I haven't been an optimist about Christie Vilsack's chances of taking down Representative Steve King, to put it mildly. But over the past month I have become convinced that King and Washington Republicans are genuinely concerned about holding Iowa's new fourth Congressional district.
Follow me after the jump for a closer look at King's campaign strategy, along with polling data and some other news from the IA-04 race. Later this week I will post a similar piece about the Vilsack campaign, and a separate review of outside groups' advertising in this district.
I was surprised to see the Rothenberg Political Report put IA-04 in the "toss-up/tilt Republican" category in August. Given the large GOP voter registration advantage in the district, Vilsack would need strong Democratic turnout and a huge lead over King among no-party voters to win this race. I wondered whether internal polling on IA-04 had informed Rothenberg's judgment. Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call confirmed last month that Republicans in Washington don't see King as safe.
King has not been able to put the race away more than a year after Vilsack announced her candidacy. GOP internal polling shows a single-digit race with King picking up less than 50 percent of the vote. This week [September 13], one plugged-in national Republican privately named King as one of the five GOP incumbents most likely to not return to Congress next year.
House Republicans responded by adding time to their fall buy for the 4th district. About two weeks ago, King went up with his own spots to answer Vilsack, who has been on the air since mid-August.
Still, there was enough early concern about King's flagging campaign that [Governor Terry] Branstad got personally involved in the race. Last spring, he sent two of his top staffers to run King's campaign and communications operation. Branstad also opened doors to Des Moines donors and, as a result, King's fundraising improved greatly this year. King raised more so far for this race than in his past two campaigns combined. [...]
"Steve King is still favored, but he hasn't put the race away there yet," said one veteran Republican operative in Iowa.
King had quite a few Des Moines area donors on board even in the summer of 2011, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie headlined a fundraiser for him in West Des Moines. There's no doubt, though, that King's fundraising took off in the second quarter of 2012 compared to the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2011, and the first quarter of 2012.
King's campaign operations are noticeably on another professional level this year since he hired Jake Ketzner as campaign manager and Jimmy Centers as communications director. Ketzner was the organizational director of Branstad's 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and Centers was a field director for that campaign in northwest Iowa. King's son ran his previous Congressional campaigns on much smaller budgets.
King also launched his district-wide advertising earlier this year than I remember him doing in previous re-election efforts. However, recent polling confirms what analysts told Roll Call's Toeplitz: King hasn't locked up this race.
Partial results from three opinion polls of IA-04 came out during the last week in September. Public Policy Polling surveyed 577 likely voters on September 24 and 25, the Ames Tribune reported. "The survey was 40 percent Republicans, 31 percent Democrats and 29 percent independents - the imbalance reflects what PPP considers to be the likely turnout in the Republican-leaning district." The topline showed King leading Vilsack by 48 percent to 45 percent, with 7 percent undecided and a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
The poll also showed that 45 percent view King unfavorably while 44 percent had a favorable opinion. It did not ask a similar question about Vilsack.
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said he was surprised by the results, saying he expected King to be further ahead.
When respondents were asked if they supported reelecting King or "someone else," 47 percent chose King, 47 percent chose "someone else" and 6 percent were undecided. While that appears to be a negative number for Vilsack - her support is lower than "someone else" - Schmidt had a different interpretation.
"He should have much higher ratings," Schmidt said. "I don't read it as 'Christie Vilsack is a little bit behind anybody else,' but I would read it as 'Jeez, an incumbent should have an advantage in a question like that.'"
Vilsack's campaign released partial results from its own internal poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner research on September 27. The polling memo is here (pdf). Among 400 likely voters surveyed between September 22 and 25,
Steve King manages only a two-point lead in a heat against Christie Vilsack: 46 percent King, 44 percent Vilsack, well within the margin of error. Independent candidate Martin Moore manages 4 percent of the vote share. Since this firm began tracking this race in June, 2011, Vilsack has cut King's 16-point initial margin to just 2 points. [...]
In his own ads, King describes himself as "straight shooter." Iowa voters seem to be drawing a different conclusion. His job ratings are underwater as 45 percent criticize his work in office, while just 41 percent respond favorably. Fully a quarter (25 percent) describe his work as poor. His negatives on this measure have grown 10 points since May. Similarly, voters' reactions to him personally are mixed: 39 percent favorable, 34 percent unfavorable.
Also on September 27, the conservative 501(c)4 group American Future Fund released partial results from the poll it commissioned from American Viewpoint. That survey, conducted on September 23 and 24, showed King ahead by 48 percent to 41 percent. An American Future Fund press release tried to spin this as a "strong lead" for King:
In the poll, both King and Vilsack hold similar favorability ratings and are very well known by the electorate; however, among those with opinions of both candidates - nearly 80% of the electorate - King leads 50% to 44%. And among those more interested in the election, Congressman King expands his lead to 52% to 40%.
