Meet a Competitive House Race: Iowa 1st (Rod Blum vs. Probably Abby Finkenauer)

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Meet a Competitive House Race: Iowa 1st (Rod Blum vs. Probably Abby Finkenauer)

Welcome to “Meet a Competitive House Race,” a new Paste feature in which we highlight—you guessed it—a competitive 2018 House race from somewhere in America. Between now and election day, we’ll hopefully hit them all. You can see a full list of other House races we’ve profiled at the bottom of this page.

What’s the deal with today’s district? Where is it?

We’re making our first stop in America’s breadbasket as we take a peek into Iowa’s 1st congressional district. Covering much of the northeastern corner of the state, the district holds the major cities of Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Waterloo, in addition to large expanses of rural farmlands.

Who the hell lives there? How do they vote?

The district is racially homogenous, sporting a 93 percent white majority, but two-thirds of the district’s population lives in its three urban centers, a residential swing that shows itself most in the district’s history of voting Democratic in presidential elections since 2000…before delivering a four-point victory for Trump in 2016. At the Congressional level, the district has been a toss-up over the past decade, with Dem Bruce Braley holding the House seat from 2007 until vacating to run for the U.S. Senate in 2015, at which point Tea Party Republican Rod Blum won the seat in a close race.

Dubuque is of special interest here. The city and its surrounding county has been a steady Democratic stronghold within the state, but narrowly went for Trump in 2016 thanks to a mixture of increased voter turnout and a high percentages of Republican swings among the county’s more rural communities. The city itself is poised to be a ripe battleground in 2018 as both incumbent Rod Blum and his top Dem challenger, State Rep. Abby Finkenauer, make their home in Dubuque.

Is Trump going to screw the Republican?

Oh yeah, even if his only association is through mutually promoted legislation.

Give me some more background

Blum identifies as a Tea Party Republican, one of the movements that allowed for the rise of a populist candidate such as President Trump. A list of his political stances looks like a copy/paste job of the Trump platform, and, with multiple Republican incumbents with far less connection to Trump facing the prospect of losing their seats, such a close association to the president should prove a very formidable obstacle for the Freedom Caucus member.

What’s up with the Republican(s)?

With the ushering in of the Trump agenda, Blum has taken positions that cater to it. He has questioned climate change science, supported the Muslim travel ban, advocated for the repeal of Obamacare, voted for the disastrous tax bill and approved of the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, stating, “It’s probably time for Comey to go.” In total, Blum has voted alongside Trump 91 percent of the time, which has drawn the ire of his constituents at times.

In what has to rank as one the most uncomfortable days of his Congressional tenure, Blum walked out of a TV interview in May 2017 after being asked why his staff was pres-creening district residents that planned to attend a town hall meeting focused on Congress’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. At the town hall later that day, attendees screamed and booed the incumbent as he tried to explain why he voted in favor of the Obamacare repeal. When he made false claims about Medicaid and employer healthcare coverage continuing under the AHCA during the meeting, he was met with shouts of “That’s not true!”

He’s also faced backlash from his constituents for taking campaign contributions from PACs and other donors outside of his district while criticizing his Democratic opponents for doing the same. That screening practice question that spurred him to walk out of a local TV interview centered on his desire to only allow 1st district residents to attend his town hall meetings. “I don’t represent all Iowans,” said Blum. When the interviewer, Josh Scheinblum, asked him if he’d take donations from a Republican in Iowa City, which is outside of Blum’s district, Blum abruptly walked out, saying, “This is ridiculous … Would I take donations? Wow.” He later deflected a question about taking money from non-district donors during the town hall.

Also like Trump, Blum is dealing with his own ethics controversy for failing to disclose his role in an internet marketing company he formed and using his Chief of Staff in testimonials for its services. Blum sounds, looks and smells like a Trump guy, and such a connection is a severe obstacle when facing a growing blue wave.

What’s up with the Democrat(s)?

Opposing Blum is a pool of four Democratic challengers, though the most likely candidate, State Rep. Abby Finkenauer, has already greatly distanced herself from the pack. Finkenauer has served in the State House since 2014, focusing much of her efforts on pro-labor policy and combating legislation aimed at limited women’s health, most recently tackling a proposed six week abortion ban. She’s used these battles to frame her campaign, with additional focus on job creation, support for farmers and student loan reform. She has already gathered endorsements from a slew of unions, Rep. Eric Stalwell, numerous State House members, the DCCC, End Citizens United, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and female candidate focused PAC EMILY’s List.

Her closest competitor, Thomas Heckroth, has criticized Finkenauer for using what he deems loopholes to accept campaign contributions from PACs and lobbyists during the State House’s legislative session. “We need to reduce the influence of money in the political process and keep special interest influence out of state government,” said the former Obama staffer and aide to Sen. Tom Harkin. A state law prohibits contributions from such parties to candidates for statewide and legislative offices during open legislative sessions, but the law doesn’t apply to federal Congressional campaigns.

“While I’m proud to continue fighting back against the anti-woman, anti-worker policies of the Republican majority in the Legislature, that won’t stop this campaign’s momentum as I look to replace Rod Blum, who puts millionaires and special interests ahead of everyday Iowans,” Finkenauer responded.

What do the polls say?

Some very early polls have put both Finkenauer and Heckroth ahead of Blum in head-to-head contests, but more polling is needed to truly suss out the district’s sentiment towards the candidates. Financially, Finkenauer is the clear front-runner for the Dems. Her $1.1 million in campaign funds is substantially ahead of Heckroth’s $305,412 total and ranks competitively against Blum’s own $1.4 million in funds. The gap between Finkenauer and Heckroth is mostly attributed to donations from female-focused PACs, such as EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America, that are throwing their support behind a record number of female candidates running for office this midterm season.

What’s weird about the district?

Iowa’s 1st district has bucked with its traditional voting line in the last decade, ushering in a rash of upset victories for Republicans. The unstable nature of the district’s political leaning over the last five years makes the district one of the more contentious in this year’s election season. Just as easily as the pendulum swung for the GOP when putting Blum and Trump in office in 2014 and 2016, it could swing back to the Dems in response to how those upsets have impacted the area’s residents. Having the top two candidates share a hometown is an added wrinkle, as Dubuque could become a battleground within a battleground. One city won’t be a singular focus of either campaign, especially with two other densely populated cities inside the district, but wooing Dubuque and Dubuque county should prove pivotal for both parties beyond the June 5 primary.

Give me a prediction

Considering the district’s discontent with Blum, and everything Trump-related that is hanging over his head, we’ll give the nod to Finkenauer.

Past races:

California 48th: Dana Rohrabacher, vs. some Democrat, eventually
Florida 26th: Carlos Curbelo vs. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell
Colorado 6th: Mike Coffman vs. Jason Crow
Washington 8th: Dino Rossi vs. too many infighting Dems

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