The state of play in Iowa's most competitive Congressional race

It’s been too long since Bleeding Heartland checked in on the campaign in Iowa’s first Congressional district. Two-term Representative Rod Blum is not only our state’s most endangered U.S. House member, he is among the country’s most vulnerable GOP incumbents, according to leading election forecasters.

Recent revelations about Blum’s shady, undisclosed internet company may further undermine his election prospects. Tin Moon used Blum’s chief of staff in a fake testimonial, touted phony client “success stories” on its website, and solicited business by promising to make FDA warning letters harder to find in online searches.

IOWA’S ONLY “TOSS UP” CONGRESSIONAL RACE

Although many politics-watchers expected Blum to be a “one-term wonder” after narrowly winning in 2014, he was re-elected last cycle by a larger margin (53.7 percent to 46.1 percent). He outperformed the top of the Republican ticket by about five points; Donald Trump carried the IA-01 counties by a 48.7 percent to 45.2 percent for Hillary Clinton, which was a huge swing from Barack Obama’s 56.2 percent to 42.5 percent win over Mitt Romney in the district.

Yet Blum is in a weaker spot than most House incumbents. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in his district. The 20 counties mostly in the northeast part of the state contain 155,994 active registered Democrats, 139,649 Republicans, and 189,604 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

The top House race handicappers all see IA-01 as highly competitive. Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” announced 26 ratings changes on March 8, “all in favor of Democrats.” Kyle Kondik noted that Blum and Representative Mike Bost of Illinois “represent working-class districts with down-ballot Democratic strength that swung to Trump in 2016. Both should face strong opponents and the prospect of a Democratic snapback later this year.”

The Cook Political Report had moved IA-01 from the “lean Republican” to “toss up” column last October. Dave Wasserman commented at that time, “Blum has consistently been underestimated, but he’s still a conservative Republican sitting in a seat with a left-leaning heritage in a cycle that has a potential to become a Democratic wave.”

Roll Call’s 2018 election guide still has IA-01 in the “tilt Republican” category, indicating a slight advantage for Blum but not enough to call the district “lean Republican.”

NBC News put this district on its list of “Top 10 Most Likely House Flips.”

Since last fall, multiple polls commissioned by Democrats have shown Blum trailing either a generic Democrat or one of his named challengers.

No candidate in IA-01 has filed nominating papers yet, but four Democrats are actively campaigning here:

Abby Finkenauer (website, Facebook, Twitter)

Thomas Heckroth (website, Facebook, Twitter)

George Ramsey III (website, Facebook, Twitter)

Courtney Rowe (website, Facebook, Twitter)

BLUM MAINTAINS FINANCIAL EDGE

Blum enjoys one of the natural advantages for Congressional incumbents: a much larger campaign war chest than his general election opponent will have. His Federal Election Commission filings show $578,431.92 in contributions during 2017, of which $355,299.48 came from individuals and $223,132.44 from a long list of political action committees. In addition, he loaned his campaign $500,000. After spending $98,730.46 and transferring $37,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, Blum’s campaign ended the year with $995,274.19 cash on hand.

The incumbent has surely raised hundreds of thousands more since then (the next quarterly FEC reports are due on April 15). He won’t have to spend much before the primary, whereas the Democratic candidates will likely use the vast majority of their campaign funds in pursuit of the nomination.

Finkenauer raised $610,748.20 during 2017, of which $473,956.16 came from individuals, $42.04 from party committees, and $136,750.00 from PACs or campaigns of House Democrats. It’s rare for a non-incumbent to raise so much PAC money, but Finkenauer got early endorsements from a number of labor unions and EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put her in their “Red to Blue” program in November, a signal to donors and members of Congress that she is the party’s preferred candidate.

Finkenauer’s campaign spent $231,827.20 during 2017 and had $379,066.40 cash on hand as of December 31. However, at least $60,000 of that total can’t be used until after June 5, because Finkenauer has quite a few donors who maxed out with $2,700 contributions for both the primary and general elections. She will need to refund that money if she doesn’t win the nomination.