Most notable, among those who are prepared to split their tickets between the Presidential and Congressional race, King leads 45% to 36%.
That ticket-splitter finding is hard to believe. Are there really more Obama/King voters than Romney/Vilsack voters in IA-04? I suppose anything could happen. While King is still favored to win this race, he should be polling above 50 percent given the political composition of his district.
Vilsack has portrayed herself as a problem-solver, in contrast to politicians who just "stir the pot." Lately King has tried to show constituents that he is focused on results and not just rhetoric.
He skipped a Sioux City fundraiser featuring New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in order to lobby House Republican leaders for a vote on a new farm bill. From a King campaign press release on September 20:
"Continuing to work to pass a Farm Bill is my priority at this time," said King. "I'm pleased the House Agriculture Committee was able to put politics aside and pass a bipartisan Farm Bill out of committee. Now it appears Nancy Pelosi is whipping a 'nay' vote for her own political gain. There is no chance to bring a Farm Bill to the floor before the election. It is my goal here in Washington this week to secure a 100 percent commitment from Speaker Boehner to bring a Farm Bill to the floor as soon as we come back after the election. I plan to work across the aisle to get a Farm Bill passed giving farmers in the heartland the stability they need."
King continued, "I appreciate Governor Christie's eager willingness to proceed with the Defenders of Freedom event in Sioux City, even with my absence. Governor Christie defines 'defender of freedom.' I'm proud to call him a friend and I'm sure he will share a powerful message in Sioux City today."
The 2008 farm bill expired at the end of September, and Vilsack has been hammering King since mid-summer for not doing enough to get a new farm bill passed. Bleeding Heartland covered the farm bill as an issue in the IA-04 race here. King supported the version that cleared the House Agriculture Committee this summer, but he and other farm-state Republicans weren't able to get House Speaker John Boehner or Majority Leader Eric Cantor to put that bill up for a floor vote.
Side note for those wondering why allegedly moderate Republican Chris Christie would take an interest in promoting King: Bleeding Heartland covered the backstory here.
Back to the current IA-04 campaign. Long one of the best-known critics of "Obamacare" in Congress, King emphasized his support for a major federal government intervention in the health care sector last week. Speaking to the Fort Dodge Messenger,
King said he believes Medicare Part D has preserved the quality of life for millions of senior citizens and has saved "hundreds of billions of dollars" for Medicare by helping recipients avoid more costly treatments.
Medicare Part D, however, contains a coverage gap known as the "doughnut hole." Medicare recipients enter the doughnut hole after they and their prescription plan have paid $2,930 for drugs. After entering the doughnut hole, those people must pay 50 percent of their drug costs until those costs exceed $4,700. At that point, they are then covered by Medicare Part D again.
"It will haunt us until it's filled," King said of the doughnut hole.
He added that he wants to fill it, but doesn't know where the needed money will come from.
Other members of Congress aren't talking much about the doughnut hole, he said.
He said fixing the Medicare Part D coverage gap is not a reason to keep Obamacare in place. He said he believes that law is too expensive and takes away the individual's freedom to make decisions about their health care.
King said Obamacare should be replaced with a series of new laws, each of which would be individually debated and voted upon by Congress.
He said his "dream piece of legislation" would allow people who have health savings accounts to use that money to buy their own private health insurance when they become eligible for Medicare. He said under this proposal, any money from those accounts that isn't used to pay for the private insurance would be tax-exempt.
King's dream legislation doesn't sound workable to me, as private insurers won't want to cover most elderly people, and few people could save enough money to cover private insurance throughout their golden years. Still, these comments show that King wants voters to know what he's for as well as what he's against on health care reform.
King's television commercials
King's campaign staff declined to share details regarding their television and radio advertising buys, so I don't know whether he is on cable as well as broadcast networks in every market that reaches the 39 counties in IA-04. However, the campaign has announced several district-wide television commercials during the past six weeks. All of the commercials use the same soothing yet upbeat background music.
King's debut 60-second spot "Land" has the look and feel of a feature film. It hit Iowa tv screens on August 27, in time for the Republican National Convention.
