Will incumbent Democratic candidate Dave Loebsack coast to re-election in the new district, or will Bettendorf lawyer John Archer give him a challenge?
We spoke with Tim Hagle, associate professor in Political Science at the University of Iowa by e-mail yesterday to see if he could give us an impression of how this race is going.
Iowa City Patch: The publication "Roll Call" did a recent analysis of the Loebsack versus Archer race, and downgraded Loebsack's chances from a "Likely Democratic" victor to a "leans Democratic" district. Do you get the sense from things you see and people you talk to that Republicans think that this seat is a legitimate pickup opportunity?
Professor Tim Hagle: The short answer is yes, but that’s not to say that it will be easy. Loebsack has the advantage of being the incumbent in a district that has about 27,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Under other circumstances that would guarantee victory for Loebsack, but there are several factors that make things more difficult for him. One is that although he represented most of the new Second District before redistricting he lost his Linn County base and picked up Scott County, which is Archer’s base and which has been trending Republican. In 2010 Loebsack won Linn County by about 5,500 votes. In contrast, Republican challenger Ben Lange won Scott County in 2010 (which was then in the First District) by a bit over 1,000 votes.
Loebsack may not be helped by the addition of several rural counties to the district as he lost many similar counties in 2010. Archer is seen as a strong candidate by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has awarded him “Young Gun” status, the highest of four tiers for Republican challengers.
Republican turnout was high in 2010 because the base was very energized. Democrats certainly don’t have the same enthusiasm they did in 2008, but in a presidential year they should be more energized than 2010. Thus, and this is no surprise, the key will be the effectiveness of each candidate’s turnout efforts.
Iowa City Patch: One of the main stories for the U.S. Congress races in Iowa (and other places) this year is redistricting. How do the new changes to the second district affect Loebsack's chances of re-election? Does it slightly mitigate his natural advantage as an incumbent since he will need to win over a new batch of voters?
Hagle: I touched on this a bit in the previous response. An additional problem for Loebsack is that he’s not seen as a strong campaigner. He was the beneficiary of good timing when he first won in 2006 as that was a very good year for Democrats. He enjoyed a large voter registration advantage in the old Second District that allowed him to win in 2008 and hold on in 2010 against a strong challenger. Redistricting meant that the new Second District has 24 counties (up from 15), 10 of which are new. So many counties new to the district reduces Loebsack’s incumbency advantage. He had a primary challenge that forced him to do some early campaigning in the new counties, but his visibility and name recognition in these counties will still not be what it is in the holdover counties. Not surprisingly, this provides an opening for Archer.
Iowa City Patch: Archer hails from Bettendorf, so it would be natural to assume he has some connections in the Quad Cities. How does the Quad Cities balance politically against Iowa City, where Loebsack may have some advantages?
Hagle: Loebsack certainly has the advantage in Iowa City and Johnson County. Even in the strong Republican year of 2010, Loebsack won Johnson County by nearly 14,000 votes, which was more than his margin of victory in the election. Even though Democrats will be more fired up for a presidential election, the general enthusiasm for Obama among young voters is much less than what it was four years ago. Thus, Loebsack cannot rely so heavily on coattails from the presidential race to carry him to victory. Even if Obama wins Iowa, it will likely be by a much closer margin than in 2008. That, along with the loss of Linn County in the district, means Loebsack must work much harder to get his base voters to the polls.
In addition to Archer having his base in Scott County, the Quad Cities media market is seen as one of the more expensive markets in Iowa. Loebsack isn’t as strong a fundraiser as Braley (who currently represents Scott County), so Archer’s connections in the county may give him an advantage in terms of fundraising and advertising in the county.
Iowa City Patch: What are the main issues that Loebsack and Archer are campaigning on and against each other?
Hagle: Both Loebsack and Archer have new ads up in Iowa. The contrast between them is striking. In his ad Loebsack says that “Washington just doesn’t get it” then suggests members of Congress should be banned from becoming lobbyists. He then notes that we must protect Medicare and balance the budget the right way. There was no mention of jobs or the economy generally. There’s only so much you can say in a 30-second ad, but lobbyists doesn’t seem a relevant issue for this election. I checked his website to see what issues he is emphasizing, but under the only thing in the “Working for Iowa” link is the phrase, “Coming soon…” This is more than a little surprising for someone who has been a member of Congress for six years.
Archer’s new ad focuses on concerns over jobs and reducing burdensome government regulation. The issues listed on his website are what we would expect: job creation, a pro-business government, and agriculture (among others).
On the whole, both candidates seem to be emphasizing the same sorts of issues that are driving the national campaigns.
Iowa City Patch: John Archer received a speaking spot at the RNC and has had some backing from different members from the state and national Republican party. If I understand correctly, he also received some party financial backing as well. How much does the support of a party structure make a difference in a potentially tight race like this?
Hagle: Yes, Archer was a speaker at the Republican National Convention. His slot was in the afternoon, so a lot of people may not have seen it. Even so, it’s certainly recognition by the Republican Party that he is someone who is a strong candidate. Party support can certainly benefit a campaign. At a practical level, this usually means money. Challengers are often at a funding disadvantage compared to incumbents so financial support can be critical. In addition, putting money into a race is an indicator that the party has some confidence that the race is winnable, which helps to give the candidate some momentum. Put another way, stories reporting that the party is pulling funding from a race usually result in stories suggesting that the race isn’t winnable for that candidate.
Aside from party money, both candidates will get help from outside groups who think the race is winnable. Whether the money comes from the party or outside groups, such funding can be critical in a tight race as the campaigns are looking to put on a final push to turnout voters and convince the last few undecided or persuadable voters.
Iowa City Patch: Overall, what is your sense of where this race stands now? Are there any pivotal dates to watch out for?
Hagle: The race is seen by many observers as leaning toward Loebsack, but it won’t be easy for him and Archer certainly has a chance. Loebsack has to hope that Obama does well in the district and particularly in Johnson County. Archer will need to keep working hard, particularly in the rural counties as well as Scott.
It’s hard to guess at any dates that might be critical to this race. Debates might be useful, but my guess is they would have little effect unless there was a major gaffe by one of the candidates. There’s always the possibility of some unforeseen event affecting the race, but my best guess at this point is that both candidates will need to continue to work hard through Election Day.