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Should Republicans Think the Unthinkable About Iowa’s 4th District?

Democrats appear to be targeting Steve King. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats appear to be targeting Steve King. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When everyone else on the planet — or at least in the nation’s capital — becomes consumed with something like a Virginia primary upset or a Clinton book launch, I often turn to focus on an obscure campaign or candidate instead. I figure there is already enough chatter about the popular stuff, and I can keep my sanity by focusing on minutiae.  

Given that, it shouldn’t come as a shock that my topic today is Iowa’s 4th District, a generally overlooked seat in the middle of the nation represented by Republican Rep. Steve King.  

After looking at King’s comfortable 2012 victory over heavily hyped Christie Vilsack (the wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a one-time first lady of Iowa) and meeting the likely Democratic nominee this cycle, Jim Mowrer, I never thought this race would be worth any attention. I’m still not sure it is. King was on his political deathbed two years ago, according to Democratic operatives that cycle, so when he defeated Vilsack 53 percent to 45 percent, I had to figure that Democrats had seriously underestimated King’s political appeal in his redrawn district.  

Mowrer, whom I interviewed in August, seemed like an affable fellow, but didn’t appear to be the kind of top-tier challenger Democrats would need to upset King — particularly in a midterm election cycle with a polarizing Democrat in the White House.  

The father of two turned 28 earlier this year. He spent time in the Iowa National Guard, including 16 months in Iraq, did “some work with” Vote Vets, a Democratic veterans group, and spent more than three years in the Pentagon helping to make the Army’s business operations more efficient.  

If Christie Vilsack, who raised and spent $3.35 million in a presidential year, couldn’t beat the Republican congressman in 2012, how on earth could Mowrer? Remember, Vilsack had the benefit of running against King in a recently redrawn district that allegedly had swapped conservative voters in southwest Iowa for more moderate ones in the north-central part of the state.  

And the Democratic challenger benefited from a 2 to 1 spending advantage by outside groups, according to the Campaign Finance Institute .
But let’s look at the other side of the ledger for a moment.  

As of May 14, Mowrer had raised about as much money during the cycle ($858,463) as two other Hawkeye State Democrats, Rep. Dave Loebsack of the 2nd District ($843,187) and Staci Appel, who is running in the 3rd District ($869,331). Mowrer even had more on hand in mid-May than Appel ($514,631 to $466,565.)  

Loebsack had a competitive race in 2010, winning by only 6 points in the Republican wave year, and Appel is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top recruits in a Republican-held open seat — that of retiring Rep. Tom Latham.  

Mowrer had more than twice as much in the bank on May 14 as incumbent King, who had only $223,531 in cash on hand. Either King forgot there is an election in November, or he isn’t taking his Democratic challenger too seriously.  

Surprisingly, the DCCC — which added Mowrer to its Red to Blue program earlier this month — last month listed the 4th District as one of 36 where it has reserved television time in the fall. The DCCC announced it had reserved $440,000 worth of broadcast time in Des Moines and $230,000 in Sioux City, from Oct. 21 to Nov. 4, “to play offense against GOP Rep. Steve King,” according to a May 29 Roll Call article.  

The total cost of the airtime reserved in the 4th District was small compared to many of the other districts where the DCCC reserved time, but that shouldn’t obscure the obvious point: The DCCC included the 4th in a list of districts where it is either prepared to play in the fall or where it wants journalists (and Republican strategists) to believe it will play.  

In fact, Democratic veterans emphasize that the DCCC only reserved time in the 36 districts, and that the reservation does not guarantee the committee will spend money in them all — or will spend everything reserved for a particular race.  

Interestingly, while House Majority PAC, the super PAC focused on regaining control of the House for Democrats, announced in April it reserved time for TV advertising in the Latham open-seat race, it did not mention Iowa’s 4th District as a place where it planned to be active.  

My guess is that the DCCC reserved time in the long-shot hope that Mowrer will have a path to victory by the time Oct. 21 rolls around. But it also knew there was a good chance it would pull the plug on that reservation, or, possibly, use the airtime in Des Moines to boost Appel in the Latham open-seat contest.  

King drives Democrats nuts, so it isn’t surprising they hope his impolitic statements — whether about his pay during the government shutdown last year or about immigration — will cause some GOP voters and independents who have supported him in the past to cross over and support Mowrer.  

But that’s unlikely. After all, King has been a controversial figure for years, and the likely 2014 midterm dynamic should help the Republican on turnout, as well as interject President Barack Obama into voters’ decision-making process.  

Party registration figures from the Iowa secretary of state’s office show about a 52,000 Republican registration advantage in the 4th District. As long as Republicans vote like Republicans, it’s difficult to imagine Mowrer defeating King. Extremely difficult.

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