Male voice-over: He started with a barely-breathing dozer, welding it back together himself. [camera pans over rural scene, words on screen Northwest Iowa, 1975, footage of a man welding a bulldozer]
Rains came, flooded him out, but Steve King started from the dirt again, built his business back. [Footage of lightning and thunder in nighttime sky, words on screen Iowa, 1993; shifts to daytime view of King driving bulldozer, with wind turbines and cornfields in the background, words Congressman Steve King on screen]
Then Steve went to Congress. Same dogged determination. [closer view of King driving the bulldozer with cornfields in background, words Congressman Steve King on screen]
Waking every Monday or Tuesday at two twenty five A.M., driving a couple hours, flying to DC, still beating most of 'em to work. [image of alarm clock beeping at 2:25 am, man getting out of bed while it's still dark, words on screen Iowa 2012, view of car on the road while it's still dark, airplane taking off while it's still dark]
Keen intellectual curiosity. [footage of King smiling, shaking hands with people in small group, word Curious on screen]
Steve King listens, learns. Then, when he talks, it might be a little direct, but Steve says what we're thinking. [King smiling, talking with people, words on screen Direct, then Says what we're thinking]
He takes that place on all week [image of U.S. Capitol at night]
then races back to Iowa to listen and learn, and catch that next crack of dawn flight. [image of airplane flying, fades to image of farm field]
Steve King's life has been blood, sweat and well, ears. [footage of King walking with cornfields, farm buildings in background; SteveKing.com on screen]
Listening's made him smart; life's made him strong. [Image of King looking into middle distance, farm in background, words on screen Congressman Steve King Bring him back.]
King's voice: I'm Steve King and I approve this message.
I have yet to find a Democrat who won't admit that this is a good commercial (although some take offense to the implication that King "says what we're thinking"). Most people can admire a hard-working person, even if he is working hard for an agenda we don't support.
Christie Vilsack's first television commercial stated that the value of working together to solve problems is missing from Congress today. Without using King's name, Vilsack alluded to politician who "scramble to the TV cameras to stir the pot."
In a press release accompanying the release of his first television commercial, King asserted that he does represent Iowa values, citing his work ethic (not his socially conservative views) as evidence:
"In 1975, I knew nobody else was going to build it for me so I convinced a banker to loan me 100 percent to buy an old, beaten-up bulldozer," said King. "I welded on it for two weeks to stick it together so it could finish the season. Then, before I had earned my first $100, the engine blew up. Marilyn and I rebuilt the engine and I started again. When you start a business, you become the mechanic, driver, operator, bookkeeper, and sometimes your own doctor and lawyer. I do know what Iowa values are. I represent them in Washington. I owe all Iowans my best effort and my best judgment."
The day King released his second television commercial (September 12) was the day I believed that his campaign advisers really were worried about Vilsack. An incumbent who's very confident doesn't make his or her spouse the focus of a tv ad.
Here's my transcript of "Marilyn":
[As music plays, viewer sees fantastic wedding photo of Steve and Marilyn King, then photo of them with their young children, then more current photo with grown-up children and small grandchildren; words Congressman Steve King on screen]
Marilyn King's voice: Steve King? He's had one wife, one house and one church for forty years. And I'm that one wife. [family photo with grandchildren, with words One wife on screen, shifts to footage of Marilyn King speaking directly to camera, with a farm building in the background; words on screen Marilyn King, then That one wife]
Steve's consistent, trustworthy, fascinated by people. Listens, loves Iowa. [clips of King smiling and talking with Iowans of different ages; SteveKing.com on screen]
I love it when he comes home from work each week. [Viewer sees footage of King smiling, walking with little girls (presumably granddaughters), carrying the smallest little girl on his shoulders; an American flag waves behind some trees]
Iowa gets most of his time, but we get him on Sundays. [view shifts to Marilyn King speaking directly to the camera again, smiling; words on screen Congressman Steve King One wife, one house, one church.
Steve King's voice: I'm Steve King and I approve this message. [viewer sees footage of King smiling with farm buildings in background; words on screen Congressman Steve King Bring him back.]
Talk about rebranding! Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the warm and fuzzy Steve King.
Seriously, Marilyn King and the ad-makers did a great job here. I don't know how many undecided voters would make up their minds based on this message, but the family-friendly images can't hurt King's favorability among moderates.
The "one house" is a subtle dig at Vilsack, who moved to Ames in order to run for Congress in IA-04. In other words, she is not running in the part of Iowa where she has lived for most of her life.
I find it odd that they kept emphasizing "one wife," as if King were running against someone who's divorced. Christie Vilsack has also been married to the same person for decades.
King's third television commercial came out on September 25 and had a sharper edge. "On the Street" featured ordinary people endorsing the incumbent while taking a few swipes at the challenger.
[Footage of King driving a heavy machine on his farm; words on screen Congressman Steve King]
Words on Screen: Like him?
