Iowa's non-partisan redistricting system has given our state an unusual number of competitive Congressional districts. Major-party candidates and outside groups spent millions of dollars last year in Iowa's first district race pitting GOP Representative Rod Blum against Democratic challenger Monica Vernon, as well as in the third district, where Republican Representative David Young faced Democrat Jim Mowrer.
Not only are Democrats determined to go after IA-01 and IA-03 again in 2018, Iowa Republicans have signaled that they will try to defeat six-term Representative Dave Loebsack, who mostly got a pass in the second district during 2016.
Democrats investing early in IA-01
On January 30, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named dozens of GOP-held House seats as 2018 targets. A memo from DCCC Executive Director Dan Sena cited President Donald Trump's unpopularity and the historical trend of the party in power losing House seats during the first midterm election. Both IA-01 and IA-03 are on that list.
Iowa's first district is in the top tier of 20 GOP-held seats where the DCCC will have staff on the ground soon, according to a February 2 press release. James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette,
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is planning to hire a full-time, local organizing staffer and launch digital ads in Iowa’s 1st District in order to help constituents organize and promote local accountability events.
“The launch of our ‘March into ’18’ accountability project comes at a time of excitement and opportunity for Democrats,” according to DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan. “The organic strength of the women’s marches, Affordable Care Act rallies, and protests can already be felt in Iowa’s 1st District, and this unprecedented DCCC investment will help capture that energy, engage voters and help make their voices heard.” [...]
Hiring an on-the-ground organizer is a step campaign committees typically take in an election year, but Lujan said the DCCC is starting earlier than ever because “a groundswell of people are looking for ways to tell their stories, channel their energy and organize for change.”
UPDATE: Blair Lawton, a former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer and candidate for Iowa Democratic Party chair, announced on February 13,
I'm excited to start working with the IDP this week in Congressional District 1 as part of the "March into 2018 Accountability Project!" This will be a great opportunity to organize our communities and lay the groundwork for 2018, use earned media and other tactics to hold Rep. Blum accountable, and offer training opportunities to benefit activists across the district.
This position will be a great fit for Lawton. Sanders performed well in many parts of the district in the 2016 caucuses.
The 20 counties in IA-01 contain 164,485 active registered Democrats, 144,687 Republicans, and 189,606 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State's office.
Two years ago, many Democrats considered Blum a "one-term wonder." Amid heavy spending on both sides, he not only survived his first re-election bid, but defeated Vernon by a larger margin (53.7 percent to 46.1 percent) than he had managed against Pat Murphy in the 2014 GOP landslide.
Trump may be the most unpopular new president in modern history, and his ratings may slide further before the midterm elections, but given Iowa's tendency to re-elect incumbents, Democrats should not expect an easy race against Blum in 2018. The latest campaign finance report shows Blum ended 2016 with $47,566.78 cash on hand and $114,119.00 in debts and obligations. The debt includes $100,000 Blum loaned his campaign during the 2014 race. Probably enough conservative and corporate PAC money will roll in this year to help Blum defend himself in 2018 without dipping into personal cash reserves.
So far, Cedar Rapids-based engineer Courtney Rowe is the only Democrat to speak publicly about a possible challenge to Blum. A multi-candidate primary here is likely.
One name often mentioned in Democratic circles is Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson. A Republican for most of his political career, Oleson has long been a supporter of marriage equality, project labor agreements, and more spending on conservation. He finally switched parties in September 2015 and became a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year.
Then State Senator Steve Sodders considered running for Congress in IA-01 in 2014. The Marshall County deputy sheriff no longer serves in the Iowa Senate, having lost his 2016 re-election bid.
State Senator Jeff Danielson also thought about running for Congress during the 2014 cycle but decided against seeking higher office. Danielson just won a fourth term in the Iowa Senate and won't be up for re-election until 2020, so he could run for Congress next year without giving up his legislative seat.
Republicans making noise about IA-02
The sole remaining Democrat in Iowa's Congressional delegation escaped a serious contest in 2016. Loebsack's GOP challenger Christopher Peters got in the race late, after State Senator Mark Chelgren backed out shortly before the filing deadline. Peters spent about $190,000 on the race, of which $105,000 came from loans by the candidate himself. (Peters loaned his campaign another $5,000 in December.) Neither the National Republican Congressional Committee nor conservative-aligned outside groups spent money against Loebsack last year.
