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Democrats Duel for Open House Seat in Iowa

Braley, right, is running for Senate and leaving a wide-open race for Democrats in the 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Braley, right, is running for Senate and leaving a wide-open race for Democrats in the 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In a state that was expected to play host to multiple competitive contests this year, Democrats are dueling for the nomination — and most likely, the seat — in northeastern Iowa’s open 1st District.  

The filing deadline is Friday, and House Republicans have all but written off the district to focus on the state’s other open-seat race, in the 3rd District. After a top-tier Republican recruit unexpectedly dropped out of the race, the next member of Congress from the 1st District will likely be decided by a Democratic primary on June 3.  

Five Democrats are currently vying for the district, which is anchored around the cities of Cedar Rapids and Dubuque.  

Last month, state Rep. Pat Murphy released polling that showed him in the lead. A state lawmaker since 1989, including a stint as state speaker, voters are likely more familiar with Murphy than the other candidates in the pack.  

“Probably it’s Pat Murphy’s to lose,” said Mike Glover, a former Associated Press reporter in Iowa who now runs a blog on state politics. “He has a long history in the state, he’s a very prominent political figure and he’s organized. He would be the guy that I would expect to be the front-runner and I think something bad would have to happen for him to lose.”  

But other Democrats in the race, including Cedar Rapids Councilwoman Monica Vernon and former state Sen. Swati Dandekar are raising sizable sums for the contest.  

Both hail from Cedar Rapids, the second-largest city in the state, and Democratic operatives say that, if they can coalesce their geographic base and chip into Murphy’s support, they will be competitive on primary day.  

Two other Democrats are also running: state Rep. Anesa Kajtazovic and attorney Dave O’Brien. Democrats dismiss O’Brien as an uncompetitive candidate in this race but noted that Kajtazovic, a Bosnian refuge, has a strong story — though they are unsure she can be competitive.  

“Primaries can oftentimes see people have an allegiance based on where a candidate is from,” said one Democrat unaffiliated with any of the candidates in the race. “Pat Murphy is from Dubuque, there are multiple candidates from Cedar Rapids and then Anesa Kajtazovic is from Waterloo. So how do they split up those three bases of Democratic support … is important.”  

A five-candidate field could also result in a nominating convention, which could change the race for the Democratic nod. If no candidate garners at least 35 percent of the vote in the June primary, the race proceeds to a convention where party activists determine the nominee.  

In that situation, Democratic operatives say, Murphy would be difficult to beat. His long history in the state House make him popular among the party’s most loyal activists.  

Democratic operatives add that other candidates, such as Vernon and Dandekar, would likely have a hard time wrangling convention delegates into their camps.  

Specifically, some local Democratic operatives said party operatives still hold animosity toward Dandekar, who left the state Senate after she was appointed to the State Utilities Board by Gov. Terry E. Branstad. When she left the state Senate, Democrats nearly lost her seat in a special election, which would have cost them control of the chamber.  

Vernon, too, could have problems among the Democratic activists in the state. She was a registered Republican before switching parties in 2009 and has faced criticism that she is not progressive enough.  

“Party switchers have a long history of failure in this state,” Glover said.  

The 1st District — which is open this cycle because Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, is running for Senate — was always an uphill climb for Republicans. President Barack Obama won it by a 14-point margin in 2012.  

Until recently, Republicans were targeting the district in northeastern Iowa as a pick-up opportunity, pinning their hopes on state Rep. Walt Rogers. His recent exit from the race means Republicans have lost their best-positioned candidate in the field  

“Walt was by far our best candidate and with the loss of him comes the loss of the seat I fear,” one Iowa Republican operative said.  

This race is rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

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