

The National Health Service Corps is a national scholarship program operated by the US Department of Health and Human Services that pays medical school expenses for future doctors, nurses, and health practitioners who agree to work in medically underserved areas after graduation.  Braley’s bill would simply add Veterans Administration facilities and state veterans’ homes as eligible “underserved areas” in which graduates would be eligible to serve.

Dr. Douglas Steenblock, Director of Mental Health Services at the Iowa Veterans’ Home in Marshalltown, approached Braley with the idea for the bill.  Steenblock is himself a former fellow of the National Health Service Corps.

Steenblock said, “It can be difficult to attract medical professionals to work in the unique environment of a veterans’ facility, particularly those outside of our major metropolitan areas.  The Iowa Veterans’ Home Mental Health Department hasn’t been fully staffed since September 2010 despite ongoing efforts to hire new personnel.  The National Health Service Corps has proven to be a powerful incentive to recruit and retain quality providers in underserved areas.  It could be easily adapted to do the same for veterans’ facilities.”

The bill introduced by Braley today is similar to a proposal he introduced in 2010.

  • Lange

    Attacking Braley on veteran’s issues is foolhardy, Lange will be voting for budgets that change veterans programs if he makes it to the House, he’s playing with fire here.  

    I don’t think Braley was too much of a rhetorical deficit hawk, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on that point,  

    • in the short term

      reducing the unemployment rate should be the priority. Several European countries went too far to cut deficits and are paying the price.

      Agree with you that it’s not wise for Lange to try to fight Braley on veterans’ issues.  

  • whenever I think of Lange,

    which admittedly isn’t often, I get a hazy picture of a cleaned-up Eddie Munster w/ folded arms standing in a cornfield. He’s wisely taken down that cheesy intro web ad featuring the same (w/ dramatic musical score) from the last campaign.

    “cleaned-up Eddie Munster”

    From a political entertainment POV, Blum would make for the more interesting match-up.

    • fundraising is hard work

    • LOL

      I’ve always thought Lange looks like Roger Federer, but you’ve got a point.

      If I were Blum, I would say to Republicans, look, this guy took his best shot and fell short despite extremely favorable conditions. Time to give a more experienced person with a business career a crack at Braley.

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