The decision not to target Loebsack was understandable. GOP challenger John Archer had raised and spent nearly a million dollars on the 2012 race in IA-02, and the National Republican Congressional Committee kicked in almost another $850,000 that year, most of it opposing Loebsack.
Hoping for better luck in a midterm year, the NRCC spent more than $1 million against Loebsack during the 2014 campaign, on top of $940,000 raised and spent by Loebsack's three-time challenger Mariannette Miller-Meeks. However, the Democrat was re-elected again that year, winning by about 14,000 votes (52.5 percent to 47.4 percent).
After seeing the scale of Trump's victory in Iowa, Republicans must be regretting that they didn't play for IA-02 in 2016. Barack Obama had carried the 24 counties in Loebsack's district by 55.8 percent to 42.7 percent in 2012, but the same counties went to Trump by 49.1 percent to 45.0 percent, despite a lopsided vote for Clinton in Johnson County.
Although Loebsack outperformed Clinton substantially, his winning margin against Peters as only about 27,500 votes (53.7 percent to 46.2 percent). Keep in mind that Loebsack spent more than $575,821.28 during the 2016 election cycle--far more than his opponent did.
I'm relieved Chelgren, the man formerly known as the RAGBRAI rider "Chickenman," chickened out of the Congressional race. With his base in Ottumwa and more Republican money behind him, Chelgren could have pulled off an upset and left Iowa with no Democrats in Congress for the first time since 1996.
At last weekend's Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee meeting, party chair Jeff Kaufmann indicated that the GOP will try to defeat Loebsack in 2018. He described the three main barriers to that goal as "Iowa City, Iowa City and Iowa City." O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,
Kaufmann aims to recruit a “unique...non-establishment” candidate who’ll do well outside of Iowa City. Kaufmann calls Iowa City a “Democratic juggernaut.”
“I mean I could fly in with a cape with blue tights...and I’m not going to turn Iowa City to voting even 40 percent Republican,” Kaufmann told reporters during a news conference this morning. “...I think what we have to do is look for ways where we can run up our total.”
To have a shot at beating Loebsack, Kaufmann said the Republican challenger must win areas where Donald Trump did surprisingly well in 2016.
“I call ’em Truman Democratic strongholds,” Kaufmann said. “...Trump won Wapello County big. Trump won Lee County. If we can somehow continue to run up the totals there, I think we can be very competitive.”
Kaufmann's counting on Trump being a draw for a GOP Congressional candidate in traditionally Democratic areas of southeastern Iowa. That may be a leap of faith, given the tendency for the president's party to lose seats in midterm elections. In addition, I believe that intense antipathy toward Clinton drove a lot of voters to back Trump last year, even though they didn't like him. The president's unstable personality is not likely to grow on those voters over the next two years. Loebsack may not be the world's most exciting politician, but he doesn't inspire hatred the way Clinton did. It won't be easy to demonize him.
I haven't heard of any Republicans talking about a potential candidacy in IA-02 yet. One name has come up in the Democratic rumor mill: State Representative Bobby Kaufmann, the son of the Iowa GOP chair. He doesn't seem like the kind of "unique," "non-establishment" candidate his father was talking about last weekend, though. I would guess some wishful thinking is driving this chatter. If the younger Kaufmann sought higher office, Democrats would have a shot at winning Iowa House district 73.
The American Action Network announced this week that it will spend money to pressure House Democrats in districts Trump won, including Loebsack. (That dark money conservative group didn't play in IA-02 last year but spent nearly $700,000 opposing Vernon in IA-01.) Ed Tibbetts reported that the American Action Network is buying an undisclosed amount of Quad Cities air time to target Loebsack in ads about the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Loebsack has never been the strongest fundraiser in Iowa's Congressional delegation, but he ended 2016 with $983,608.75 cash on hand--a nice start to running a well-funded re-election campaign next year.
The IA-02 counties contain 171,784 active registered Democrats, 148,616 Republicans, and 182,594 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State's office.
Any comments about the 2018 Congressional races in Iowa are welcome in this thread.