Shortly before election day 2010, Representative Bruce Braley and his staff were sweating it. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent significant funds to help Braley fend off a ton of attack ads funded by conservative groups. Braley defeated Ben Lange by just 4,209 votes. If not for Iowa Democrats' early vote program and the presence of two minor-party candidates on the ballot, Lange might be in Congress today.
This year, Iowa's first Congressional district looks far less competitive. A final review of Braley's rematch against Lange is after the jump, including some fireworks from the candidates' Iowa Public Television debate last week.
The latest voter registration numbers show Democrats extending their registration advantage in IA-01. The district's 20 counties contain 163,901 Democrats, 138,481 Republicans, and 187,659 no-party voters.
More important, the latest absentee ballot numbers show that as of November 3, county auditors in IA-01 had received 69,939 ballots from registered Democrats, 44,723 from Republicans, and 44,709 from no-party voters. That's a much larger early vote advantage than Braley took into the 2010 election, although many more people vote in presidential elections than in midterms, and the population of IA-01 is larger now that Iowa has only four Congressional districts.
Braley's district hasn't been on the Rothenberg Political Report's list of U.S. House seats in play this summer and fall. The Cook Political Report considers this a likely Democratic hold. In July, the National Journal's Scott Bland ranked IA-01 64th on the list of U.S. House districts likely to change hands. In early October IA-01 was 65th on the same list, with Bland noting, "The environment in east Iowa just looks less favorable for Republicans than it did a month and a half ago." The final pre-election National Journal list of seats that might change hands included neither IA-01 nor IA-02.
In another good sign for Braley, the latest Des Moines Register Iowa poll by Selzer & Co. showed President Barack Obama leading Republican Mitt Romney by 12 points among respondents who live in the first Congressional district.
Other than some National Republican Congressional Committee anti-Braley ads, which stopped running at the end of September, Lange has gotten only a little outside help this year. The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action and the National Right to Life Political Action Committee have sent direct mail supporting him, while the American Future Fund has sent direct mail attacking Braley.
The Iowa Credit Unions PAC and the American College of Radiology Association PAC have both sent out direct mail supporting Braley, while the American Hospital Association ran a television commercial on his behalf.
Lange's campaign recently touted a poll conducted by the Republican consulting firm Victory Enterprises. That survey of 390 likely voters on October 24 showed Lange supposedly ahead of Braley by 46.9 percent to 45.4 percent. The same poll showed Romney ahead of Obama by 48.9 percent to 46.4 percent among respondents in IA-01.
The margin of error for Victory Enterprises' poll is plus or minus 5.1 percent, but even with perfect sampling methods, approximately one out of 20 polls is going to be wrong outside the margin of error just by chance. I suspect this survey falls into that group. If Democrats' internal polling showed Braley in trouble, a lot more money would be going into negative television commercials against Lange. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn't been advertising here, and other than one comparative spot criticizing Lange's tax proposal, Braley's tv ads have been mostly positive.
Lange's closing statement to television viewers is called "The Choice." It went up on October 31.
Lange: Iowans deserve the truth, and Congressman Braley's desperate attacks are false. The truth is, Braley's Washington policies are squeezing the middle class, crushing single moms, and putting our seniors at risk. [Lange speaks directly to the camera as he sits on the front porch steps, with each of his arms around one of his little girls, who are smiling. Near the bottom of the screen, the viewer can see LangeforCongress.com ]
If you want more of the same, then vote for Bruce Braley. But if you want a fresh start, a Congressman with the courage to solve the national debt crisis, create millions of new jobs, then vote for me. [Closer view of Lange from the chest up as he continues speaking to camera; website still visible near bottom of screen, also Ben Lange Candidate for Congress campaign logo]
I'm Ben Lange, and I approved this message, because we need leaders who will work with both parties. [Close-up of Lange's face as he continues speaking to camera; viewer sees VOTE LANGE UNITED STATES CONGRESS along with paid-for message near bottom of screen]
Inquiring minds want to know: how did Lange get his gorgeous children to sit still and smile for that long? That's definitely an appealing image.
