When Barack Obama first announced his candidacy for president in February 2007, his potential for superstardom – evidenced by his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and subsequent election to the United States Senate – may have been swiftly realized, but he still faced an uphill primary battle against New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Eleven months, record-breaking fundraising numbers and a massive field organization effort later, Obama won a decisive victory in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and Clinton came in a distant third. Even so, with the momentum continuing to turn against her, Clinton fought on to the bitter end in early June, a decision that some predicted would serve as an act of Democratic self-sabotage by creating a rift in the party that would forestall an otherwise surefire win in November.
The prolonged dogfight has instead likely contributed to Obama’s chances to take the White House. Throughout the country, primary and caucus turnout reached record levels and widened the gap between the number of registered Democrats and Republicans. The unprecedented ground operation that Obama began building then dwarfs Republican nominee John McCain’s and has allowed Obama to keep his rival on the defensive in traditionally red Bush states including Indiana and North Carolina throughout the entire course of the campaign. The starkest contrast between the two men, the British-based Times Online reported from Des Moines, is in Iowa, where Obama has 50 field offices to McCain’s 16, and four times the number of staffers as McCain, who never aggressively campaigned in the state during the Republican primaries.
The situation has only grown worse for McCain since. He enjoyed a short-lived bounce in the polls in early September following the Republican National Convention. But after that, the subprime mortgage crisis struck full force, and he scrambled to deflect that blow to the Republican brand with his brief campaign suspension and a forced populist message that sought to distance himself from the policies of deregulation that many are blaming for the mess. But it hasn’t done much to help – an October 14 Gallup Poll, for example, indicated that voters would prefer Obama to handle the economy 53 to 38 percent.
“McCain’s awful campaign is having awful consequences down the ballot,” wrote former Bush speechwriter David Frum in an October 26 op-ed for The Washington Post. “I spoke a little while ago to a senior Republican House member. ‘There is not a safe Republican seat in the country,’ he warned. ‘I don’t mean that we’re going to lose all of them. But we could lose any of them.’ ”
In Iowa, the Democratic wave of 2006 has already led to the ouster of two Republicans from the state’s five congressional districts. In the 1st district, Democrat Bruce Braley picked up the seat left vacant by Jim Nussle in the incumbent’s failed gubernatorial bid against Democrat and now-Governor Chet Culver. In the 2nd, Democrat Dave Loebsack upset the popular moderate Jim Leach, who had served since 1977. Leonard Boswell kept the 3rd blue, but Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King, representing Iowa’s 4th and 5th districts, respectively, both coasted to reelection.
Of course, 2006 was not a presidential election year, and Wall Street had not yet crumbled. Since that year, according to the Associated Press, the number of registered Democrats in the state has increased by 12.8 percent to 713,656 while Republican numbers are up just 1.5 percent, to 618,731. In addition, polls indicate that Obama enjoys a double-digit lead among the more than 750,000 unaffiliated voters here.
Desmoinesdem, a Windsor Heights mother and Democratic Party activist who writes for Iowa politics blog Bleeding Heartland (and prefers we not use her real name), thinks that Obama may be the key to finally unseating Latham or King, if not both. “Barack Obama has a more extensive field operation than any other presidential candidate has ever built, as far as I’m aware,” she said. “I know from having been a precinct captain for John Kerry’s campaign that what Obama has developed in Iowa is just light years beyond what Kerry had for getting out the vote.” The wild card? “Getting voters to vote Democratic down ticket as well.”
Tom Latham began representing Iowa in Congress in 1994, when Republicans regained majority control of the House for the first time since 1955. Back then, he served the 5th district in conservative western Iowa where he faced no significant obstacles to reelection. When his hometown of Alexander was redistricted after the 2000 election, Latham’s district became the much more evenly matched north-central 4th, but to date his closest contest has been a 12-point victory over Democrat John Norris in 2002.
In 2006, the Iowa Democratic Party struggled to find anyone to take on Latham. Eventually, Huxley neurologist Selden Spencer stepped in. He was a quick study, if clearly lacking in political experience, but his campaign never managed to lay the necessary groundwork to present a serious challenge. Spencer lost the election, receiving just 43 percent of the vote.
