Last night’s 1st Congressional District debate between Rod Blum and Ben Lange was a good opportunity for voters to see the two candidates side by side as the June 5th primary nears. While it is apparent that the two candidates don’t necessarily like each other, the debate provided few moments where the candidates actually disagreed when it comes to policy.
Both candidates are articulate and well-versed on a wide verity of issues and are confident in their abilities. Blum did a better job last night of providing voters with substance on issues than Lange did. On the other hand, Lange’s disposition scored him more style points. He simply came off more likable than Blum did, and being a likeable candidate is important in elections.
However, my biggest takeaway from the evening is that both candidates fail to understand and utilize their individual strengths and advantages in the race. Having run before and almost knocking off Congressman Bruce Braley, Lange is perceived as the clear frontrunner. This is a tremendous advantage, and having almost won allows Lange to make a compelling argument as to why he is best positioned to take on Braley again.
The problem is that Lange comes off as too focused on political process. He is basically making an argument that people should vote for him because he can win in November. In many regards, it seem as if Lange is playing it safe. He wants to get through the primary without saying things that Braley and the Democrats can use against him in the fall.
There is nothing wrong with the strategy, but Lange is not providing voters with anything that will inspire or motivate them. Lange is solid and well versed on the issues, but he focuses on big issues, mainly the national debt crisis, and rarely touches on the fundamental issues that primary voters care the most about. In some respects, Lange comes off as bland or rehearsed because he is delivering typical middle of the road answers that we have come to expect from candidates in general elections.
Lange’s strategy may very well work, but with the new configuration of the 1st Congressional District, it’s risky in places like Linn and Poweshiek County where he wasn’t on the ballot two years ago. Voters want a candidate who they can believe in, and Lange’s effort to get though the primary unscathed doesn’t allow him the ability to provide primary voters with a lot of substance.
Rod Blum, on the other hand, is offering a smorgasbord of options when it comes to providing voters with substance on issues. It was clear in last night’s debate that he was heavily courting libertarian voters who favored Ron Paul in the January caucuses. Appealing to some of the most passionate voters is never a bad idea, but in doing so, Blum sometimes comes off as pandering. His term limit pledge will surely get him some votes, but saying that he will only accept the average American pay of $39,000 if elected and will decline the rest of the salary and benefits is somewhat over the top. It is easy to understand why Blum hammers home those points, but it comes off as a bit arrogant and is nothing more than an election gimmick.
Blum’s real strength is his natural ability to talk about issues and how they have affected his own company or business dealings. The only problem is that he takes his biggest strength as being a job creator and turns it into a negative. Blum’s main argument against Lange is that he’s a young attorney. Blum also assumes that Lange is running for office because he wants the $175,000 a year pay. He also assumes that Lange wants to be a career politician.
Making the argument that a successful, private sector businessman is a better candidate to run against Braley in the fall is an easy one to sell. When you talk to voters in the District, that is what they all say they like about him. Yet, when he blasts his opponent for being too young and too ambitious, it comes off as Blum looking down his nose at Lange.
In last night’s debate, Lange had a strong counter to Blum’s attack. Lange mentioned interviews Blum has given over the last two decades where Blum talked about wanting to run for congress, and how he was simply waiting for his moment to, “grab the brass ring.” Lange’s counter made Blum appear calculating and politically ambitious.
Last night’s debate showed that both candidates will be capable of giving Braley a run for his money in the fall. However, both candidates have also made miscalculations in their primary campaigns. Lange has failed to inspire voters by not spending much time talking about core Republican issues and sticking to boilerplate talking points on issues like entitlement spending. Blum has provided voters with substance, but instead of letting his business background speak for itself, his attacks on Lange’s inexperience and political ambition are over the top.
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