An ad like this can't hurt Lange. He's sticking with the issues he has emphasized in previous commercials. Even though the script criticizes Braley, it looks more like a positive ad than a typical attack ad with scary music and unflattering visuals.
At the same time, I don't see this commercial severely eroding Braley's support. Television viewers in IA-01 haven't been seeing many "desperate attacks" on Lange lately. Braley's closing ad, "All About," is a 60-second positive spot that went up last week.
Braley: When I was growing up and people had a problem, nobody asked you if you were a Republican or a Democrat, they asked for your help and they got it. [Black and white photos of Braley as a child, then view of Braley speaking to an off-camera interviewer; words BRUCE BRALEY on screen]
So I worked with a Republican from Georgia to pass an important bill that affects a lot of employees at Lennox Manufacturing in Marshalltown. If I let politics get in the way then you'd never get anything done. [footage of Braley typing on a laptop computer, words on screen ENDORSED BY The Des Moines Register, then view of Braley speaking; then footage of Braley in a hardhat and goggles speaking with workers on a factory floor; words on screen "Braley focuses on finding areas of agreement to get something done." The Des Moines Register 10/20/12]
There are real medical challenges that literally thousands of our returning veterans are facing every day. [Braley speaking to off-camera interviewer, words on screen ENDORSED BY: The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald]
We have to come up with policies and resources to give veterans everything they deserve because they've earned it. [Viewer sees photo of Braley speaking to group of veterans, then footage of Braley speaking with different group of veterans; words on screen "Braley has established himself as a leading advocate for military veterans." TELEGRAPH-HERALD 10/14/12]
I've spent a lot of my time in Congress trying to focus on promoting economic policies that are going to strengthen the middle class, and that's a reflection of the life I've lived in Iowa.
I'm Bruce Braley and I approve this message. [viewer sees Braley speaking to off-camera interviewer, then footage of Braley speaking to other people in different settings; words on screen "It is hard to think of many members of Iowa's delegation who have worked harder or smarter or who took his job more seriously." The Des Moines Register 10/20/12]
Not breaking any new ground here, but still, a strong closing ad. I don't know how many Iowans are still watching political commercials, but for anyone who isn't changing the channel, this will stand out as a positive message amid lots of negative political ads.
Speaking of negativity, last week's debate between Lange and Braley on Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program was quite the event. You can watch the video or read the transcript here, but the transcript doesn't do justice to how tense the atmosphere was at times. These two men do not like each other and went after each other.
I think both candidates were in better form during their radio debate in early October, but the Iowa Press debate grabbed your attention more.
Lange came into the television debate with a plan to keep Braley off balance and accuse him of lying as often as possible. He succeeded in getting Braley to take the bait a few times, raising his voice and looking angry. But the Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovich called that a "hollow victory" for the challenger.
Braley, instead of laughing Lange off as he perhaps should have done, was visibly irritated from the start. By the midway point, he'd gone from irked to ticked off. That's when Lange baited him about the Affordable Care Act. "Are you trying to tell us that you read 2,700 pages?"
Braley bellowed: "You're damn right I read the bill!" He said he took the bill to every one of his 17 town-hall meetings, he had his own, handwritten notes in the margin. "And I had tabs there!"
He even had tabs! How about that. It was a bad moment for Braley, who looked like he wanted to deck Lange. Maybe the Republican was hoping he'd take a swing - he was clearly enjoying pushing the congressman's buttons. [...]
Even though Lange got Braley to blow up, it was a hollow victory. Lange was so rude and annoying throughout the debate that it was impossible to imagine him as a representative of Iowa in Congress. He made Braley look undignified, but Lange just looked desperate.
The strongest aspect of Lange's performance was how well he stayed on his message. He has mastered the debate tactic of answering the question you want to answer, rather than the question you were asked. He pivoted quickly to the points he wanted to make about Braley's record.
An early exchange about federal disaster aid was damaging to Lange, though. Speaking to Cedar Rapids Rotary members on October 29, Lange suggested that federal funding for flood mitigation should be a lower priority than getting the national debt under control.
