On Wednesday, Ben Lange, the Republican nominee in the 1st Congressional District in 2010, will announce that he will begin to actively prepare for a rematch with Congressman Bruce Braley in the reconfigured 1st Congressional District. Lange narrowly lost to Braley in what was one of the closest races in the country in 2010. Lange lost to Braley by 4,209 votes, which was less than two percent of the vote.
Lange launched his 2010 campaign weeks after Republican Scott Brown shocked the political establishment by defeating Democrat Martha Coakley for the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. A young lawyer from Quasqueton, Lange scurried across Iowa’s 1st Congressional District collecting enough signatures with his family to get his name on the Republican primary ballot for U.S. Congress. At the time he had no name ID, no money, no infrastructure, no staff, and, according to political insiders, no shot at defeating Rep. Bruce Braley.
Hard work and determination paid off for Lange. In June of last year, he easily won a four way primary. In the general election, Lange raised and saved as many resources as he could by running a thrifty campaign. While most campaigns rely on media firms to produce TV and radio ads, his were produced and edited in-house saving his campaign an estimated $65,000. Those savings allowed Lange to stay on network television an extra week in the Cedar Rapids, a critical boost since he was not receiving support from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
The NRCC’s website lists Lange’s campaign as one of the races that “got away” from Republican leaders in 2010. While Lange didn’t have the support of the national Republicans, he was aided by the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based non-profit organization, that reportedly spent as much as a million dollars in targeting Braley by highlighting his record in congress.
A rematch between Lange and Braley would be interesting, but while the candidates will be familiar with one another, the reconfigured 1st District will make the 2012 campaign much different from the 2010 contest.
The New District
Due to congressional reapportionment and redistricting, the number of counties in the new district has increased from 12 to 20, and Braley represents less than half of these counties. As a result, the next election will be more akin to an open seat than a challenger race, reducing many of the advantages of incumbency.
Having run a campaign in nine of the twenty counties in the district, Lange has a leg up on any potential primary opponent. Lange has also proved that he meets people well. Even though he was a first time candidate with no connections to certain areas, Lange was able to build a strong following in Scott County during his last campaign. While Scott is no longer in the district, his success there is an indication of his ability to connect with voters. That skill will serve him well in the new parts of the district, many of which supported the Republican candidate for congress in the last cycle.
Republicans maintain a voter registration advantage over Democrats in half of the counties in the new district, and since 2010, voters have been leaving the Democratic Party for the Republican Party at a rate of over two to one district wide. When combined with what is likely to be a favorable political climate, President Obama’s reelect numbers continue to be in a total free-fall, dropping to 41% most recently with no end in sight. These facts may portend good things in northeast Iowa for the right Republican congressional candidate.
Potential Republican Primary
Two years ago, Lange easily won a contested primary in the 1st District on a shoestring budget. In the newly configured district, Lange once again will have to win a contested primary to be the Republican candidate next fall. The National Journal reported that the NRCC was courting two potential candidates to challenge Braley thus far, Ben Lange and Paul Pate. The article did not mention Steve Rathje, a Cedar Rapids businessman, who is currently the only announced Republican candidate.
Rathje, perennial GOP candidate, announced his intentions to run back in May. A Linn County resident, Rathje has spent most of the past five years running for office but has been unsuccessful in winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2008 and in the 2nd Congressional District in 2010.
Another potential Linn County candidate is Paul Pate. Pate, who served as the mayor of Cedar Rapids from 2002 to 2006, also served a term as Iowa’s Secretary of State. Pate initially considered running for Secretary of State in 2010, but family health issues forced him to reconsider. If Pate does run for Congress in 2012, having two candidates running from Linn County may fragment the vote allowing Lange an easier route to the nomination. While Lange has many advantages when it comes to the Republican primary, Rathje and Pate would provide much stiffer competition than he had to deal with in 2010.
Not only is Bruce Braley is vulnerable, but it seems certain that Republicans will once again put up a tough candidate against him. Braley took less than 50 percent of the vote last cycle, a critical threshold for campaign odds-makers. Since the last election, his star has continued falling, including losing his choice seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has become marginalized in Washington and has continued casting votes (aside from government takeovers, bailouts, and Obamacare) that will put him at odds with the majority of voters in the new district.
Clearly, opportunity awaits Iowa Republicans in the 1st District.
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