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It's Incumbent Vs. Incumbent In Iowa, And Washington Is Watching

One of the candidates is House Speaker John Boehner's close friend and golfing buddy.

The other is an ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Both have their roots in rural Iowa, have long served together in the U.S. House, and are pretty darn well-liked by their constituents.

But Iowa, the focus of the political world this week, lost a House seat in congressional redistricting that came after the 2010 census.

That has put nine-term Republican Tom Latham, 64, (Boehner's confidante) and eight-term Democrat Leonard Boswell, 78, (Pelosi's loyalist) on a collision course in Iowa's newly configured 3rd Congressional District. It's one of only two districts in the nation where incumbents will be facing off in the fall election; the other is in Ohio.

The closely watched match in the slightly Republican-leaning district has drawn the attention, and big money, of the national political action committees, most notably Republican Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS.

Big guns Boehner and Pelosi have raised money for their candidates, though Latham's friendship with the speaker has proven much more lucrative in the fundraising realm. (And Republicans took delight that a Pelosi fundraiser for Boswell earlier this year was held across the Nebraska state line in Omaha.)

The Machine Shed Restaurant in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, in the state's newly configured 3rd Congressional District.
Liz Halloran / NPR
The Machine Shed Restaurant in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, in the state's newly configured 3rd Congressional District.

The congressmen's records, outside of their broad agreement on issues related to agriculture (although Boswell recently has been hitting Latham on the failure of the Boehner-led House to approve drought relief), provide a clear contrast for voters in the new district. The territory includes Polk County, home to Des Moines, a few fast-growing suburban counties, and a dozen other largely rural, lightly populated and conservative counties in the state's southwest corner.

Just four of the district's 16 counties voted for Barack Obama in 2008; but one of them was vote-rich Polk, where he drubbed Republican Sen. John McCain by more than 30,000 votes — a margin that far exceeded the total vote in all but two of the other new 3rd District counties.

But that won't happen this time, says David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes political races.

Boswell's fate largely hinges on how well he and, more importantly, Obama run in Polk County come November. Boswell insists, however, that his farm roots will serve him well outside the metro area, and in rural areas that he represented before the last redistricting.

"Obama very narrowly won this area last time," Wasserman says, adding that right now Republican Mitt Romney may have an edge in the district. "There's no reason to believe that Boswell is going to run much differently from Obama, but he probably has to outperform Obama by a few points in the southern tier of the district."

Wasserman says Latham will likely do better than Romney in Dallas County outside Des Moines, and in Pottawattamie County, which includes Council Bluffs.

"Overall, I think the results of this congressional race ought to track pretty closely with the presidential race," he says.

Latham, in a recent interview before hosting a senior citizens round table at the Machine Shed Restaurant in suburban Des Moines, characterized the matchup as one that will give district voters "the clearest choice race you could possibly have."

The two congressmen have been on opposite sides of a slew of recent issues, from the Wall Street bailout and the stimulus, to the health care overhaul legislation and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Boswell supported them all; Latham opposed them all.

Boswell angered some Democrats recently when he joined House Republicans in show votes to extend Bush tax cuts, and to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt over the release of documents in a drug-and-gun-sale operation.

"It's a high-profile race, and it's going to be a contest," Boswell said recently at a fundraiser in suburban Des Moines. "I don't care if they've got $5 million or $20 million."

Latham certainly doesn't have $20 million, but he has an enormous money advantage going into the fall race. He's been able to stockpile money over the past several election cycles, Wasserman says, while Boswell has had to spend on tough races.

Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, however, has given Boswell some fodder in recent days. He has used as a fundraising pitch Latham's support of Ryan's controversial budget plan that would remake Medicare, rewrite the tax code in a way that analyses show would shift the burden to middle- and lower-class earners, and dramatically cut government aid and services in other areas.

Latham this week has characterized Ryan as a Midwestern truth-teller who will not be a drag on GOP congressional candidates, despite Democrats' immediate efforts to use the new vice presidential pick's budget positions to hammer Republicans in House races across the county.

The Money

The most recent campaign finance reports filed by the candidates show that through June 30, Latham's 2011-2012 campaign had $2.14 million on hand; Boswell's had $472,249.

An analysis by OpenSecrets.org shows that Latham's top contributors are tobacco giant Altria Group and Berkshire Hathaway, and that he has received more than $252,000 from leadership political action committees — including $10,000 from Boehner's Freedom Project. Three percent of his campaign money has come from small donors.

Boswell's top contributors, according to OpenSecrets, are Knapp Properties of Des Moines and Pelosi's leadership PAC, PAC to the Future, which has given him $10,000. He has received $97,000 from leadership PACs. Eight percent of his money has come from small donors.

The Numbers

Reapportionment may have squeezed Latham out of his district, but Boswell lost his old 3rd District's Democratic majority. When he was re-elected in 2010, Democrats had a more than 20,000 advantage in registered voters.

In the new district, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 15,000.

The Narrative

Boswell's stock phrase is that he's running against a big-money "team": Latham, Boehner and Rove. His campaign has also attempted to "Romney-ize" Latham, by emphasizing his wealth, while stressing Boswell's humble farm roots, his military career and a locally famous incident last year when he fought off an armed home intruder.

"I want to focus on the economy, and focus on the future," Boswell says.

Latham says the election will be a "referendum on spending."

"The debt and deficits are very worrisome for Iowans," he said. "We need to cut spending, and take the uncertainty out of the economy."

About his wealth, from a family seed business, Latham said: "My parents had very little and worked very hard. I make no apologies for working very hard. The class warfare stuff doesn't work around here."

The Outlook

The Cook Political Report rates the race as a tossup, a reflection of the new district. Cook's "Partisan Voting Index," which rates the political proclivities of House districts, has Iowa's new 3rd District voters as historically favoring Republicans in presidential elections by one point more than the national average.

The Rothenberg Political Report, another race forecasting shop, has rated the race as a tossup/tilt Republican.

The results out of the 3rd District are unlikely to affect the balance of power of the House — Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats for a majority. But Democrats are predicting that if Boswell goes down, the younger Latham could control the seat for the coming decade.

"This is the most important election Leonard Boswell has ever had," said Ed Skinner, an Altoona lawyer who hosted the recent fundraiser for the candidate. "If we lose, we'll have 10 years of Tom Latham."

Says Latham: "We're not letting up a second."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.