Congressional race re-classified

By Carter Howe

howethom@grinnell.edu

The first Congressional district race in Iowa between incumbent Republican Rod Blum and Democrat Monica Vernon is now considered a tossup by the Cook Political Report, one of just 24 tossups out of all 435 House seats. A recent Loras College poll showed Blum with a seven-point lead, with 45 percent over Monica Vernon’s 38 percent. However, the poll also said that 16 percent of voters are undecided. The first Congressional district generally leans Democratic and voted 56 percent for President Obama in 2012.

The Blum campaign asserts that Representative Blum is safer than the Cook Report believes.

“The First District has far more Democrats than Republicans, yet the polling shows that Congressman Blum leading this race. Our campaign has been ahead in four straight polls, including the last three showing us in the lead by seven, seven and sixteen points respectively,” said Spokesman Daniel Sunne.

Professor Barb Trish, Political Science, said that the race is close because, despite Blum’s incumbency, Vernon is a strong and well-known candidate in the district.

“Vernon is a strong candidate, I mean she she’s known to voters because of her run in 2014 as lieutenant governor candidate,” Trish said. “Blum came in [during] a year that was kind of a Republican wave in Iowa. Democrats did very poorly; it’s hard to know how much he benefitted from that sort of Republican push.”

Blum was elected in 2014 in a wave of Republican victories that allowed them to gain control of both houses of Congress. Blum is a former businessman from Dubuque who started a small software company. In Congress, Blum has cast himself as an outsider and gone against the Republican leadership. His first vote in the House was to oppose Republican John Boehner’s speakership.

Blum has supported various efforts to change the way Congress treats itself. He started a caucus of members of Congress who support term limits, ending the Congressional pension system and co-sponsored bills to end lawmakers’ access to first-class air travel and luxury car leases, according to an article in USA Today by Susan Davis.

Monica Vernon, who visited campus in September, is a current Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman, where she has served for eight years. She has helped to coordinate Cedar Rapids recovery from the 2008 Iowa Floods. Prior to becoming a member of city council, Monica Vernon was the founder and president of Vernon Research Group, a market research firm. She also worked in higher education and as a reporter for The Gazette, a newspaper serving the Cedar Rapids area.

Additionally, she organized efforts to raise money to build the Madge Phillips Center for homeless women and children in Cedar Rapids.

Blum has also come under fire for his spending on mass communication while in office. According to the Des Moines Register, he spent 425,365 dollars last year on mass mailings to constituents and other forms of communication, more than any other member of Congress, taxpayer money that some argue could be spent in better ways.

Blum said in an article for the Register this money is part of his budget, which he is allowed to spend at his discretion and that his mass communication has benefits for constituents.

“It’s important to understand that members of Congress receive roughly the same budget allotment each year. Within that budget, … representatives are free to choose how those resources are allocated. … It’s absolutely true that we’ve chosen to devote a significant amount of resources to communicating with our constituents,” the article reported. “Constituents constantly come up and thank me for keeping them informed. They want to know what is happening in Washington and we communicate closely with them so they can hold Washington accountable.”

Professor Trish also said that there are many external factors that made Blum’s seat vulnerable.

“I think back last Spring or as soon as the nomination came out in June, it was considered vulnerable. … Iowa’s a pretty competitive state generally so that’s not surprising.”

The district’s relative diversity is another reason it is competitive.

“I think there’s pockets in the district of both strong Democratic support and strong Republican support and that probably helps the competitive quality of it,” Trish said. “I suspect that the Democrats are pushing hard for [the] Latino vote. There are strong pockets of Latino populations in the district including Marshalltown.”

“I mean this is an interesting district because it doesn’t have that uniformity like, say the district that Steve King represents in northwest Iowa that’s just very very conservative” said Trish.

The Vernon campaign was unavailable for comment.