"Once we get that under control to a point where our revenue is meeting our expenditures or pretty close to it, then what we need to understand is that as a representative it's my job to go out there and advocate for you on what the interests are to make sure that Cedar Rapids has a levee here to protect downtown," Lange told Cedar Rapids Rotary members Monday. "It's about putting in a priority of solving the overall national problems that could sink us all, and then advocating for the interests that can help us here in Cedar Rapids."
Lange, an Independence Republican challenging three-term Democratic incumbent Bruce Braley in northeast Iowa's new 1st District, said he understands the city's need for flood protection.
"I understand the importance," Lange said. "This is where all the surrounding communities come to spend their money and I want to make sure we continue to have the vibrant downtown I think we're starting to see with the NewBo Market and so forth. We can do that, but we need advocates for it."
The government's debt is "the one single issue that drives me," said Lange, 33. He said a balanced-budget amendment and capping spending federal spending to a share of the gross domestic product are key to restraining the deficit.
Braley hammered Lange, who backpedaled a bit before changing the subject.
Braley: All you have to do is read the story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette and judge for yourself. The bottom line is when my district was in crisis I went to Washington and fought to get disaster assistance funding to rebuild the cities in my district including Independence where Ben lives. And you know what, Dean, when they took me into Independence that first day of the flooding the first place they took me to was an area of Independence that wasn't going to be impacted by that flood because of prior disaster mitigation programs. That is the difference between us. It's a clear difference in philosophy on the role of the federal government.
Borg: Let me just ask one more question -- you say you want the states more involved in paying for their own disasters. What would happen to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, under your circumstance?
Lange: Well, I think there is a role for FEMA because I believe there is a role for the federal government to play in natural disasters. But what it can't be is a role to fill every solution to every problem out there and right now states are failing to plan, they are failing to budget for those particular situations that come up. And the important part is, Dean, natural disasters are different in different areas of the country. And there is no way that there can be a complete federal response on all perspectives.
Lynch: Mr. Lange, you made this comment the other day, that we need to get the federal deficit or debt under control before we pick up the funding for some of these flood recovery projects. How long should Iowans have to wait to rebuild their cities, their communities after floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters they have no control over?
Lange: Well, I have said, and I'll say that again, that as a member of Congress I will advocate immediately for the rebuilding of downtown Cedar Rapids. I drove through downtown Cedar Rapids at the peak of the flood. I saw that what it did when the water was above the courthouse doors. So I understand the importance of it. I understand how people were removed from their homes during those situations. And I want to make sure that we do everything we can to rebuild it. But what I won't do, James, what I won't do is pass the buck onto my daughters. I think it's time that we have people in office stand up and understand what is happening to my daughters' generation. The Congressman has voted six separate times to increase the debt limit. He went into office, James, saying that the national debt would be his highest priority. Under his watch the national debt has nearly doubled. Under his watch we are sitting at 23 million Americans unemployed. The fact of the matter is his policies have failed and now we are left with a new generation stepping up to the plate and trying to solve the problems of incumbent politicians that care more about the next election than they do the next generation.
Lynch: Do you think that the republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, would agree with your proposal to wait until we get the national deficit under control?
Lange: Well, that isn't my proposal. What I have said and I've said time and time again is that I will advocate for flood recovery but what I like, what Chris Christie said, is that politics has nothing to do when people are in need, politics has nothing to do when people are hurting, when families are displaced from their homes. That is the position I take. But what I won't do is give broken promises time and time again like you have, Congressman, when it comes to the national debt. People out there wanting to know what are you going to do to solve this problem? You have been in office for six years, Congressman, six years, six votes to increase the national debt limit, say you're for a balanced budget amendment but go out to Washington, D.C. and vote against it. You say that you're going to end the relationships with lobbyists but you take thousands of dollars from them. 81% of your support comes from outside of the state of Iowa, Congressman.
Braley: What does that have to do with the question that James asked you?
Lange: Because it all comes down to broken promises. We cannot tolerate -- my children cannot tolerate it.
