Pat Murphy would enter this IA-01 primary as the underdog (updated)

Both Iowa Starting Line and Roll Call are reporting today that former Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy is likely to run for Congress again in the first district. Murphy won the five-way 2014 primary with just under 37 percent of the vote.

Other Iowa Democrats have lost their first U.S. House race before winning a seat in Congress on the second try, including legends Neal Smith, Tom Harkin, and Berkley Bedell. Still, I am skeptical that northeast Iowa Democrats will want to give Murphy another shot at beating Republican Rod Blum.

Surely it was bad luck for Murphy to make his first appearance on a district-wide ballot in a horrendous midterm year for Democrats. In fairness to him, he outpolled U.S. Senate nominee Bruce Braley in most of the 20 counties in IA-01. On the other hand, Murphy was the front-runner throughout the 2014 Democratic primary campaign. Not only did he have the most labor endorsements by far, he got some help from national progressive organizations like Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Blue America PAC, Human Rights Campaign. That was when most observers, myself included, didn’t give Blum much of a chance to win the general.

Despite all those advantages, and the fact that none of his primary rivals made any real case against nominating him, Murphy barely cleared the 35 percent threshold on primary day. He then lost narrowly to Blum, even as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent more than $1.4 million late in the game to salvage this race.

The Democratic nominee should be able to beat Blum in 2016. A presidential election will bring out a much larger electorate in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 20,000. With at least three and perhaps more competitive Iowa Senate races located in the IA-01 counties, the Iowa Democratic Party will put tremendous resources behind GOTV in northeast Iowa.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent nearly half a million dollars in IA-01 last cycle, appears ready to hang Blum out to dry. Blum can self-fund a campaign, though–we’re talking about a guy who loaned $2 million to a hockey player he didn’t know. Democrats won’t be able to take this seat for granted, even if Blum is among the most vulnerable House incumbents in the country.

Murphy started his last Congressional campaign much better-known throughout the district than any of his Democratic rivals. Now Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon has spent plenty of time campaigning in the district, as a Congressional candidate before the 2014 primary and as the lieutenant governor nominee during last year’s general election. She was the first to declare a challenge to Blum and has some well-known Iowa lawmakers supporting her, along with EMILY’s List. Representative Dave Loebsack, the only Iowa Democrat left in Congress, endorsed Vernon last week after Ravi Patel dropped out of the primary. I suspect many people will feel Murphy had his chance, and it’s time to give someone else the opportunity to take this seat back.

At this writing, Vernon’s only declared Democratic competition is Gary Kroeger. If Murphy runs again, he has to hope that former State Senator Swati Dandekar will take another shot too. The third-place finisher in the 2014 primary, Dandekar has a home base in Linn County, like Vernon, and could appeal to some of the same moderate women voters.

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

UPDATE: House Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer endorsed Vernon on June 30:

“Monica Vernon is among the top Democratic candidates in the country. Her deep ties to northeastern Iowa, her hard work helping rebuild Cedar Rapids after the flood and her experience building a small business from scratch is exactly the type of problem solving that is needed in Congress today,” Hoyer said in a statement. […]

Along with Hoyer, Vernon has the endorsement of six other members of Congress. Congresspeople Dave Loebsack, of Iowa’s 2nd District, and Cheri Bustos, of Illinois’ 17th District, in districts neighboring Iowa’s 1st District endorsed Vernon last week.

Her other congressional endorsements come from U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, D-Fla.; Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.; Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H.;and Denny Heck, D-Wa.

In typical media fashion, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier’s Christinia Crippes attributed reports of Murphy running again to Roll Call rather than to Iowa Starting Line, which was first with this story.

JULY 4 UPDATE: Murphy told William Garbe of the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald ,

My wife and I are seriously looking at it,” Murphy said. “We’re talking it over with our family, our friends, and we’ll make a decision sometime soon. But soon is a very broad definition.”

Murphy spoke with the reporter after attending an Independence Day event with presidential candidate Martin O’Malley.

  • Understanding Congressional campaigns

    From my perspective as a three-time former congressional campaign manager, here’s why this is not a good idea: Until the system changes, the factor which dominates electoral success for US House candidates is money. A congressional candidate has to communicate with the 730,000 people who make up the district. The only way to reach all those people is through paid communications (direct mail and media). And, given the federal rules, in order to raise the kind of money needed to win (2.5 – 3 million dollars) a candidate has to have a wide base of fundraising support.

    Had Murphy announced an intention to run shortly after the election in 2014, he would have been able to bring donors right back to the table and move forward. Instead, he implied that he was going in a different direction in news stories, thereby opening the door for others.

    Many of his donors are now committed to other candidates. Getting them back will not be easy, if it is at all possible. And, to be blunt, a winning campaign will need 2.5 to 3 million on hand by next September to make this work. Murphy was nowhere near that number last time.

    Pat is a good guy and was a good House leader in the Iowa House. Given that he has a narrow base of donors who are willing to give large sums toward his candidacy, I’d rather see him run for a state office where he can raise the money to be viable, than for Congress where his base is limited in their donations by the Federal rules.  

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