Campaign 2006: The Battle for an Open Seat in Iowa

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It isn't just the 2008 presidential race that is bringing hopefuls including John McCain, Bill Frist, John Edwards and Evan Bayh to northeastern Iowa these days. They're pitching in to help candidates vying in one of the most hotly contested, crucial 2006 congressional races. That's because after 15 years in Congress, Republican Jim Nussle is giving up his seat representing Iowa's 1st district to run for governor, making this rare open seat a must-win if the Democrats have any real hope of regaining control of the House of Representatives.

All of this helps explains why Presidential Advisor Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney have also shown up for campaign fundraisers near the Mississippi River. "It's seen as one of the top seats that's going to switch," says Donna Hoffman, a University of Northern Iowa political science assistant professor.

A mid-September Des Moines Register poll showed Democrat Bruce Braley leading by seven percentage points over Republican Mike Whalen. Both are personable political newcomers who won fiercely contested primaries in a politically divided district with pretty river towns and old industrial cities, including Davenport, Bettendorf, Clinton, Dubuque and Waterloo.

Braley, a Waterloo trial lawyer and legal aid attorney, is presumed to have the slight lead over Quad Cities businessman Whalen thanks largely to President George W. Bush's low approval ratings. A self-described progressive Democrat, Braley has criticized the President's handling of foreign and domestic concerns, from the Iraq War to the economy, and dubbed his opponent a potential "rubber stamp" for the Administration.

For his part Whalen, who calls himself a "consistent conservative," hasn't shied away from the Bush Administration but is portraying himself as an ordinary citizen, successful businessman and independent voice. A Harvard Law School grad, Whalen founded the Machine Shed restaurant chain (famed locally for its huge pork chops and cinnamon rolls) and owns the Heart of America Restaurants and Inns.

Both candidates have struggled to find a strong, clear message on Iraq. Braley supports turning over the fighting to the Iraqis and developing an exit strategy with a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. "It's an issue on the minds of practically every voter," Braley said. "I have sought to emphasize the fact that it's time for a new direction in Iraq."

Whalen, like so many Republicans across the country, has tried to focus more on the war on terror than the war in Iraq. But he has argued that troops must remain in Iraq until the country has moved to true independence. Republicans have attacked Braley for having a "cut and run" policy and suggesting he would cut off funding for war supplies and risk soldiers' safety — a reference to an earlier comment Braley made noting Congress' option to cut off war funds to pressure a withdrawal of the troops. Braley denies the Republican charge, saying he'd consider cutting funds only as a last resort.

Despite the injection of national party politics and foreign policy issues, both candidates have sought to emphasize domestic economic issues, with Braley touting his working-class background and Whalen his entrepreneurial experience. Both talk of voters' concerns about security — physical (protection from terrorists) and economic (jobs, wages, health care costs.)

Supported by organized labor, Braley has campaigned on raising the minimum wage, fair trade issues, opposing Republican efforts to privatize Social Security and reforming the Medicare prescription drug program. Whalen has emphasized reducing wasteful government spending and government intrusion that hampers free enterprise. He also supports private sector solutions, a modified flat tax system to help small businesses and stimulate economic growth, "consumer-driven" health care reform, tort reform and permanent extension of federal income tax cuts.

The minimum wage issue in particular has bubbled up, with Braley claiming that Whalen has only paid workers the federally mandated minimum, which Whalen denied. So too has the immigration issue, aided by a high-profile U.S. House Judiciary Committee field hearing in Dubuque on immigration reform and an appearance on Whalen's behalf by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, who warned of rising farm labor prices if illegal immigration is not dealt with comprehensively.

Meanwhile, national party dollars continue to flood in — and so do national party stars, including Laura Bush and Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit this coming weekend. But, says the University of Iowa's Peverill Squire, "I don't think either candidate wants to appear as being too attuned with Washington this time around."