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Hawkeye State Races All Turn Competitive

When the presidential campaigns bombarded Iowa over the summer, there was an unintended consequence: Every House race in the state became more competitive.

Consequently, a state once expected to feature one or two competitive House races could see all four seats in play.

This newfound dynamic slightly favors Republicans, who face tough climbs to unseat Democratic incumbents in two eastern Iowa seats. But Democrats also reap the benefits of a more competitive field that is energizing their candidates in the western half of the state, including Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) in his marquee battle with Rep. Tom Latham (R).

The proof is on the  airwaves: By Friday, the National Republican Congressional Committee will be on the air in each of the state’s four districts. House Democrats have reserved time in three districts.

“We always believed that Republicans could be competitive in all four Congressional races following redistricting last year,” said Tim Albrecht, a veteran Republican operative who serves as communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). “Now, as we get closer to the election, you might have thought two would have dropped off. All four of our Congressional races are going strong.”

Republicans are bullish about the 2nd district in southeastern Iowa, where Rep. Dave Loebsack (D) faces a challenge from John Archer (R), a former John Deere attorney. Republicans have reserved $750,000 in airtime to boost Archer, about $165,000 more than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has allocated to the district.

It is a Democratic district, but even Loebsack’s supporters acknowledge the former college professor is not a strong campaigner. He held a massive cash advantage at the end of June, but that lead could be quickly erased if an outside group decides to target the race.

Loebsack’s greatest challenge is the Quad Cities media market, which is mostly new to him under the redraw. A battleground for the presidential candidates, this market has become one of the most expensive in the state, costing as much per point as cities such as St. Louis. Accordingly, Roll Call is changing its race rating from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic.

Republicans also view the 1st district as competitive – but to a lesser degree than the 2nd. In this northeastern district, Rep. Bruce Braley (D) faces his 2010 opponent, attorney Ben Lange (R).

Still, Republicans are confident enough to reserve $350,000 in airtime for this district. The current spending is a trial balloon to see if the race can become more competitive.  Democrats have yet to reserve anything, but Braley – a good fundraiser – has a strong cash lead.  

Anticipating a tough rematch, he started to fundraise and air television advertisements early. He made several trips to Des Moines, which many Democrats say help lay the groundwork for a future statewide bid. This remains Iowa’s least competitive House district, but that’s no longer a low bar. Roll Call is changing its rating of this race from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic.

But while Republicans are boosted by more competitive races in eastern Iowa, Democrats see more opportunity than ever in the western part of the state.  

Latham built a big fundraising lead early on, thanks in part to his close friendship with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). National and local Democrats sent their dollars north to the 4th district instead.

But good fundraising alone does not win races – especially in competitive districts like this one based in Des Moines. The redrawn district only marginally voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

Democrats are more confident in Boswell’s chances than they have been in months, even though they still privately concede that the race is an uphill battle.  

An analysis of the recent advertisement traffic underscores the lingering competitiveness of this race. Latham kicked off the airwaves fight with a couple of positive spots. Boswell started his television campaign with spots attacking Latham, and now the Republican has returned the favor with a negative spot of his own.

Simultaneously, Democrats are more optimistic about former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack’s bid to dethrone Rep. Steve King (R) in northeastern Iowa.  National dollars have flooded this district, including a recent $400,000 buy from House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC.

Money goes further in this region than in Des Moines, as the district hosts some of the cheapest media markets, such as Sioux City and Mason City, in the state.

As a result, King has not been able to put the race away more than a year after Vilsack announced her candidacy. GOP internal polling shows a single-digit race with King picking up less than 50 percent of the vote. This week, one plugged-in national Republican privately named King as one of the five GOP incumbents most likely to not return to Congress next year.

House Republicans responded by adding time to their fall buy for the 4th district. About two weeks ago, King went up  with his own spots to answer Vilsack, who has been on the air since mid-August.

Still, there was enough early concern about King’s flagging campaign that Branstad got personally involved in the race. Last spring, he sent two of his top staffers to run King’s campaign and communications operation. Branstad also opened doors to Des Moines donors and, as a result, King’s fundraising improved greatly this year. King raised more so far for this race than in his past two campaigns combined.

Republicans speculated that Branstad’s motivation was threefold: He wanted to see King win, keep his own campaign operation strong for his 2014 re-election and, most important, eliminate the possibility any future Vilsack will hold office in the state.

King has room for error. Republicans have a 52,911 voter registration advantage in the district, according to the most recent tally from the Iowa secretary of state.

“Steve King is still favored, but he hasn’t put the race away there yet,” said one veteran Republican operative in Iowa.

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