Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quiet On The Vilsack Front

Quiet On The Vilsack Front

Now that The Map is a de facto reality (Craig Robinson at TheIowaRepublican has a must read with numbers), the chess pieces are in full motion and the kings and queens on the board are the five Congressional incumbents and Christie Vilsack. Six pieces, four squares.

A Bleeding Heartland diary making the case for Christie Vilsack primarying Dave Loebsack in the 2nd CD is getting some national play, which is only natural; a primary challenge is an interesting story. I can write the lede now: "President Obama forced to choose between one of his key early Iowa supporters and the wife of a cabinet member..."

In response, Trish Nelson at Blog For Iowa argues that instead of running in the 2nd, Christie should take on Steve King in the 4th.

I think in the end, both are wrong. Let's start with the 2nd District.

A primary challenge needs a compelling rationale. "It's my turn" doesn't cut it. The incumbent needs to be an issue. The argument is the incumbent isn't doing the job, is damaged by scandal or personal shortcoming, or (as in Fallon-Boswell) isn't representing the base.

Dave Loebsack doesn't have any of these weaknesses - a little grumbling from the anti-war left, perhaps, but not enough to build a primary challenge around (compared to Leonard Boswell's actual vote for the war). And Christie Vilsack has no peace purist bona fides for the Hey Hey Ho Ho crowd.

Loebsack staked his claim on the 2nd District almost immediately, hours after the map's release, and started scheduling events in his new counties. And Vilsack, despite rumors or plants that she's been "calling around," has been silent in response. It's been apparent since about day two that this was The Map, and if she were serious would she give Loebsack a head start?

Vilsack's Plan A was probably a compact Des Moines metro district, the kind we all draw in our imaginary maps and the Legislative Service Agency never submits. So if Plan B was running from Mt. Pleasant, is Plan C Steve King?

Not a smart plan.

Look, I know King is the Republican that Democrats love to hate. But challenging King is a fool's errand. There's just that many Republicans in that corner of the state. The electorate has become polarized to the point where someone like a Berkley Bedell, who won that area in the 70s and 80s, could no longer get elected.

Sure, it would make us feel good to have someone out there bashing King every day. We need a candidate who is at least credible, just to protect the integrity of the party line and hold the straight ticket vote. Old-timers will remember the embarrassment of the, um, eccentric Jan Zonneveld on the Democratic ticket against Jim Leach in 1992, simply because no one else filed. It hurt every Democrat the rest of the way down the ballot.

Maybe it would marginally help Democratic turnout if we can fool enough people into thinking Vilsack or someone like her has a chance. But we don't. It would have to be done with the understanding that no, you are not actually going to Congress next year, you are doing this as a favor to the party and the President. (And its a favor that might even backfire, if it motivates King's base.)

Christie Vilsack has enough name ID and credibility that a strong but unsuccessful bid against Steve King doesn't help -- it instead counts as an L in her column.

So my unrealistic hope is still a voluntary Boswell retirement and a Christie Vilsack run in the 3rd District.

My beef with Boswell has always been that he calls himself a Blue Dog and that Des Moines doesn't need a Blue Dog to hold the seat. Boswell has improved a bit since 2006, in part because of the four years with a Democratic majority and in part because of that primary challenge from the left in 2008. But he still ranks below Braley and Loebsack on most independent measures.

And the very existence of the Blue Dogs damages the Democratic brand with young progressive voters, who are just starting to settle into voting patterns that tend to last a lifetime. Our real competition for these folks isn't Republicans, it's protest votes and it's the apathy of "they all suck." Boswell, with his good ole boy demeanor and his despicable "Nader Nader Nader," no-debate primary campaign against Ed Fallon, is exactly the wrong image for those voters.

It's hard to gauge Christie Vilsack's issue and voting potential since she has no record as an elected official. But I doubt she'd get on board the sinking ship of the Blue Dogs.

The other argument to make against Boswell is age. Paradoxically, that would have been a better argument a few years ago when Boswell had health problems and attendance issues which seem to be resolved. Age is an ugly argument, and not necessarily an effective one in an aging state like Iowa.

Leonard Boswell staked his claim even more than Loebsack did, and Iowa Democrats refuse to encourage him to step down. It looks like what we expected - a Boswell-Latham showdown, albeit on different turf than we thought. I see Tom Latham, busy making friends with Dallas County realtors, winning that one. So Christie Vilsack's smart move may be keeping her powder dry till 2014, for this race or another.

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