The possibility of an open seat in one of only a handful of truly competitive districts remaining in the country has the national parties salivating and would-be candidates jockeying.
Rep. Jim Nussle (R) has held the eastern Iowa 1st district seat since 1990 but has already formed an exploratory committee aimed at raising funds for a gubernatorial bid in 2006. Though Nussle will not make a decision about the statewide race for several months, most political observers see his candidacy as a foregone conclusion.
Nussle’s recent easy victories belie the underlying competitiveness of the seat, which Al Gore carried by 7 points over George W. Bush in 2000, overperforming his statewide showing by 6 percent.
The district has several population centers: Waterloo in the west, Dubuque in the east and Davenport in the south.
While each of the cities tends to vote Democratic, populous Dubuque County, which is largely made up of Catholics of German decent, has shown a proclivity to vote against Democrats who support abortion rights.
Democrats believe Nussle’s departure represents one of their best pickup opportunities of the 2006 cycle.
“Democrats have a deep bench in eastern Iowa, and we’ll field a strong candidate who can win the 1st district,” said Greg Speed, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Despite Speed’s optimism, several of the party’s strongest candidates seem uninterested in making the race.
State Rep. Pam Jochum, whose base is in Dubuque and opposes abortion (an ideal combination for a Democrat to win), told Roll Call via e-mail that she has been approached to run for the 1st district seat but “at this time it’s not likely.”
Similarly, newly elected state Sen. Jeff Danielson (D) said people have talked to him about the contest but he is “unequivocally not interested.”
Danielson, a firefighter from Waterloo, pointed out that his victory in a Republican-held open state Senate seat in November concluded roughly four years straight on the stump.
“I have been a nonstop campaigner for four years and I am not interested in starting up another one,” he said.
With top-tier candidates like Jochum and Danielson taking a pass, a slew of other Democrats are looking at the race.
Former Iowa Trial Lawyers Association President Bruce Braley, who makes his home in Waterloo, is seen as a potentially strong candidate, according to national Democrats.
Other names mentioned on the Democratic side are Rick Dickinson, the director of the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation, and Davenport state Sen. Joe Seng. Seng considered a challenge to Nussle in 2004 but backed out when former state Sen. Bill Gluba announced his candidacy.
Gluba seems certain to run again despite taking just 43 percent against Nussle last cycle; it was his third run for Congress after twice losing to Rep. Jim Leach (R) in the 1980s.
A Gluba candidacy could complicate Democratic efforts to win the seat, as his residual name identification makes him a fairly formidable primary foe.
Republicans also have no dearth of potential candidates with state Rep. Bill Dix, entrepreneur Mike Whalen and former state Republican Party Chairman Brian Kennedy in the top tier.
Of the three, Kennedy seems most likely to make the contest if Nussle jumps to a statewide bid.
“I am prepared to run if Jim Nussle runs for governor,” Kennedy confirmed in an interview Friday.
Kennedy has a long history in state and national politics, serving as campaign manager for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s (R) re-election to a fourth term in 1994 and then as state party chairman.
In 1996 he was executive director of the Republican Governors Association before heading to the presidential campaign of former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (R). After Alexander’s defeat, Kennedy joined the Washington, D.C.-based DCI Group.
Last cycle, Kennedy, who says he has lived in Davenport since the summer of 2003, formed an organization known as the “Campaign of One” aimed at re-focusing Republicans on grassroots organizing.
“My focus for the past year and a half has been on party-building activities,” Kennedy said. “It is an effort toward strengthening the Republican Party throughout eastern Iowa.”
Dix, the owner of Dixieland Farms, has been in the state House since 1996 when he won a four-way Republican primary with nearly 70 percent. He has not been seriously challenged since.
Dix currently represents a district that includes Butler County as well as a portion of Bremer County that takes in the city of Waverly. He describes it as a “lean Republican” seat.
As for his interest in a Congressional race, Dix acknowledged that “some of the actions that Congressman Nussle has taken to this point have caused some discussion among my family and closest supporters.”
“I have not made any final decision about what I might do,” he added.
Dix grows a variety of crops on his farm including pumpkins and muskmelons; he has become the exclusive pumpkin provider to Target stores throughout Iowa.
Whalen, the founder of the Heart of America Restaurants & Inns chain, said that until Nussle makes a definitive announcement “no one is going to come out and say they are going to run.”
Whalen acknowledged he is in negotiations with Steve Grubbs, a former state party chairman who is now a political consultant, to work for his campaign if he runs. Whalen said that no deal has been finalized with Grubbs.
Whalen, whose restaurant and hotel chain now has 25 establishments in five Midwestern states, has significant personal wealth. He is also a policy chairman at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a think tank based in Dallas.
“Some people like golf,” said Whalen. “I like public policy.”