IA-01: First thoughts on a possible Rod Blum-Abby Finkenauer rematch

Thomas Nelson of the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier was first to report last week that former U.S. Representative Rod Blum’s campaign has spent $11,365 on polling this year. Blum’s quarterly filing with the Federal Election Commission showed two disbursements to the candidate’s longtime pollster in early January.

The payments exceeded the $4,119 Blum for Congress owed The Polling Company at the end of December, indicating that Blum commissioned new surveys in the first district and wasn’t merely settling debts left over from the 2018 campaign.

While I have not been able to find details about the questions asked, his campaign likely tested voters’ views on key issues as well as approval and favorability numbers for himself and Representative Abby Finkenauer. Blum hasn’t ruled out running for office again. Nelson noted that he appeared at a Jones County GOP event on April 11.

No Republican has confirmed plans to run against Finkenauer. I see Blum as a weaker challenger than State Representative Ashley Hinson, who has said she’s considering the race and will make her intentions known after the legislative session ends.

BLUM’S CASE FOR A COMEBACK

Blum previewed the case he might present to voters in a lengthy, friendly interview with 1540 KXEL radio’s Jeff Stein in February. Asked to describe highlights from his tenure in Congress, he named three accomplishments:

  • “Once in a generation, it seems like, about every 30 years, we get an opportunity in Washington, DC to pass major legislation to reduce taxes on both corporations and individuals,” Blum told Stein. “Because of that tax bill, Jeff, we see economic numbers like we haven’t seen in 30 or 40 years.” He asserted that unemployment rates were “the lowest they’ve been” for decades and at “all-time lows” for African Americans and Latinos. “It’s so rewarding to know that I had a small part in passing of that bill, that has reignited our economy.”
  • Blum said he and U.S. Senator Joni Ernst “worked very hard” to get funding for the Cedar Rapids flood wall. She “worked the Army Corps of Engineer angle,” while he “worked the White House angle with my friend Mick Mulvaney,” a former fellow House Republican “Freedom Caucus” member who was serving as Trump’s budget director. Flood wall funding was a recurring theme in Blum’s campaign advertising and in his taxpayer-funded mailings to Linn County voters last summer and fall.
  • Finally, Blum cited the American Health Care Act, which House Republicans approved in May 2017. “We repealed and replaced Obamacare,” he told Stein. “It never made it to the Senate, so it never became law. Was it a perfect bill? No. But was it a step in the right direction? Yes. And I’m very proud to have been part of that bill as well.”
  • Blum added,

    I’m not a career politician, Jeff. You know that. I stand against career politicians. I’m for term limits, for example.

    So I never went to Washington, DC to just get along. I never went to Washington, DC to put my finger in the wind. […] I know what my true north is, and I went there to try to make a difference, and I took the tough votes.

    You know, and I knew those votes would be tough votes back here in the district. And they ended up, yeah, they ended up running $15 million in tv ads against me because of those votes. But that’s ok, because I didn’t go there to be a career politician. I went there to make a difference, and I think it’s for big bills, especially the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, has been, has had an amazing positive impact on our country.

    Note: I cannot confirm the $15 million figure, but Blum was the focus of extensive negative advertising in 2017 and 2018. The OpenSecrets database shows Finkenauer spent about $4.5 million during last year’s campaign, largely for a mix of positive and negative commercials. Outside groups spent about $1.8 million against Blum as well. Those numbers do not include spending considered “issue advocacy,” such as the Not One Penny coalition’s ads about the GOP tax bill, which began in August 2017 and continued later the same year. Blum was also a top target of the End Citizens United PAC.

    Stein asked Blum sympathetically whether any of the ads unfairly distorted his record. (He didn’t mention the negative and sometimes race-baiting spots Blum ran.) Blum recalled ads portraying the tax bill as a cut for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Bleeding Heartland covered a couple of those commercials here.

    According to Blum, his internal polling four or five months before the election showed that more than 50 percent of respondents thought their taxes were going up because of the 2017 tax cut. “That tells you the power of these television ads.”

    Blum also mentioned an ad accusing him of being against people with pre-existing conditions. He claimed the bill he supported wouldn’t hurt such consumers because it called for setting up a government fund to pay part of the premiums for people in a high-risk pool. One independent analyst calculated that the funding House Republicans set aside for that purpose would cover “approximately 110,000 individuals with a pre-existing chronic condition” nationwide. In Blum’s district alone, an estimated 318,300 non-elderly people have a pre-existing condition.

    A few minutes after touting his vote for the tax cut, which greatly increased the federal deficit, Blum told Stein he would not have voted for the bill to reopen the federal government, partly because it “increases our deficit once again, and we’re at $22 trillion in debt. And at some point, we need to say enough is enough. We need to get control of this deficit.” He added that the lack of focus on reducing the deficit and the national debt is “probably my major disappointment with President Trump.” As for the main issue that triggered the shutdown, Blum supports a border wall and felt the compromise reached in February was insufficient on border security.

    Asked about his future plans, Blum said he’s “not sure” and is “embracing not knowing.” He alluded to “opportunities,” including an unspecified Trump administration job (he stays in touch with Mulvaney, who is now the president’s acting chief of staff). Blum also said he’d been approached about a possible national radio show or appearing on The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s television network. He wouldn’t rule out “elective office” and gave what sounded like a candidate’s pitch to me:

    I care too much about the country […] and I love America, and I’ve lived the American dream. […] I will always care, I will always fight. I know what my true north is. And I think I know what made the American dream possible, and I just want to see that possible for everybody’s children and grandchildren.