Heckroth entered the race several months after Finkenauer but has a number of well-known endorsers around the district and ties to fundraising networks associated with his former boss, Senator Tom Harkin. (Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle hosted a fundraiser in Washington earlier this week.) During the last two quarters of 2017, Heckroth’s campaign raised $246,447.87, all from individuals. He spent $56,854.21 during the same period, leaving $189,649.40 cash on hand at the end of the year. Although that was well behind his main competition in the primary, it’s enough to run a credible district-wide effort with paid advertising, as will be discussed below.

Courtney Rowe raised $8,522.78 last year, $1,090.96 from the candidate and $7,431.82 from other individuals. After spending $3,189.22, her campaign had $5,333.56 cash on hand on December 31. Rowe relies on volunteer labor and social media to get the word out and will struggle to compete with her better-funded Democratic rivals. To my knowledge, the only group endorsing her is Justice Democrats, which doesn’t have a large organization.

George Ramsey III loaned his campaign $21,400.00 last year and raised $25,200.20 from other individuals. After spending $18,278.30, his campaign finished the year with $28,321.90 cash on hand and $33,205.52 in debts, all owed to the candidate. Like Rowe, Ramsey may not have the resources to raise his name recognition district-wide before the primary.

Though Blum will enter the general election campaign with more cash on hand, the eventual Democratic nominee will have plenty of support. Outside groups spent more than $5.2 million in IA-01 during the last election cycle. Blum is a top target for the End Citizens United PAC and the progressive coalition Not One Penny.

HECKROTH STRIKES FIRST ON TV

Though Not One Penny has been running television commercials against Blum for months, Heckroth was the first IA-01 candidate to go up on the air, launching three 15-second spots on March 9. All the ads have a positive message and prominently feature the candidate’s name. Here’s “Fix”:

My transcript:

Female voice-over: More of this won’t fix Congress. [close-up view of three mouths yelling]

Thomas Heckroth knows it’s listen, work your tail off. [photos of Heckroth working, candidate’s name in large letters]

Like he did for Harkin’s Ag committee [photo of Heckroth on left, photo with Harkin on right, words on screen “THOMAS HECKROTH Advisor to Tom Harkin”]

and Obama’s Labor Department. [photo of Heckroth on left, photo with President Obama on right, words on screen “THOMAS HECKROTH Labor Department Official”]

Heckroth. Small town guy, big time experience. [photo of Heckroth talking with two people]

Heckroth’s voice: I’m Thomas Heckroth, I approve this message. [photo of the candidate, with Thomas Heckroth Democrat for Congress campaign logo on screen]

Here’s “Defend”:

Female voice-over: That won’t protect health care. [viewer sees man with flap lapel pin and big flag in background, pounding on a podium]

Thomas Heckroth will do it the Iowa way. Listen, work, lead. [photos of Heckroth talking people people or working at his computer; candidate’s name on screen in big block letters]

To stop Trump’s repeal and defend Medicare and Medicaid, [photos of Heckroth with words on screen “THOMAS HECKROTH Stop Repeal Defend Medicare]

Dump Blum, give ’em Heckroth. [photo of Heckroth talking people people, words on screen “Give ’em Heckroth”]

Heckroth’s voice: I’m Thomas Heckroth, I approve this message. [photo of the candidate, with Thomas Heckroth Democrat for Congress campaign logo on screen]

Finally, “Better”:

Female voice-over: Turn protest into progress. [crowd shot from large anti-Trump demonstration, photo of hands holding “RESIST NOW” signs with U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court in background]

When Bush was president, [brief view of crowd shot, with protesters holding anti-Bush signs]

Thomas Heckroth helped Senator Harkin pass progressive laws. [photos of Heckroth with Harkin and Heckroth alone, words on screen “THOMAS HECKROTH Advisor to Tom Harkin”]

That’s how we’ll stand up to Trump. [photo of Donald Trump scowling]

Heckroth? Heck yes. [photo of Heckroth rolling up a shirt sleeve, words on screen “Heckroth. HECK YES.”]