This cycle, things look markedly different for Democrats in the 4th. Previously a competitive but Republican-tilting district, it now has 8,700 more active Democratic voters than active Republican voters according to state records. And not only did the Democrats find a candidate, they found four – a former vice president of the Iowa Farmers Union, an agricultural industry marketer, a nonprofit founder and a quirky veteran of the Marine Corps.
The marketer, Becky Greenwald, who has also played an active role in the Iowa Democratic Party and has ties to former Governor Tom Vilsack, secured her party’s nomination with 51 percent of the primary vote. Soon after, she caught the attention of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which placed her contest on its list of emerging races. This means, in the DCCC’s words, “Democratic candidates have generated excitement in their districts for their campaigns for change.”
On October 14, Greenwald’s race was upgraded to “Red to Blue,” a category that “highlights top Democratic campaigns across the country, and offers them financial, communications, and strategic support.” Although she is mum on the details, Greenwald said her campaign now communicates with the DCCC on a daily basis.
“I’m just thrilled to be there,” she said. “It means I’ve got the support of the national party behind me.” That support may be critical to her chances of unseating Latham next month. Although her most recent FEC filing shows that she outraised Latham from July 1 to September 30 by nearly $18,000 – the feat that likely resulted in her status upgrade from the DCCC – she also outspent Latham by about $85,000 in that period. Now Greenwald has less than $25,000 left to spend; Latham has three quarters of a million.
Still, Greenwald sounds genuinely optimistic about her chances, and a lot of it has to do with Obama. “We have two Obama staffers in our office, in my campaign headquarters, that have been here for months, focusing just on ballots in Madison County,” she said. “In past years we have not had dedicated campaign staff from a presidential campaign in our county. And that’s happening throughout the district.” That, she said, “is very hard to put a dollar value on.”
Desmoinesdem said that anyone challenging Latham is bound to be an underdog. “You have to say that most entrenched incumbents are the favorites,” she said. “More than 90 percent of incumbents tend to be reelected. I think that the ‘X’ factors in this race are going to be the enormous Democratic turnout and whether Republican turnout is as strong as it was in 2004, and I think there’s some reason to believe that it won’t be, because John McCain is not really competing for this state in the way that George Bush was.”
The response to the economic crisis on Wall Street may be another path to victory for the Greenwald campaign. Although Latham voted against the relatively unpopular compromise bailout bill that passed through both houses of Congress – a bill Greenwald voiced support for after opposing Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s original three-page plan – his party continues to bear the brunt of the political fallout. The unpopularity of the word “Republican” is likely why it’s a task to find any mention of it on Latham’s campaign website, and why his advertisements try to sell him as a bipartisan legislator.
Greenwald’s response is simple. “He’s voted so many times to deregulate the financial market that you could actually call him a serial deregulator.” And unless Latham’s attempts to distance himself from his party stick, that’s the message that probably will. In fact, it may have already – a Research 2000 poll commissioned by the standout progressive blog Daily Kos from October 20 to 22 shows a narrow 47 to 42 percent Latham lead with a 5-point margin of error.
Steve King came to Congress in 2002 to claim the 5th district seat Latham left open after Iowa was redistricted. King’s only serious challenge in years past has been the four-way primary he won in a runoff before coasting to the easy general election victory that first sent him to Washington. Republican representation has long been considered a foregone conclusion in the region, so much so that King has earned a reputation for his unabashed and often outrageous brand of conservatism. To provide just one example, when King announced his bid for reelection, he told the press that, in the event of an Obama victory in November, al-Qaeda would “be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11 because they will declare victory in this war on terror.”
Indeed, the 5th district will be a wild beast for Democrats to tame. Congressional Quarterly lists it as “Safe Republican,” and state records show that among active registered voters Republicans have a 44,000-person edge (34 percent of active voters have no party affiliation). Its Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index – a measure of voters’ preferences in the last two presidential elections – leans Republican by eight points. In 2004 and 2006, King crushed Democratic challenger Joyce Schulte, whose part-time campaigns never had a chance.
