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A microcosm of a nation divided, Iowa is settling in for four weeks of stormy political weather. From Waterloo’s aging brick factories to the riverfront gambling palaces in Davenport, two political newcomers seeking an open House seat are fighting over the minimum wage, Social Security and the war in Iraq.
A little farther west, where cornfields meet hog farms, Republicans claim that a House veteran is part of a Congress out of control. Democrats, in turn, blame President Bush and GOP lawmakers for keeping the country on the wrong track.
Neither political party has a particular advantage. Iowa voters are almost as likely to say Republican as Democrat when expressing a party preference, and even more pass on declaring any affiliation.
“In a political climate where states can be divided up as red and blue, Iowa would be considered yellow,” said Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand. “It’s a state where Democrats can win just as easily as Republicans can win.”
Polls indicate both races are tight, and in a year when Democrats are scrambling to pick up 15 seats and take control of the House, voters can be assured that a seemingly endless parade of campaign advertisements will continue on TV and radio.
“It’s going to be a long month ahead,” said Julie Moulton, a Republican from Des Moines.
The hottest race may be in Eastern Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, where Democrat Bruce Braley is running against Republican Mike Whalen. They’re seeking to replace Rep. Jim Nussle, a Republican who is running for governor.
Whalen owns a string of hotels, restaurants and other businesses from his base in Davenport, and Braley accuses him of making his fortune by paying his workers as little as $3.09 an hour. After a debate last month, Braley handed out a statement from a waitress at one of Whalen’s restaurants who said even with tips she barely makes minimum wage and must work three jobs.
Whalen countered that his tipped workers earn $10 to $15 an hour, far above the federal minimum of $5.15.
“These are good jobs. These are jobs that people use to buy homes,” Whalen said.
Braley, a Waterloo lawyer, also has focused on the war in Iraq, arguing that Congress should use its power of the purse to force the administration to bring troops home.
Whalen launched commercials questioning Braley’s patriotism, saying the Democrat would cut off money for the troops.
Braley responded, “Staying the course is another way of saying staying forever.”
Social Security has been a key topic, with Braley contending that Whalen supports Bush’s plan to privatize the system. Whalen has criticized Democrats for blocking Bush’s efforts and called for immediate reform.
In the 3rd Congressional District in central Iowa, state Senate President Jeff Lamberti has taken an unusual stand for a Republican as he challenges Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell. Ten years is enough for the 72-year-old incumbent, Lamberti said, though that’s less time than the GOP has controlled the House itself.
In TV ads, Lamberti has accused Boswell of voting to raise taxes and being soft on immigration. Boswell’s ads feature scampering pigs as he claims that Lamberti voted to ease restrictions on giant hog facilities that pollute air and water.
Boswell depicts Lamberti as a millionaire who voted against working families by opposing increases in the minimum wage. Lamberti’s family founded the Casey’s General Stores empire, a string of nearly 1,400 Midwest convenience stores.
The intensity of the campaigns has turned off some voters.
“It’s overkill,” said Phil Roeder, a Democrat who serves on the Des Moines School Board. “There’s such a thing as too much and I’m wondering if we’ve gotten to that point.”
At work in both races is a political climate that doesn’t favor Bush or the Republican-controlled Congress.
“I definitely feel we need to have some more focus on the home front, and I don’t think the Republicans are going to make a change,” said Jeanne Uhl, a Democrat from Elkhart. “They are just so stubborn and set in their ways.”
Such sentiments could be Lamberti’s biggest problem, said Michael Mahaffey, former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.
“There are things that are beyond Jeff’s control,” Mahaffey said. “I don’t know whether this is going to be one of those years.”
Potential presidential candidates are frequent visitors to Iowa because of the state’s leadoff caucuses, but the two competitive congressional races are attracting even more attention this fall. Among those dropping in for fundraisers have been crowd pleasers like first lady Laura Bush and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Such fundraisers have added to significant support from the parties, including $470,000 spent by the National Republican Campaign Committee on Whalen’s campaign, in addition to $1.3 million the group has reserved for television commercials.
The Economic Freedom Fund, a group bankrolled by Bob Perry, the man behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is running ads, sending out mailings and using automated phone calls to criticize Democratic candidates in Iowa and several other states.
Democratic groups Act Blue and MoveOn.org joined the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in pumping hundreds of thousands into Braley’s campaign.
Overall spending could soar to $6 million for each race. With control of the House at stake, the parties see the money as millions well spent.
“It could come down to a situation where this is the seat that decides whether or not Democrats or Republicans control Congress,” Hildebrand says, “and I think both parties recognize that.”