Heckroth’s voice: I’m Thomas Heckroth, I approve this message. [photo of the candidate, with Thomas Heckroth Democrat for Congress campaign logo on screen]

I can’t recall a Congressional candidate starting a tv ad campaign with 15-second spots. These commercials strike me as an economical way to raise Heckroth’s name recognition. Though I haven’t seen any recent polling on Harkin, I would guess that his favorable numbers are still sky-high with Iowa Democrats.

Of the three closing tag lines, the one I like best is “Heckroth? Heck yes.”

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

UPDATE: Blum played the victim at the Linn County GOP convention on March 10. James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

Five years ago, running for an open seat in the 20-county northeast Iowa 1st District, “we were under assault, under attack, the underdog and all that. And we are again,” Blum said.

Media reports make it seem like “I’m the worst person on the face of the planet,” said Blum, who also made stops in Dubuque, Jones and Delaware counties before speaking at the GOP county convention at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids. […]

The media’s “latest craze” is that he didn’t report an investment in a digital reputation management company. Blum said investments of less than $1,000 do not have to be disclosed, but he later amended his ethics form to note it.

“What a beautiful assassination attempt,” he called stories about his involvement in Tin Moon, a Dubuque firm that claims it can bury derogatory information about a business in online search results.

“I don’t work for them. I don’t run it,” he said about the company. […]

Later Saturday, Blum declined to say whether it is appropriate for a member of Congress to invest in a company that offers the service of burying derogatory information from the federal government.

Tin Moon lists Blum as majority shareholder. The company used his chief of staff John Ferland in a false ad (which you can view here). The original report by Ryan Foley noted,

Ferland said he was asked to record the testimonial by “a friend of mine, Ed Graham,” who is president of Tin Moon and Digital Canal and the treasurer of Blum’s campaign committee. […]

Digital marketing expert Rand Fishkin said the company looks “very sketchy” because reputable firms do not guarantee rankings, which can be influenced but are ultimately controlled by search engines such as Google. […]

Tin Moon urges recipients of [FDA] warning letters to contact Monty Alexander, its “reputation management professional.” Alexander is also a GOP activist who has supported Blum’s campaigns.

Democrats cannot allow Blum to reframe this scandal as a minor disclosure violation.

MARCH 14 UPDATE: Heckroth and Finkenauer have qualified for the ballot; Ramsey, Rowe, and Blum have not yet submitted nominating papers. The deadline is 5:00 pm on March 16.

The Finkenauer campaign released a memo on an internal poll showing that among likely Democratic primary voters, 45 percent are undecided, 29 percent support Finkenauer, 10 percent Ramsey, 8 percent Heckroth, and 7 percent Rowe.

Finkenauer leads in every region of the district, with men and with women and among voters in every age group. One major reason for her wide lead is her strong showing among people who know her. Among the voters who can identify Finkenauer, she holds a 62 – 11 percent advantage over Heckroth. Finkenauer also leads among voters who can identify Heckroth (39 – 25 percent). […]

After voters hear balanced positive profile statements from Finkenauer and Heckroth, the race starts to take more form, but Finkenauer’s lead persists. At this point, she leads 41 – 22 percent with the other two candidates combining for another 14 percent.

Note: the memo did not include the question wording for those positive statements, and the survey was conducted before Heckroth’s television ad buy.

  • IA-01

    Maybe some frustrated King-district Democrats will decide to donate their money to the first-district race, partly for the thrill of donating to a Congressional campaign that has an actual chance of winning.

    • Not so fast. . .

      I know odds are long, but if a wave hits, we have three good candidates up there (but especially: Go Leann!) We can get plenty of $$$ to CD-1 without giving up on CD-4.

      • Just to clarify...

        …I would of course very much like to see Steve King forced to find another job. And if there will be plenty of money for both the CD-1 and CD-4 campaigns, I’m delighted. “Plenty of money” is not the message I’m getting from Democratic fundraising calls, though, and I’m getting a lot of them.

        The whole question of whether and how donations should be targeted in 2018 is a topic I’d appreciate a discussion about at some future point. There must be others also wondering about it.

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