Borg: Mr. Lange, you are leading us down another line of questioning and we have to give Congressman Braley a chance to respond before we go on with the other questions.
Braley: James, the answer to the question you asked is that Ben's position is let those children eat cake. No listen, this is my time to talk, if you're going to interrupt me then you're going to have to deal with the moderator. This is my turn to respond to the question.
Lange: Please tell the truth.
Like I said, the transcript doesn't do justice to how tense these exchanges were. Iowa politics junkies really should watch this video. Tempers especially flared when the candidates were talking about tax plans and health care reform.
I think one of the highlights for Braley came shortly after moderators showed a tape of Lange's "Gutless" ad.
Dean, what people in Iowa are looking for is mature, hardworking people who have demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle and get things done. We don't need more name calling in Congress. Ben, you went to your state convention this year and said you were running for Congress because I had been a complete failure as a Congressman and then you ran an ad that called me gutless. Why didn't you ask the people in your hometown of Quasqueton if I was gutless when I took on the U.S. Postal Service and saved their post office and saved the mail processing facilities in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. Why don't you ask the people in your hometown of Independence if I was a complete failure when I was there during the flooding disaster getting assistance for them in Cedar Falls and Waterloo and Elkader and Greene and in Cedar Rapids, Dean. Why don't you ask the people who have been depending upon me to get them benefits that they earned serving in Iraq with the Iowa National Guard that were being denied them by the Pentagon. If I was gutless when I took on the Pentagon bean counters and got them that money. And why don't you ask the people of my district who know my record, know that I have listened to their concerns, I have worked hard and gotten things done, if I have been a complete failure. I'll take their answer over yours.
Borg: Mr. Lange.
Lange: Dean, I want an opportunity to respond to this. I believe people want leaders in Washington --
Braley: Did you say I was a complete failure?
Lange: -- you'll have your time, I assure you. You're the incumbent, you'll have your time. They will make sure of that. But Congressman, the bottom line is the national debt is going to sink this country. Republicans, democrats, independents, it doesn't matter. We are going to make it or break it as this country as United States of America. We need people in office that understand that and you can't come here to Iowa, say that you are for a balanced budget amendment but go to Washington, D.C. and vote against it. You can't go into office saying the national debt is your highest priority and then don't do anything to solve the problem but double the national debt. My daughters share of the national debt went from $23,000 to over $50,000 a piece Congressman. That is a failure on that issue. Nothing personal, Congressman, but that is a failure on the policy.
Braley: Well, Dean, I need to get a chance to respond to that because Ben is always talking about his daughters and their future and he fails to remind people that he worked for Congress and when he started working for Congress there wasn't a budget deficit, there was a surplus leftover from the Clinton administration and that deficit started, Dean, because Congress, while Ben was working for it, before I ever got there, put two wars on a credit card, gave taxpayers, wealthy taxpayers a tax break that added trillions of dollars to the deficit and provided a new Medicare benefit that they didn't pay for. That's why we got the debt.
I'm used to disagreeing with most of what Lange says about federal policy, but even I was shocked when, toward the end of the debate, he made these accusations:
where was the concern when the President unilaterally went into Libya? The Congressman was up in arms when it came to Iraq and Afghanistan and that was with authorization of use of military force. When it came to Libya he sat on his hands and now we have Americans dead and you don't object to that -- you did not object to that. [...]
Lange: You didn't object to the administration unilaterally entering Libya. You didn't do anything with that.
You can say a lot of things about Braley, but you can't say he didn't repeatedly express concerns about the military intervention in Libya. On the contrary, Braley specifically voted against authorizing the intervention and for defunding it.
Both sides claimed victory after the debate. Lange's campaign sent out a press release saying the challenger had "rattled" Braley.
"This was the first time this cycle where Braley was forced to answer tough questions and it showed," said Cody Brown, Lange's advisor. "Braley was angry and defensive throughout tonight's debate and he may have done grave damage to his prospects of re-election."
Meanwhile, Braley's campaign released a web video of debate highlights.
Any comments about the IA-01 race are welcome in this thread.