This year, King is facing his first serious test from Democrat Rob Hubler. King’s opponent has a compelling resume. He spent seven years in the Navy in the 1960s on nuclear-powered submarines and later as a nuclear power plant operator, receiving the Good Conduct Medal and Vietnam Service Medal for his efforts. After his military years, he worked on a number of political campaigns, including Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s first (unsuccessful) run for Congress and former Iowa Senator Dick Clark’s successful Senate run, both in 1972, and he has been active with politics and service work ever since. In 1989 he attended seminary at the University of Dubuque to become a Presbyterian minister, a job he gave up in 2000 so he could care for his ailing father who died the following year.
Hubler has assembled as good of a get-out-the-vote operation as 5th district Democrats could have hoped for. His campaign chair is former Congressman and local populist icon Berkley Bedell, who served western Iowa for 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s when there were still six congressional districts in the state. Hubler’s been consulting with Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign manager in 2004, whose use of the Internet has helped revolutionize the party’s grassroots efforts. Hubler said his campaign has six offices and nine full time staffers in addition to the district’s Obama offices. In contrast, King’s campaign seems almost dormant. “As far as we know, King has two campaign staff,” Hubler said. “He has one campaign office. He does not act in the way we are. I am just completing traveling to 75 towns in the district in what we call the 32 county main street marathon.”
“Steve King has never had a Democrat run a serious campaign against him like the campaign Rob Hubler is running,” desmoinesdem said. “And [among] Republicans in western Iowa, McCain was never their favorite, or second favorite, or even their third favorite, and he’s expected to lose. Steve King is acting like he doesn’t really have a real election. I know Steve King doesn’t have a strong field operation, and McCain’s field operation is nothing like Obama’s.”
The DCCC has taken interest in the 5th district, too. The organization added the Hubler-King contest to its “Races to Watch” list on September 13 and upgraded it to an emerging race on October 14, the same day Greenwald’s campaign was elevated to its current Red to Blue status.
“I think it’s a very hopeful race,” Hubler said. “I think that in conjunction with the DCCC’s designation, the whole trend in the United States and Iowa, and specifically in the 5th district with the Obama-McCain race, is very hopeful to us.” Hubler cited a mid-September SurveyUSA poll, which, while not subdivided by district, shows Obama running even with McCain in northwest and southwest Iowa.
A Hubler campaign internal poll conducted roughly two months ago offers further hope.Asked whether they preferred the Democratic or Republican candidate, without referring to either by name, respondents favored the Republican by a slim 38 to 36 percent, and the poll showed King with a job performance rating of only 45 percent. The biggest obstacle, Hubler said, continues to be name recognition – 83 percent of the poll respondents said they knew who King was, but only 31 percent recognized Hubler.
Although conventional wisdom might have voters believe that Hubler’s challenge is unlikely to succeed, there is no doubting the accuracy of David Frum’s warning that Republicans can ill afford to take anything for granted. In an overwhelmingly conservative district, King is more vulnerable than ever before. For Latham, even the slimmest Democratic advantage could easily overcome the protection his 14-year incumbency provides. And even if neither Greenwald nor Hubler ultimately prevails on November 4, similar candidates with similarly good odds throughout the nation almost certainly will.
Few observers think McCain has a chance if the economic crisis continues to be the most pressing concern on voters’ minds. And as Hubler said, “The three biggest issues are the economy, the economy and the economy. It dominates everything.” If the Greenwald campaign’s insistence on the importance of early voting proves true, the electoral gains could be massive. In Iowa, according to a poll conducted by SurveyUSA on October 9, Obama has a 34-point edge among the estimated 14 percent of voters in the state who had already cast their ballots.
“It’s very hard to know where the safe seats are and where the competitive seats are, even for people who do this for a living,” desmoinesdem said. The extent to which the effects of riding on Obama’s coattails will result in “breaking [Republicans’] backs, crushing their spirits,” as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas puts it, remains to be seen, but the resounding successes of the Obama operation, in concert with McCain’s fledgling one and the burden placed upon the Republican Party by the sour economy, will almost certainly serve to expand upon the Democratic Party’s 2006 electoral gains.