Unidentified woman: You bet, speaks his mind. [viewer sees woman speaking to off-camera interviewer]
Unidentified man: Steve can be direct [viewer sees King climbing down from farm equipment]
Man continues speaking: but his facts are right. His convictions are right. And he doesn't just talk, he gets things done. [viewer sees this man speaking to off-camera interviewer; SteveKing.com is on screen in small letters]
Woman: Running against a lady who weaves and bobs and ducks; doesn't really want to tell Iowans what she thinks. [viewer sees the same woman from earlier part of ad, speaking to off-camera interviewer]
Second unidentified man: Give me that Iowa straight talker any day. [silent footage of King on the farm; view shifts to older man speaking about the Iowa straight talker]
King's voice: I'm Steve King and I approve this message. [viewer sees footage of smiling King, words on screen Re-elect Steve King Straight Talker]
Democratic candidates, commentators and organizations have long bashed King for his "highlight reel" of offensive statements. He's turning his "bluntness" to his advantage by contrasting "straight talk" with Vilsack's occasional reluctance to take a position on an issue. It looks like a decent strategy to me.
King stars in his latest television ad, released on October 2.
King's voice: Strengthen Medicare? [camera pans over unidentified older Iowa couple]
King speaks to camera: There's one easy way: get rid of Obamacare. [King stands in front of farm silos, Congressman Steve King on screen]
King's voice continues: Obamacare cuts Medicare 716 billion dollars. [photo of President Barack Obama, words on screen ObamaCare: CUTS Medicare $716 billion]
King speaks to camera again: It creates a board of 15 bureaucrats to control seniors' health decisions [words on screen Bureaucrats control YOUR health]
Liberals always try to scare you about Medicare. [closer view of King, SteveKing.com on screen]
Well, this time answer back and say you know the truth. Obamacare has to go. [Words appear on screen next to King: Re-elect Steve King Strengthen Medicare.]
I'm Steve King, and I approve this message. [footage of King gazing at farm fields; words Re-elect Steve King on screen]
IA-04 has a high proportion of older residents, so this ad reflects understandable concern about letting Vilsack and her allies use the Medicare issue to their benefit.
Fact-checkers have gone over and over these claims about a panel of bureaucrats controlling seniors' health care, and the Obama administration's $716 billion in Medicare cuts (which were also in the Paul Ryan budget King voted for in April 2011). I can't see how campaign ads are changing minds on this point anymore. Voters either believe one party's story on Medicare or the other party's story.
King's radio commercials
To my knowledge, the King campaign has run three district-wide radio commercials this year. I'll start with the most recent, rolled out on October 1. Governor Terry Branstad narrates the 60-second spot, which you can listen to here. Branstad is a native of Winnebago County in north-central Iowa and has a home in Boone County, which is also part of the new IA-04.
Transcript provided by the King campaign:
GOVERNOR BRANSTAD: Hi, this is Governor Terry Branstad. Let's talk about one of my favorite people: Iowa Congressman Steve King.
Steve's a unique and colorful public servant: sharp as a tack, knows the issues better than anyone. He knows how to take Iowa to Washington -- then leave DC behind when he comes home each week.
Steve King's the country's leading opponent of ObamaCare, always fighting for smaller government and balanced budgets.
Outspoken? You bet, and I like that. We know where Steve King stands. Guess that's why the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers have endorsed him.
Steve King is a great Representative for Iowa. Join me in voting for Steve King.
STEVE KING: I'm Steve King, candidate for U.S Congress and I approve this message. Paid for by King for Congress.
Branstad is a pretty good card to play with moderates in IA-04. As in the television commercial I discussed earlier, King is turning his reputation for stirring controversy into a plus.
King's first radio spot hit the airwaves in late June. Here's the transcript to "Land." For some reason, the campaign seems to have removed this video from YouTube.
Male narrator: Steve King, always worked the land in Iowa, started his own business with a barely breathing bulldozer he welded back together himself. Started early, worked late, succeeded.
Then Steve King went to work for us in Congress. Tireless, smart as a tack and not remotely afraid to take on President Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Think Steve kinda enjoys it. He's a champion for Iowa -values all week, then comes home to ask us how he can do better.
His opponent, Christie Vilsack, won't reveal her position on hardly any issue, won't answer reporter's questions. She just runs negative, dishonest ads that fact checks prove aren't true.
Steve King won't hide. He shoots straight. He's our Congressman.
Steve King: I'm Steve King, candidate for U.S. Congress, and I approved this message. Paid for by King for Congress.
King went negative in his second radio commercial, called "Seen." This 60-second spot came out in late July, and you can listen here. The campaign provided this transcript:
Have you ever actually seen Christie Vilsack this summer? She honestly doesn't seem to have positions on anything, so she's hidden behind a barrage of dishonest, negative ads.
Meanwhile, Steve King's been all over the fourth district, listening to folks, and telling us clearly where he stands. In Storm Lake, Steve left no doubt that he'll continue leading the charge to repeal Obamacare.
If you were in Mason City, you heard how Congressman King strongly supports a federal balanced budget amendment, like the one we have in Iowa.
And, in Ames Steve explained his work to help harness all forms of American energy, especially Iowa energy.
Steve King never hides. And he thinks like we do. Let's re-elect him for sure.
I'm Steve King and I approve this message.