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September 17th, 2012

50 Days Out: The State of the Races

With 50 days remaining before the election it seems a good time for a quick overview of Iowa’s four Congressional races.  There is much that one could say about each of the races, so I will focus on just a few factors for each.

One point worth making before getting to the details of the four races is that Congressional races in presidential election years are quite different than those in midterm elections.  In particular, turnout is much higher during presidential election years.  Although there is some drop off in turnout in midterm elections for those registered in either major party, the decline is very large for No Party voters (independents).  Conversely, in presidential election years many more independent voters go to the polls.  That means candidates of both parties must pay more attention to those voters, as well as the more marginal members of their own party.

First District: Democrat incumbent Bruce Braley versus Republican challenger Ben Lange

Most are likely aware that this is a rematch of the 2010 First District (IA01) race where Lange came within 2% of defeating the incumbent Braley.  The 2012 race isn’t quite a rematch given that the candidates are running in the new IA01.  The old IA01 had over 32,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.  This allowed Braley to hang on in a strong Republican year.  As of September, 2012, the advantage for Braley in the new IA01 is only 21,000.  That’s good news for Lange given that he only lost to Braley in 2010 by a bit over 4,000 votes, but there are over 180,000 independents in the new IA02 and they will vote at a higher percentage than they did in 2010.  Statewide, the turnout for No Party voters was a paltry 36.52% in 2010.  In 2012 independent turnout will likely be at least 20 percentage points higher.  That means both candidates must work very hard to convince independents why they should be elected.

Although Braley has a 21,000 Democrat voter registration advantage in the district, the seat is not seen as “safe” by election watchers.  The Des Moines Register recently ran an article indicating that Roll Call had changed its rating of the Braley-Lange matchup from safe Democrat to likely Democrat.  This actually brings Roll Call’s rating in line with Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rating and that of Real Clear Politics, both of which have had IA01 in the “likely” column for some time.

The addition of Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket may influence the IA01 race more than the other three.  One reason is because the new IA01 has a few more counties near the Wisconsin border.  Voters in these counties will probably have more knowledge of Ryan because of overlapping media markets.  That doesn’t guarantee that they will like Ryan, of course, but to the extent that they do it may encourage them to vote for him along with other Republican candidates.  A second factor, and one that is more important, is that Ryan is a Catholic.  At one level, this may offset the fact that Vice President Biden is too.  Although Catholics tend to be associated with the Democratic Party, they also tend to be a bit more conservative on some social issues.  Again, this may result in more voters turning out to vote the Republican ticket, which could help Lange.

Second District: Democrat incumbent Dave Loebsack versus Republican challenger John Archer

Iowa’s Second Congressional District (IA02) has a voter registration advantage for Democrats at just under 27,000.  Even so, that difference is down from the 47,500 voter registration advantage Loebsack enjoyed for the 2010 race in the old IA02.  Most of the old IA02 is in the new district, but the loss of Linn County and the addition of Scott will tend to hurt Loebsack and help Archer, particularly given that Archer’s base is in Scott County.  As the incumbent Loebsack will have the advantage in the holdover counties, but he’s not known as a strong campaigner and that may hurt him as he works to introduce himself to the counties new to IA02.  So many new counties in the district negates a bit of the usual advantage that an incumbent has over a challenger.  Even so, Archer has to work hard to become known throughout the district.

As with IA01, Roll Call recently changed its rating of this race from likely to lean Democrat.  Part of their reasoning was that IA02 now contains the Quad Cities media market, which is one of the most expensive in the state, and Loebsack is not as strong a fundraiser as Braley who represented the area before redistricting.  Nevertheless, both Crystal Ball and Real Clear Politics still rate the race as likely Democrat.

Recent news reports suggested that President Obama wasn’t doing much for Democratic candidates in down-ticket races.  In his recent visit to Iowa City, however, the President specifically mentioned Loebsack who was on stage with him.  This isn’t particularly surprising given that Iowa City and Johnson County are a key part of Loebsack’s base.  Even so, it seems that Loebsack has gently distanced himself from Obama and national Democrats on some issues, striking a more moderate tone.  This race, more than the other three, will likely be determined by the party that has the better turnout effort.

