The incumbent ran as an experienced, moderate congressman, attentive to his district's needs. The younger, issue-based activist challenger, coming off an unsuccessful statewide race that nevertheless raised his profile, stressed his own legislative record and said the incumbent's congressional voting record was insufficiently loyal to the party.
Leonard Boswell and Ed Fallon? Nope. Hop in the Wayback Machine and set the dial to 1970, when Republican incumbent Fred Schwengel and challenger David Stanley faced off in Iowa's last primary challenge to a congressional incumbent -- nearly 40 years ago.
David Stanley, 1968
David Stanley is better known in this century for his leadership of the conservative group Iowans for Tax Relief than for his U.S House and Senate bids. Schwengel, who died in 1993, is the name behind the Mississippi River Bridge on Interstate 80. But in 1970, the two faced off in what was then numbered the 1st Congressional District.
Schwengel won that June 1970 contest, with 56 percent to Stanley's 44 percent. Stanley carried the counties in his old legislative district, Muscatine and Louisa. The race was studied by University of Iowa political scientists Donald Johnson and James Gibson, who published an article in the March 1974 edition of the American Political Science Review that called the race a classic example of "the divisive primary."
Like Boswell, Schwengel had only one loss on his electoral record, in a heavily partisan year. In the Republican watershed year of 1994 Boswell, then a state senator, was the lieutenant governor running mate on Bonnie Campbell's losing ticket. He came back from that loss to win his Congressional seat in 1996. Fred Schwengel, first elected to Congress in 1954 after a decade representing Davenport in the state legislature, lost his seat to Democrat John Schmidhauser in the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. He then came back to beat Schmidhauser in a 1966 rematch.
David Stanley, like Ed Fallon, raised his profile by giving up his legislative seat and losing a statewide race. In Fallon's case, it was the 2006 gubernatorial primary, where he finished third but won a surprisingly strong 26 percent, and actually won the area that makes up the 3rd Congressional District where he's running now. Stanley lost a 1968 U.S. Senate race to Harold Hughes, but came within 5,000 votes -- 1/2 of 1 percent -- of upsetting the popular sitting Democratic governor.
Stanley's Muscatine-based legislative district, like the turf Fallon represented in inner-city Des Moines from 1993 to 2006, was safe for his party. Stanley served in the state House from 1959 to 1964 and moved to the state Senate for one term. He won that state senate race with 60% in the Democratic landslide year of 1964. With a safe seat, a candidate can take positions that excite activists who vote in primaries, rather than compiling a middle-of-the-road record that draws moderate votes in general elections.
Fred Schwengel, 1970
"Schwengel, 63, ran as an experienced and moderate legislator who, as a member of the Committee on Public Works, had been attentive to his constituents and their needs," wrote Johnson and Gibson. "Stanley, 42, campaigned vigorously from house to house and in frequent professionally made television announcements. He stressed his own state legislative record and invariably charged that Schwengel was insufficiently regular as a Republican -- that his party unity score was lowest among all of Iowa's congressmen."
Stanley's charges are echoed today by Fallon, who argues that Boswell's voting record, particularly his 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war, is too conservative for a Democrat. But in one key difference between the 1970 race and this year's contest, Boswell has hurled the party loyalty issue back at Fallon, citing his 2000 support for Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader over Democrat Al Gore.
Another difference between the 1970 battle and this year's contest is that only one party has a primary contest in 2008. Democrats know that either Boswell or Fallon's Republican opponent in November will be former congressional staffer Kim Schmett. But in 1970, 1st District Democrats also had a spirited primary. State representative Ed Mezvinsky, an attorney and consumer advocate, prevailed over anti-Vietnam War professor William Albrecht and law-and-order sheriff William "Blackie" Strout. Mezvinsky's campaign featured distinctive ads showing voters butchering his name, that later became literally textbook examples of name-ID ads.
Johnson and Gibson surveyed activists in both parties before the primary and again just before the November general election. They found that most established Republican activists had backed incumbent Schwengel, just as the establishment of the Democratic Party is backing Boswell this year. In their post-primary study, they found that 60 percent of the respondents who backed primary losers intended to vote split tickets in the fall, compared to only 31 percent of the activists who had backed winners Schwengel and Mezvinsky. "There was no intensive or comprehensive effort made by the winners to recruit people who had been active for the opposition in the primary," wrote Johnson and Gibson. "Only a few, possibly no more than three to five, Stanley workers volunteered to work in the Schwengel campaign; most of those who continued their political work did shift to other campaigns."
While Schwengel prevailed over Mezvinsky in November 1970, Mezvinsky came back and finally ended Schwengel's career in 1972. Schwengel went on to serve as U.S. Capitol historian.
Before founding Iowans for Tax Relief in 1978, Stanley returned to the state House for one term in 1972, and lost another close U.S. Senate race, this time to John Culver, in 1974.