    Near the end of the interview, Blum acknowledged that although public service takes a toll on people and cuts into family time, “I just so believe. I’m so passionate about the American dream in this country, that I just, I can’t let it go. If I tried to, I can’t. I could maybe for a day, and then I’m back yelling at the tv set and at the radio station, and here we are on Valentine’s Day [laughs].”

    SIZING UP A BLUM-FINKENAUER REMATCH

    As Bleeding Heartland discussed in January, many Republicans have encouraged Ashley Hinson to run for Congress in 2020, instead of for another term in the Iowa House.

    I’d be surprised if Blum is getting as much encouragement in GOP circles. While he was in some ways unlucky to be a Republican incumbent in a Democratic-leaning district in a Democratic wave year, Blum underperformed Governor Kim Reynolds.

    Click on any red, pink, or blue county on this map to bring up the vote totals and percentages for Blum, Finkenauer, Reynolds, and Democratic candidate for governor Fred Hubbell. The color scheme reflects the voting for Congress. While Finkenauer carried four of the 20 counties in IA-01, Hubbell carried only three in that part of the state: Black Hawk, Linn, and Dubuque (barely).

    County Name

    D Canidate 1 61% 30390
    R Canidate 2 39% 10390

    Finkenauer between 50% and 60%

    Blum won with less than 50%

    Blum between 50% and 60%

    For those who prefer a table, here are the results for Finkenauer and Blum in each county, listed in descending order from most to least votes cast in the Congressional race. All figures reflect official numbers from the Iowa Secretary of State’s website.

    How Abby Finkenauer and Rod Blum performed in IA-01 counties
    County Finkenauer votes Finkenauer vote share Blum votes Blum vote share
    Linn 57,712 56.7% 40,733 40.0%
    Black Hawk 29,667 55.9% 22,103 41.6%
    Dubuque 22,359 52.3% 19,282 45.1%
    Marshall 6,611 46.7% 7,124 50.4%
    Benton 4,698 40.8% 6,465 55.8%
    Bremer 5,182 45.4% 5,908 51.7%
    Winneshiek 5,102 51.8% 4,364 44.3%
    Jones 3,787 44.2% 4,490 52.4%
    Jackson 3,797 44.6% 4,483 52.7%
    Buchanan 3,977 47.1% 4,166 49.3%
    Poweshiek 3,966 48.1% 4,044 49.1%
    Fayette 3,701 45.2% 4,167 50.8%
    Clayton 3,311 42.0% 4,320 54.7%
    Iowa 3,099 40.8% 4,203 55.3%
    Delaware 2,810 37.5% 4,475 59.7%
    Tama 3,257 44.7% 3,780 51.9%
    Allamakee 2,353 41.6% 3,073 54.4%
    Mitchell 1,836 40.8% 2,518 55.9%
    Howard 1,587 44.0% 1,878 52.0%
    Worth 1,530 43.7% 1,866 53.2%
     
    District-wide 170,342 51.0% 153,442 45.9%

    Here are the same figures for the governor’s race in the first district. Blum received fewer votes than Reynolds in every county. He had a slightly higher vote share than the governor only in Marshall, where more voters either backed a third-party candidate or left that ballot line blank.

    How Kim Reynolds and Fred Hubbell performed in IA-01 counties
    County Reynolds votes Reynolds vote share Hubbell votes Hubbell vote share
    Linn 42,449 41.6% 56,767 55.6%
    Black Hawk 22,786 42.8% 29,259 54.9%
    Dubuque 20,532 48.0% 21,108 49.4%
    Marshall 7,243 49.4% 7,095 48.4%
    Benton 6,845 58.9% 4,482 38.5%
    Bremer 6,220 54.3% 4,999 43.7%
    Winneshiek 4,841 49.0% 4,785 48.5%
    Jones 4,752 55.2% 3,650 42.4%
    Jackson 4,744 55.2% 3,582 41.7%
    Buchanan 4,400 51.8% 3,865 45.5%
    Poweshiek 4,160 50.0% 3,998 48.1%
    Fayette 4,528 55.0% 3,446 41.9%
    Clayton 4,512 57.0% 2,978 37.6%
    Iowa 4,499 58.8% 2,966 38.8%
    Delaware 4,779 62.3% 2,667 34.8%
    Tama 3,931 53.6% 3,238 44.2%
    Allamakee 3,326 58.6% 2,165 38.1%
    Mitchell 2,711 59.9% 1,704 37.6%
    Howard 2,050 56.6% 1,422 39.3%
    Worth 2,043 57.8% 1,382 39.1%
     
    District-wide 161,351 48.0% 165,558 49.3%

    Meanwhile, Hinson outpolled Blum in every precinct of Iowa House district 67 in the Cedar Rapids suburbs (see a table in this post).

    Blum’s underwhelming election numbers happened before the Office of Congressional Ethics published its report in December. Investigators found “substantial reason to believe” Blum failed to accurately report all of his business interests, and also “substantial reason to believe” his internet company Tin Moon misused his official photo and “utilized deceptive, false, or unsubstantiated endorsements.”

    During the 2018 campaign, Blum sought to portray Finkenauer as too young and inexperienced for the job. But she is no longer a 20-something challenger. She’s a member of Congress with good committee assignments. She should take some advantages of incumbency into the 2020 race.

    Despite a small Democratic voter registration advantage in IA-01, both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate this district a toss-up, reflecting its D+1 partisan voter index and Donald Trump’s strong 2016 numbers in northeast Iowa. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. But if the 2020 race becomes a replay of last year’s campaign, I would give the edge to Finkenauer.

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