Third District: Democrat incumbent Leonard Boswell versus Republican incumbent Tom Latham

This incumbent versus incumbent race was the result of Iowa having lost a congressional seat after the last census.  As with Braley and Loebsack, however, neither is a true incumbent given the composition of the new Third Congressional District (IA03).  Although the geographic shift is greatest for Latham, who essentially moves from his old district in north central Iowa to the southeast quadrant, he has actually represented more of the new district than Boswell.  The only holdover county for Boswell is Polk, while Latham previously represented Dallas, Madison, and Warren.

In the old IA03, Boswell had a voter registration advantage of 23,000 Democrats.  In Latham’s old IA04 he had a Republican voter registration advantage of only 5,000.  This suggests that Latham probably has more experience having to reach out to independent voters.  Even so, both candidates are more moderate than others in their respective parties.  Then again, it seems that Boswell has tried to reposition himself a bit more liberally on some issues.  This may be to help energize his base in Polk County, but it may not play as well in the rest of the new district.  Roll Call notes that Democrats are more confident of Boswell’s chances of late.  They also note that the new district only marginally voted for McCain in 2008.  That doesn’t seem to be a vote of confidence for Boswell.  The election of 2008 was a strong year for Democrats and much of the GOP base was not inspired by McCain’s candidacy.  If the counties in the new district went for McCain in a strong year for Democrats it will likely be a difficult race for Boswell in a year that will be better for Republicans.  (Even if Obama wins Iowa, it is very unlikely to be by the same margin as 2008.)

The recent Roll Call article didn’t give a specific rating for the IA03 race, but some Iowa Democrats who were quoted suggested it would be an uphill battle for Boswell.  Real Clear Politics has had the race as a toss-up for some time.  Crystal Ball previously had the race as a toss-up, but I see that it now shows IA03 as lean Republican.

Fourth District: Republican incumbent Steve King versus Democrat challenger Christie Vilsack

This may not end up being the most competitive race, but it may be the most interesting.  When Vilsack decided to run she was a candidate in search of a district.  The new IA02 would have been a natural choice given that it included her home base of Mt. Pleasant.  Moreover, with the largest advantage of registered Democrats, IA02 would likely have been an easy win for Vilsack given her name recognition (very likely greater even than incumbent Loebsack’s) and the money that the Democratic Party would have put into the race.  Unfortunately for Vilsack, the national party did not want Vilsack to force a primary with Loebsack.  The First District was out given that Braley is seen as a rising star in state Democratic politics.  The Third District was also out when Boswell made it clear early on that he had no intention of retiring.  That left the new Fourth District (IA04) and a show down with the incumbent King.

IA04 has the largest voter registration difference between the two parties with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by about 53,000.  Interestingly, this was almost the same advantage King had in his old district.  The main difference is that there are now 45,000 more No Party voters in the new IA04.  Although these independents tend to vote at a lower rate than voters registered to one of the parties, even in a presidential year, the difference from his old district is enough that King has to work harder if he expects to win.

Roll Call suggested that King is favored in the race.  Crystal Ball concurs by rating IA04 as leans Republican.  Real Clear Politics, however, has the race as a toss-up.  One might wonder why King isn’t more strongly favored given that he is the incumbent in a district with such a large voter registration advantage.  One reason is that Vilsack has much higher name recognition than most challengers, having been Iowa’s First Lady for eight years.  Another is that the Democratic Party has also decided to put substantial resources into the race.  King has had weak challengers in the past, so some thought that he might not be prepared for a more difficult fight in a new district.  It seems, however, that King has risen to the challenge.  Given the ideological differences between the candidates, this could be the most hard fought of the four races.

You can follow Tim Hagle on Twitter @ProfHagle.

About the Author

Tim Hagle
Hagle is a lawyer and a political scientist with expertise in American and judicial politics. He regularly comments on federal, state, and local elections; grassroots and student organizing; and Republican politics. Hagle is faculty advisor to the University of Iowa College Republicans and the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. He has been a member of the Johnson County Republican Central Committee. Hagle completed two years of service at the United States Department of Justice in the Office for Victims of Crime and the National Institute of Justice. He was also appointed by President Bush to serve on the Permanent Committee for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, a committee that oversees the writing of a history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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