In Iowa-1, it's who will get the blues

Davenport, Iowa — Democrat party leaders look at Iowa’s 1st Congressional District and drool, says the Republican congressman who now holds the seat.

Davenport, Iowa — Democrat party leaders look at Iowa’s 1st Congressional District and drool, says the Republican congressman who now holds the seat.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 20,000 voters in the 12-county district, located in the northeast part of the state. Independents outnumber them both, but 1st District voters favored Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore by seven-point margins in their races against President Bush.

“The old rule of thumb in Iowa is that as you move east, the more urban, more Catholic, the more Democratic you get,” says Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.

Given Republicans’ low poll numbers and their own apparent demographic edge, the Democrats probably cannot be expected to win the House without taking districts like the 1st, Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the Des Moines Register, the state’s largest newspaper, last month.

For Democrats to win here, however, they have to overcome an exception to the Iowa political rule: voters have a habit of sending Republicans to Congress.

“It’s a Republican district the way it performs and the votes in local races,” insists Rep. Jim Nussle, the Republican House Budget Committee chairman who has represented portions of the district for 16 years. Before Nussle, Republican Tom Tauke represented much of what is now the district, starting in the late 1970s. Nussle said district voters particularly favor fiscal conservatives, though others credit his ability to use social issues to peel off Catholic voters who traditionally vote Democrat as another key to his success.

Republicans won’t have the power of incumbency to rely upon this year, however, another factor fueling Democratic optimism.

Nussle is running for governor, where polls show he is in a tight race with Secretary of State Chet Culver.

The race matches Democrat Bruce Braley, a Waterloo trial attorney, against Republican Mike Whalen, a wealthy entrepreneur. Though both candidates are political novices without voting records to mine, each has been quick to spot perceived vulnerabilities in the other.

At a Republican rally in Bettendorf, Whalen said Braley “loves” lawsuits. Whalen lists tort reform as part of his Contract for American Jobs, which also include a series of tax cuts to spur job creation.

Whalen accuses his Democratic opponent of wanting to “cut and run” in Iraq for saying in a close primary race that he would consider cutting appropriations for troops in Iraq.

Braley has called for President Bush to develop a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. His website states that he will push for oversight hearings into “fraud and abuse” in contracts awarded to companies like Halliburton.

Braley’s campaign, meanwhile, has honed in on Whalen’s stated opposition to raising the minimum wage.

The Republican has since said he would vote for a Republican House bill to increase wages, though he believes a better way of boosting wages is by providing tax breaks to businesses.

The issue has found its way into Braley’s first television ad, which lists increasing the minimum wage, along with a fight for “fair trade laws” and more use of ethanol, always a winner in corn-rich Iowa, as the reason why he is running for Congress. 

Democrats also accuse Whalen of wanting to privatize social security, a potentially potent issue for Iowans whose median age is higher than the national average. Whalen says he supports private savings accounts for younger workers while protecting promised benefits for those nearer retirement age to avoid bankrupting the safety net. “Everybody knows where the system is headed,” Whalen said.

Both camps say jobs and the economy may be the most pressing issues for voters in the district, even though its unemployment rate is lower than the national average.

“People want to talk about how you are going to bring jobs back to the state,” Braley said. He opposes the NAFTA and CAFTA free trade deals and supports a universal pension that follows workers job to job.

Bernadette Budde, a senior vice president at BIPAC, a business coalition supporting Whalen, says the 1st District race presents one of the starker choices for business leaders: an anti-tax entrepreneur against a trial lawyer. The race is one of only seven that BIPAC is targeting with a mailing campaign to local business leaders, Budde said. 

As in any mid-term election, turnout will likely be key. “It is an execution district,” Budde said. “No matter what you think about how the district shapes up in terms of demographics, history or candidates or campaign, it comes down to execution.”

Both campaigns have benefited from fundraisers with prominent party leaders. House Speaker Dennis Hastert turned up recently for Whalen. Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential advisor Karl Rove have both also paid visits to the district.

At a labor lunch at the Chef Hat restaurant in Davenport, the district’s largest city, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told a packed room that the election was about the “survival” of workers’ rights to organize, which Republicans don’t “fundamentally believe in.”

Later, Hoyer and Braley held a press conference criticizing Republicans for running up the federal deficit.

Both candidates have sought to identify themselves as free-thinking independents. With Republicans down in polls, Whalen plays up his outsider status: “The only way I’ll die in Washington is if I get hit by a bus.”

In his TV spot, Braley promises to be a “strong, independent voice for change in Washington.”

Internal polls show a close race, sources said. Whalen told The Hill that his polling shows he is ahead. A Democratic source close the Braley’s campaign says the opposite is true — the Democrat is ahead, a good sign, the source added, because Democrats suspect Whalen has greater name recognition from years of advertising for his restaurants.

Nonpartisan observers say the race may come down to Dubuque, the district’s third most populous county.
Braley’s base of support should come from Black Hawk County, where Waterloo is based. Whalen is expected to run strongly in Scott County, which includes his hometown of Bettendorf.

“This will be settled in Dubuque,” says the Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen, who thinks the district is leaning Democratic.

But a majority of voters in this county are Roman Catholics who may be sensitive to cultural issues.

“Our Democrats are more moderate to conservative in many ways,” said Rick Dickinson, who directs a Dubuque-based economic development and who lost a close primary to Braley.

Jeff Link, a prominent Des Moines-based Democratic consultant working with the Braley campaign, said he expects economic worries to trump social issues.

But the differences between the candidates on social issues are stark, too. Whalen is pro-life, Braley pro-choice. Whalen also supports President Bush’s veto of the recent stem cell bill, which would have expanded federal funding for this type of research. Braley backs expanded federal stem cell research funding.

“It is a district that in socioeconomic terms ought to be voting Democratic, but in cultural terms it has been voting Republican,” says Drake University’s Goldford.