Republicans sense opportunity to pick up a seat in Iowa's 3rd district

DES MOINES, Iowa — With poll numbers showing voters broadly unhappy with Republicans in Congress, Iowa’s 3rd District presents the party with a rare opportunity: the chance to pick off a Democratic incumbent.

Republican candidate Jeff Lamberti — son of the founder of the ubiquitous Casey’s General Store gas station chain here and co-president of Iowa’s evenly split state Senate — has money, name ID and an energetic personality in his favor. He believes voters will not hold him accountable for sins in Washington.

“People are unhappy with Congress as a whole. I believe there is a strong desire for change,” said Lamberti, who represents part of Polk County, where Des Moines is based, in the Iowa Senate.

The race, which matches him against Democrat Leonard Boswell, seeking his 6th term, has been noted as among the most competitive by several political publications. Even Democrats acknowledge that Lamberti is an able opponent.

Still, experts say, the Ankeny attorney faces several obstacles beyond whatever unhappiness there is in the district with Republicans, including a well-funded incumbent who appeals to urban and rural voters and Iowans’ own sense of loyalty.

“Iowa voters like to keep incumbents around,” says Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, who predicts that Boswell will win reelection.

“You really have to screw up in this state to lose.”

Governors here have served on average for longer than a decade. Iowa senators conservative Chuck Grassley and liberal Tom Harkin are in their 5th and 4th terms, respectively. A House incumbent hasn’t lost in over a decade.

Boswell is a centrist Democrat who voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq and for the House Republican immigration bill. 

Health problems sidelined Boswell for much of the spring, but the candidate seems back on his feet, a few pounds lighter. He had more than $1 million cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period.  

The 3rd district, like the state as a whole, is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. District voters favored President Bush over Sen. John Kerry by 267 votes. Four years earlier, Vice President Al Gore beat Bush by 571 votes.

Boswell, who spent more than $1 million in his last two races, safely won in both 2004 and 2002 over his Republican opponent, attorney Stan Thompson. 

While the 3rd district contains plenty of rural areas, 65 percent of the voters live in Polk. The urban center is Democratic. Democrats also say Boswell, a retired lieutenant colonel and farmer, appeals to rural, more conservative voters as well. In the 2004 race, he lost only two of the 12 counties in the 3rd.

Boswell “fits in better with the real values of Iowa families,” says Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Jen Psaki, than the “smooth-talking Jeff Lamberti.”

Republican political candidates have fared well in more rural areas of the district, however, and do well in suburbs surrounding the capital city.

The DCCC cut in half the amount of money it planned to spend in the district, which may indicate that Democrats feel increasingly comfortable with how the race is going.

But Tim Miller, Lamberti’s spokesman, noted that the district is still one of only a handful of races where the DCCC is spending money to protect incumbents.

“They still are obviously concerned about Boswell,” Miller said.

As elsewhere in the state, economic and job issues may be the foremost in voters’ minds, strategists say. Iowa has an unemployment rate lower than the national average, but fears of layoffs or insecure pensions remain a worry for many blue-collar workers here.

“In Iowa, the concern is underemployment. People working two jobs, but earning less,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Link.

The closing of a Maytag plant in Newton, Iowa, 20 miles east of Des Moines, underscores the feeling of unease, Link said. 

Healthcare is another hot issue. After undergoing his own health scare, Boswell made the issue a central topic of his initial campaign advertisement, which stresses his work to expand health care for senior citizens and veterans.  

Immigration is another issue in the 3rd district, and one Republicans across the state, and the country, are trying to seize on. Iowa’s influx of illegal immigrants has been less than in other areas, but voters here “want a candidate who is tough on the border,” said Lamberti.

Sensing an opportunity, Republicans held a field hearing on immigration last week in Dubuque, which is in Iowa’s 1st district, another swing district that leaders of both parties are targeting.

Democrats, meanwhile, plan to exploit Lamberti’s voting record in the Iowa Senate, including past votes cutting education spending. Education typically polls among the issues voters care most about in Iowa, a state that is traditionally near the top in per capita education spending.

Lamberti, though, has made fiscal responsibility another theme of his campaign, and has called for reducing the number of congressional pork barrel projects. 

Though Lamberti insists unhappiness with congressional Republicans and President Bush isn’t pervasive in the third district, he has structured his campaign around the idea of change.

Change is the title of his first television advertisement, which stresses his intention to cut taxes, control spending and control the border. Boswell’s support for the House bill is an “election-year conversion,” said spokesman Miller.

Lamberti has criticized Boswell for approving budgets that have increased the debt. Democrats quickly seized on this criticism of overspending to aid the gubernatorial candidacy of Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver, who is running against Rep. Jim Nussle, the chairman of the House Budget Committee.