By Tricia Miller
In any normal election cycle, this wouldn't seem like much of a race.
Second-term Rep. Dave Loebsack has accomplishments to tout, is thanked by the locals in Iowa's 2nd district for helping with a major flood and is in a rematch with the same political newcomer he bested by 18 points two years ago.
But this is no normal election cycle, and if some of the district's voters who embraced Democrats in 2008 are any indication, Loebsack could be in trouble.
For Democrats, races like Loebsack's, which they never thought they'd have to worry about, are trending against them. CQ Politics recently moved the 2nd district from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. This district is among those that will determine whether Nov. 2 is a decent night or a great night for Republicans.
Consider a recent campaign swing through the southeastern Iowa district.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, as many of his colleagues were in the fight of their political lives, Loebsack convened a Main Street roundtable in Iowa Hall at Kirkwood Community College. Fewer than 15 people were in the room, including reporters and staff, and Loebsack used the meeting to emphasize his role as an advocate for the southeastern Iowa district in the nation's capital. Participating in the roundtable were representatives from a nearby Chamber of Commerce, a local small-business group, a local grain elevator, and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.
Rebecca Neades, an Iowa City Chamber of Commerce official, thanked Loebsack profusely for his help after the Cedar River flooded in the summer of 2008, in which the area was ravaged.
"We've been very successful at coming back, and a lot of that was due to how quickly you acted in Congress and the calls you took from us and the problems you would help work out, and you visited and are still visiting many of the businesses that were impacted," she said, an introduction that offered a preview of similar remarks made by others.
For his part, Loebsack was at home at the community college. With his glasses and beard, the 57-year-old retains his calm, soft-spoken demeanor. He taught political science at nearby Cornell College for 24 years before winning his first elected office when he upset longtime Rep. Jim Leach (R) in 2006. Constituents refer to him as Dave, and his staff stresses that he knows the district's 15 counties backward and forward.
Loebsack is in a rematch with ophthalmologist and Army veteran Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican he defeated by 18 points in 2008.
One problem for Democrats nationally that could be dragging the Iowa Democrat down is that many voters who favored them two years ago are saying they'll back Republicans this time. Two in Loebsack's district even said they regret their 2008 votes for President Barack Obama.
Loebsack served lunch to seniors at Witwer Senior Center in Cedar Rapids during one campaign event. But the gesture was wasted on Jamie Kennedy, a retired railroad brakeman who lives northeast of Cedar Rapids. Kennedy had already taken part in early voting, backing a straight Republican ticket. He openly talked about regretting his votes for Obama, Loebsack and the rest of the Democratic ticket in 2008. Kennedy teared up as he talked about people who are out of work.
"I'm sorry," the former union member said. "I wish I could take my vote back."
At the table in front of him, Bill Moffatt of Cedar Rapids agreed. A retired court worker, Moffatt said he voted for Miller-Meeks in 2008 and would probably support her again.
"I like her idea of smaller government and less intervention," he said. Moffatt said he voted for Obama in 2008 because he saw the choice of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate as cynical, but that he also regretted that now.
Loebsack's winning percentage went up from 2006 to 2008. He earned 51 percent of the vote and won five of the district's 15 counties in his first race. He got 57 percent of the vote and won eight counties in 2008, thanks in part to Iowa's role in backing then-Sen. Obama in the presidential caucus. The state's other Democrats also had successful runs that year, as voters re-elected Sen. Tom Harkin and all three House Democrats in relatively easy races.
But this year, Iowa's Republicans are the ones getting a lift. Former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) leads Gov.Chet Culver (D) by double digits in most polls, and veteran Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) is leading trial lawyer Roxanne Conlin (D) in his race.
At a Sunday midday meet-and-greet in the spacious Port of Burlington Welcome Center next to the Mississippi River, Miller-Meeks, 55, said she learned from the first contest with Loebsack and now has "MMM momentum."
"You build on success, you know," she said. "I was a candidate that had never run for political office. I was not involved in county politics or state politics. I was not chosen by the party. I just decided I was going to run for Congress."
Miller-Meeks' campaign released an internal poll that supported her point. Taken by the Tarrance Group on Oct. 18 and 19, the poll showed Miller-Meeks and Loebsack were statistically tied, with him at 45 percent, her at 44 percent and Libertarian Gary Sicard with 1 percent. The poll of 300 likely voters found that 11 percent were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 5.8 points.
At another stop with employees at Alliant Energy, Loebsack touted the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success Act, first written by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in 2008. Loebsack worked with Rep. Todd R. Platts (R-Pa.) to reintroduce the bill for this session. It would cultivate partnerships between community colleges and potential employers. The bill passed the House on a voice vote in July but the Senate has taken no action, which means the bill is unlikely to pass this Congress. Loebsack said the bill is emblematic of his work in the House and the accomplishments he's talking about as he runs for re-election.
"I think that with the recession that we've seen, I think that folks are facing hard times, there's no doubt," he said after the roundtable. "And I've done a lot of work on a number of fronts since I've been in office. Certainly jobs and the economy has to be at the top of the list."
Outside groups have only recently begun investing in the race, which shares media markets with other competitive races in Iowa and Illinois. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has bought ads on Loebsack's behalf, while the National Rifle Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology have made radio ad buys for Miller-Meeks. A TV ad from the conservative American Future Fund ran in Cedar Rapids and hit both Loebsack and Rep. Bruce Braley (D), who represents a neighboring district.
As of Oct. 13, Miller-Meeks had raised $458,000 this cycle and had $371,000 on hand. Loebsack had raised $977,000 and had $279,000 on hand. Neither can expect much more help from outside groups, as the race has remained in the shadows despite the expanded national playing field.
Miller-Meeks concluded a recent Sunday swing by stopping at the district's temporary Republican headquarters in Mount Pleasant, the hometown of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack(D). Located just off the town square, the Republican headquarters had one of the few doors that wasn't locked. She talked to a shifting group of about 30 Republicans about her background in the military and in medicine, policy issues such as health care and cap-and-trade, and what it takes to become the first female Representative from Iowa. Painting the incumbent as an extension of Democratic leadership, the diminutive candidate left her audience with a catchphrase.
"I may be a short Mariannette, but I'm nobody's puppet," she said.