The last time a Republican wave swept the nation, Iowans elected two new Republicans to represent them in Washington D.C. The first was Tom Latham, who won the 5th Congressional District seat in congress in 1994. Latham replaces Republican Congressman Fred Grandy, who didn’t run for re-election that year. Instead, Grandy challenged Terry Branstad in the gubernatorial primary. While Latham surprised many when he won the Republican primary that year, he easily defeated his opponent in the general election.
Dr. Greg Ganske also won a seat in congress that year. Ganske had a much more difficult path to victory than Latham. Ganske defeated 34-year incumbent Congressman Neal Smith. Ganske’s victory meant that Republicans controlled four of the state’s five congressional seats.
While Senator Chuck Grassley and Terry Branstad each won 90 or more counties two weeks ago in another Republican wave election, Republicans came up short on their three attempts to pick up a congressional seat. Nationally, Republicans easily surpassed the 40 seats that they needed to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
More than 30 states saw Republican candidates knock off incumbent Democrats. Across the river in Illinois, Republicans gained three congressional seats, yet the mighty Mississippi River seemed to prevent the wave from sinking Congressmen Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack, and Leonard Boswell.
Iowans have a long history of re-electing incumbents, but that is beginning to change. As mentioned above, Ganske defeated Congressman Smith, Loebsack defeated Jim Leach, and Terry Branstad defeated an incumbent governor for the first time in 48 years when he beat Chet Culver by ten points two weeks ago.
Iowa Republicans have a lot to celebrate following the 2010 election. They once again control the Iowa House of Representatives, cut the Democrat majority in the State Senate to just one, elected a new Secretary of State and Governor, and re-elected Senator Grassley. Still, the election results were bittersweet since they were unable to win a congressional contest.
To be fair, it’s not as if the three incumbent Democrat members of congress weren’t seriously challenged. In total, Republicans were only 26,161 votes away from toppling all three of them. Republican challenger Ben Lange lost by the smallest margin, losing to Congressman Bruce Braley by just over 4300 votes. Brad Zaun lost Polk County by about 15,000 votes, but only lost the district by around 9500 votes. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who was running in the most Democratic district, lost to Dave Loebsack by just over 11,000 votes.
As they say, coming close only matters in horseshoes and hand-grenades. Let’s take a closer look at each of these campaigns to see where Republicans went wrong or what led these campaigns to come up short.
Ben Lange – Iowa’s First Congressional District
Ben Lange entered the 2010 general election as the least known of the three Republican congressional challengers. Lange’s campaign suffered because not many people thought that he could beat Bruce Braley. That meant that Lange struggled at raising money, a critical function of any campaign, which limited his ability to introduce himself to voters in his district.
As the campaign began to heat up, Lange benefitted from the American Future Fund’s (AFF) ads that highlighted Braley’s support of cap and trade, bailouts, spending, and Obamacare. According to OpenSecrets.org, AFF spent $888,839.00 against Braley. AFF’s presence in the race gave Lange equal footing against a well-funded incumbent.
As it turned out, Lange’s race in the 1st Congressional District was the best opportunity for Republicans to win in 2010. What is unfortunate is that, while Lange had the help of groups like AFF, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Dick Morris’ PAC, he received next to nothing in financial support from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) or from the leadership PACs of other members of Congress.
While this outside money was effective in driving up Braley’s negatives, Lange needed the resources to run positive ads about himself. Lange never went negative against Braley. He didn’t have to, but what he needed to do was to build up his name ID sooner by having a larger presence on TV and radio across the district.
Mariannette Miller-Meeks – Iowa’s Second Congressional District
Miller-Meeks’ second attempt against Loebsack proved to be much better than the first. In 2008, she lost by over 56,000 votes. This year she lost by just over 11,000 votes. The funny thing is that she would be on her way to congress if she had received as many votes in 2010 as she did in 2008.
Without Barack Obama on the ballot, the 2nd Congressional District was more competitive than it was just two years ago. With the improved environment, Miller-Meeks also loaned her campaign a considerable amount of money. Despite internal RNC polls that show Miller-Meeks in a tight race with Loebsack, she was unable to unseat Loebsack.
Like the other Republican challengers in Iowa, Miller-Meeks struggled raising the resources that were needed for her to be victorious. The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the labor unions attacked her throughout the campaign.
No matter how good of campaign Miller-Meeks ran, she was always going to have to deal with the Democrat registration advantage in the District. Regardless of the mood of the electorate or how good the candidate may be, the numbers are the numbers, and the 2nd District is simply not favorable to Republicans.
Brad Zaun – Iowa’s Third Congressional District
It seemed like Brad Zaun was never really able to catch his breath after winning the Republican nomination. Zaun was attacked early and often by Congressman Leonard Boswell and the DCCC. Many of Boswell’s attacks were below the belt, but make no mistake, a lot of Zaun’s flaws were self-inflicted.
The 3rd Congressional race shows just how much more conniving Democrats are than Republicans. Throughout the primary, Democrats sent a staffer with a video camera to tape the Republican candidates. That’s where they got the footage of Zaun talking about personal responsibility, as well as him recounting an incident where he told a farmer involved in the ethanol industry that he would do “nothing” for the bio fuels industry.
Boswell’s early attacks never put Zaun away, but they were effective in preventing Zaun from receiving help from the NRCC. While Zaun did get some help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the closing weeks of the campaign, he didn’t have the resources to defend himself or attack Boswell until it was too late.
With redistricting looming, Iowa Republicans must reassess how they approach their congressional campaigns. For too long, our Republican congressional candidates have been basically ignored while the Republicans have focused their efforts on the State House or Governor’s office.
Later this week, we will look into ways that Iowa Republicans can improve their chances of winning congressional seats.
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