Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Miller-Meeks in Squeaker over Teahen

Miller-Meeks in Squeaker over Teahen

In a race marked by open loathing of Peter Teahen by Iowa's conservative bloggers, Mariannette Miller-Meeks overcame a big Teahen margin in Linn County to claim a 109 vote win in the 2nd Congressional District. The Ottumwa doctor will now challenge first-term Democrat Dave Loebsack in the fall.

So did Miller-Meeks win, or did Peter Teahen lose? A little of each, perhaps.

Teahen started the race as a perceived front runner, but he didn't sit well with the conservative base. Opposition research is easy in the Internet era, and a little quick searching turned up a December 2007 party affiliation change from Democratic to Republican. Most damning were campaign contributions to Democrats Mike Blouin and 2002 congressional candidate Julie Thomas.

Teahen offered an unapologetic defense of the Thomas donation, saying the pediatrician had saved his daughter's life. But it left a bad taste with conservatives, who repeatedly emphasized the donation and party changes on their blogs. It didn't stop there. Shortly before the election, an email from a British disaster worker surfaced, charging that Teahen acted like a diva on a Darfur mission and calling his resume into question. The charge cut to the core of Teahen's biography as a Red Cross disaster expert.

Bloggers also attacked Teahen's family values, posting links to his divorce papers. Democrats joined the attack as well, filing complaints about ads for Teahen's funeral home that (they said) too closely resembled campaign ads.

Mariannette Miller-Meeks, meanwhile, made the most of a medical and military background. (How many M's can I cram in? Well, the campaign played on the name by handing out M&Ms as favors.) By the April congressional district convention, she seemed to have established a strong foothold among the party activists, which matters a lot in a low-turnout election.

Her GOP bona fides were also attacked by third candidate Lee Harder, whose underfunded campaign that emphasized the social issues never gained much traction. Harder's signs proclaimed "Vote Conservative," while Teahen and Miller-Meeks both left off the word "Republican." But that appeal fell flat, as the race was treated as a two and a half way contest with a focus on "who can beat Loebsack."

Teahen started the night in the lead, as returns from his base in Linn County rolled in early. He won a big margin -- 67 percent to 26 percent -- over Miller-Meeks in Linn, where turnout was high due to hot courthouse primaries. It was almost, but not quite, enough. Over half of Teahen's total vote came out of Linn, which is the 2nd District's largest county but doesn't dominate the way Polk County controls a majority of the 3rd District.

Teahen's base in Linn was considered a strength early in the campaign, as he argued that a candidate from the northern end of the district would run stronger in Linn and Johnson counties against the Mt. Vernon-based Loebsack. But Miller-Meeks turned the argument against Teahen, arguing that he was raising money exclusively from Linn County and not campaigning enough in the rest of the district.

As returns rolled in from the rest of the district, Miller-Meeks caught up and took a narrow lead. County by county, she picked up wins of several dozen or a couple hundred in low turnout, whittling away at Teahen's 2,500 vote Linn margin. A 742-vote win in her home of Wapello County was enough to seal the deal.

The race is not yet on the national radar. But, then, it wasn't on the national radar two years ago either.

The 2nd District, on paper, is the most Democratic in the state, and in retrospect it seems that the real fluke was not Loebsack's 2006 upset win, but rather Republican Jim Leach's ability to hold the district for 30 years. Leach was able to pull as much as a quarter of the Democratic vote, until that vote went flooding back to Loebsack in the national landslide of 2006. Miller-Meeks will need to win back some of those Democrats and independents to take this race off the "safe Democratic" list.

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