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Democrats go on defense in crucial heartland House race in Iowa

GOP has sights on Iowa’s 2nd District, which backed Trump in 2016

Former Iowa state Sen. Rita Hart is running for the Democratic nomination for Iowa’s 2nd District after Democratic incumbent Dave Loebsack opted against reelection. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Former Iowa state Sen. Rita Hart is running for the Democratic nomination for Iowa’s 2nd District after Democratic incumbent Dave Loebsack opted against reelection. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

WHEATLAND, Iowa — Republicans sense an opportunity in the rolling corn and soybean fields in southeastern Iowa. But Democrats won’t be giving up their hold on this heartland district without a fight.

Republicans’ path to the House majority runs through the 31 Democrat-held districts that President Donald Trump won in 2016. And one of them, Iowa’s 2nd District, ranks among the GOP’s best pickup opportunities next year because it’s the only one of the 31 without an incumbent defending the seat.

Democratic incumbent Dave Loebsack’s decision to retire shot his seat to the top of GOP target lists, since the seven-term lawmaker had managed to survive Republican wave years. On Thursday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added the 2nd District to their target list too.

Without Loebsack on the ballot, Republicans believe they can flip this seat, which Trump won by 4 points. But Democrats believe they scored one of their top recruits of the cycle so far to take his place: former state Sen. Rita Hart.

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Hart said her phone “just blew up” after Loebsack announced his retirement. She said she missed serving in the Legislature and entered the race because she wants to bring a commonsense legislative style to Congress.

The top Republican in the race so far is Bobby Schilling, who will have to explain why Iowa voters should put their stock in a former congressman from Illinois. He says he’s a good bet.

“This is a district that, in 2010, should have been won,” Schilling said Tuesday after a county GOP meeting in Muscatine. “And it is going to be won in 2020.”

A farmland fight 

Loebsack’s success here, and the fact that former President Barack Obama carried the district twice, gives Democrats hope they can win this seat, especially with Hart.

Hart was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor last year; she and gubernatorial nominee Fred Hubbell lost by 3 points. Sitting on her porch on her farm in Wheatland on Tuesday, barefoot in jeans with a T-shirt that said “{farm},” Hart acknowledged the 2018 campaign could have done a better job at engaging on issues that resonate with rural Iowa.

“The people here are facing the same problems that, that everyone faces, right? Education, health care, good jobs,” Hart said, before adding, “The impacts of those challenges are different in rural Iowa than they are in other places in the country.”

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Hart cited trade and affordable and accessible health care as the topics she hears most often from 2nd District voters. The district includes the state’s portion of the “Quad Cities,” which is made up of five cities that straddle the Mississippi River across Iowa and Illinois. It is also home to scores of grain and pig farmers.

Hart’s rural roots are partly why Democrats, including Loebsack, have consolidated behind her, although she does face a primary opponent in engineer Newman Abuissa. 

Hart and her husband own a 200-acre corn and soybean farm and have personally felt the impact of Trump’s trade war with China. After Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese imports, Beijing retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods including corn and soybeans.

“I think that it’s one thing to stand up to China. But it’s another thing to get other people, other countries to go with you to stand up to China,” Hart said. “And when we went alone, we took a great risk.”

Later that day, an hour south of Wheatland, Schilling faced pressing questions about trade at the monthly Muscatine County GOP meeting.

Rudy Schellekens, 64, who works for the local school district, told Schilling that his friends who were farmers were hurting and that Trump doesn’t understand that farmers bear the brunt of tariffs.

“Anytime you’re going to try to fix something, there’s going to be a little bit of hurt,” Schilling responded, adding that he hoped Congress and the president would resolve the issue.

From Illinois to Iowa

Wearing a replica congressional pin from the Capitol gift shop (he only breaks out the real one on special occasions), Schilling showed up at the meeting to try to consolidate Republican support around his candidacy by touting his record of having won a traditionally Democratic district in Illinois.

After serving just one term, he lost a redrawn version of his seat to Democrat Cheri Bustos in 2012. Bustos now chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Former Illinois GOP Rep. Bobby Schilling speaks at the monthly Muscatine Republican meeting.(Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Former Illinois Rep. Bobby Schilling is now vying for the open seat in Iowa’s 2nd District. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

With some Republicans anticipating other candidates entering the race, Schilling is trying to head off Democratic and GOP attacks that he is a carpetbagger. 

He began his pitch Tuesday to the small group of Republicans gathered in the back of a music studio by explaining that he moved to Iowa in 2017 to escape rising taxes in Illinois. Schilling also has plans to open a pizza restaurant in Davenport next year.

“We’re home,” he said. “We’ve been Quad Citians our whole lives.”

Schilling’s campaign site says he’s running “to stop radical leftists from destroying this great nation.”

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“I can strongly say I am not a radical leftist,” Hart, Schilling’s potential opponent, said with a laugh. She noted that she grew up on a farm as one of nine kids, with her mom a staunch Republican and her father an ardent Democrat.

“We learned soon how to be practical, how to be commonsense and how important it is that people work together,” Hart said.

Hart did not directly answer whether she would sign on to “Medicare for All” or the Green New Deal legislation, which more liberal lawmakers and presidential candidates support. But she said any health care or environmental proposal should be bipartisan and “make sense.”

Asked how he could run a campaign on combating “radical leftists” if Hart is not openly supporting some of the more liberal policies, Schilling said the Democrat won’t be able to buck her party.

“When Nancy Pelosi comes out of the room and says, ‘Rita, I need you to vote this way,’ Rita has to vote that way,” he said.

It’s an attempt by Schilling to nationalize the race, particularly with Trump at the top of the ballot and likely driving up GOP turnout. Republicans are hoping that strategy will prove successful in places like the 2nd District.

But Loebsack told reporters at the Iowa State Fair last week that Democrats can still win this part of the state. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.

“You just gotta focus on the issues that matter to people,” Loebsack said. “And I think it makes a difference, just being there.”

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