Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008

Will an Obama Wave Usher in Iowa's First Congresswoman?

Iowa Republican Tom Latham sailed into the House of Representatives on a sea of change in 1994, when his party swept into power. Could Latham sail out on a different partisan sea of change in 2008 — and, in the process, make way for the election of Iowa's first congresswoman?

Originally elected to represent the 5th district, based in heavily Republican western Iowa, Latham now represents the 4th district, based in north-central Iowa, which was redrawn in 2001 through redistricting. While more competitive, the predominately rural 4th district still has a Republican character, representing northern Iowa farm towns as well as Ames, home of Iowa State University, and fast-growing Des Moines suburbs (but not Des Moines). And Latham, 60, is a well-financed, seven-term incumbent with strong agribusiness ties (he works in his family's seed business) who has handily beat previous challengers and is known for bringing home the bacon, especially to Iowa State. (He is the only Iowan on the House Appropriations Committee.)

But several factors, most recently the swiftly souring economy, may benefit Latham's challenger, Democrat Becky Greenwald, 56, a political newcomer who worked for many years as a seed company marketing executive (though not at Latham's seed company). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) recently rated the 4th District race as competitive by placing it on its "Red to Blue" list, noting the fact that Greenwald's campaign has surpassed demanding fundraising goals and the DCCC is promising financial, communications and strategic support. Latham still retains a substantial funding advantage, but it has narrowed recently, according to the latest report released earlier this week. Between June 30 and September 30, Greenwald's receipts rose from $146,494 to $454,946, while Latham's rose from $1.05 million to $1.35 million.

"This does look like a change election," says Dianne Bystrom, director of Iowa State's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. "People are upset with the powers that be. That works in Becky's favor."

So does a shift in registration among the district's 402,180 active voters, driven by the spirited Iowa presidential caucuses last January, that has left registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by 8,694 voters. (Republicans held an edge of 6,166 voters in 2006.) Another potential help is the man who spurred much of the Democratic registration earlier this year, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. With a solid, double-digit lead over John McCain in Iowa according to some polls, Obama is working to turn out new Democrats and all-important independent voters, who make up 37% of the 4th district's registered active voters, followed by 32% for Democrats and 30% for Republicans. (See photos of the Democrats' campaigning before the Iowa caucuses here.)

"Both parties have to win independents," says Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines. Greenwald is a "good articulate candidate" who normally would have an uphill battle in an ordinary year but "Democrats are hoping to catch a wave." Latham, he added, "is fairly well-insulated. His support doesn't rise or fall on McCain's. Hers' does rise or fall on Obama because he can attract independents."

Greenwald could actually benefit from both of the Democratic party's chief standard bearers this year. There's talk of her attracting disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters. "They're going to be looking for a way to vote for a woman, to channel their inner-Hillary," says Bystrom, adding that Iowans don't like to be reminded that their state is among only four that have never sent a woman to Congress (of those four, which include Vermont and Delaware, Iowa and Mississippi have also never elected a female Governor.) In that spirit, Greenwald has been endorsed by EMILY's List, the national organization working to elect pro-choice Democratic women.

To date, both candidates have used limited, largely positive television advertising, with Latham running as a "trusted leader" and Greenwald as an "independent thinker." Greenwald says she and Latham are "just about polar opposites" on many issues, including the economy, pointing to Latham's opposition to the recent $700 billion Wall Street bailout package.

Greenwald says she would have supported the second bailout package that passed. "The risk of doing nothing was so much greater than the risk of doing something," she says. She also supports Obama's health care plan, which requires greater government support and regulation, and says Latham's position on McCain's plan, which relies more on the free market, is unclear.

She has sought to link Latham to President Bush and Republicans, noting that Latham has voted with his party 94% of the time. (Her campaign's website features a "What is Latham whispering to Bush?" caption contest beside a photo of the two men.)

Latham says he opposed the bailout package because it favors Wall Street "corruption and mismanagement" over Main Street. He doesn't support either McCain or Obama's healthcare plan because they are not yet written in full, says James Carstensen, Latham's chief of staff. He argued that Latham is the least partisan member of Iowa's congressional delegation, pointing to Latham's work on bipartisan legislation to address a nursing shortage. "Tom Latham is running his own campaign…he's his own person," says Carstensen. "Party doesn't win elections in iowa. it's the person, their views, accomplishments and vision."

With election day getting closer and the race appearing to be more competitive, the Republican incumbent is starting to take the gloves off. This week, after largely ignoring Greenwald's challenges, the Latham campaign criticized his challenger in a TV ad for supporting the financial bailout.

"Whether there's enough momentum that she can actually pull off an upset remains to be seen," says Donna Hoffman, a University of Northern Iowa political science professor. "The attention is starting to come her way. Was it soon enough? And does it bring money?"

(See Pictures of the Week here.)

(See the Top Races to Watch '08.)