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Hart Hopes To Win Open Seat To Continue Democratic Control Of Iowa's 2nd Congressional District

Courtesy of Rita Hart campaign
Former state Sen. Rita Hart is hoping to hold on to Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, long considered safe for Democrats, but now rated a toss-up.

Former state Sen. Rita Hart is hoping to keep southeast Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District in Democratic hands. A farmer and former teacher, if Hart can win the open seat, she’d also be one of Iowa’s few rural Democrats. Her campaign is hoping those rural roots can pull in some right-leaning voters, while maintaining key Democratic areas.

The 2nd Congressional District was long seen as safe for Democrats, but not necessarily anymore.

Now that it’s an open seat, this race is considered a toss-up, and Rita Hart is campaigning like it.

Hart says she’s spent her life in rural Iowa, teaching in a small school district, and farming with her husband outside Wheatland in Clinton County.

And that’s how she’s defined herself to voters on the campaign trial, though this cycle that’s largely consisted of phone calls, Zoom get-togethers and small, socially distanced outside events.

“We need to listen to the voices of rural Iowa who are saying, ‘we’re struggling out here’,” Hart told a small group of supporters at a backyard event in Ottumwa last month. “Our ag economy is struggling. We don’t have high speed internet everywhere where we need to do it and where we need to be successful.”

“We’ve got to do things to spur the rural economy because people here deserve to live just like everyone else,” she added.

Democrats are hoping Hart can expand support beyond urban areas in this southeast Iowa district, which President Donald Trump carried by four points in 2016 after gaining a foothold in rural and blue collar communities up and down the Mississippi River.

Still, this same district sent Democrat Dave Loebsack to Congress seven terms in a row. Now that he’s retiring, Hart is hoping to continue that streak.

Hart boosted her name recognition beyond Clinton County as Fred Hubbell’s running mate in his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018.

She brings a rural perspective to issues other Democrats may shy away from, like infrastructure, trade and agriculture.

Iowans looking for wholesale change to the agriculture industry, which has contributed to severe environmental degradation and unsafe drinking water, may not be satisfied with Hart’s approach. But she says there is an appetite for empowering farmers to act on climate change and water quality.

“We know the practices that can really turn this around, if we can combine that research and those practices with the ingenuity of the farmer and farm policy that we create,” she said.

“If we can bring those things together and start to pay farmers for these practices that we know make a big difference for water quality, that we do the edge of field practices, that we put in cover crops, that that we put in more bioreactors, we do the things that we know will make a difference,” Hart added.

Researchers have pointed out taxpayers have been paying Iowa farmers to adopt conservation practices for years, but the efforts have been largely ineffective. According to the Environmental Working Group, less than 4 percent of Iowa’s farmed acres are planted in cover crops.

Contrary to some of the campaign ads out there, Hart has been at odds with her party on in the past, and she’s keeping her distance from progressive proposals like single payer healthcare and the Green New Deal.

While Hart may disagree with the approach of those plans, she says she does share similar goals: making healthcare more affordable and accessible, and transitioning to a carbon neutral future.

“We’ve got to get there. The question is how do we get there? And we've got to have a strategic plan that has specific ways to transition to where we need to go. That's what I'm looking for,” she said.

But the issue she’s hoping this race swings on is healthcare. The Republican Party has spent years trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, through Congress and the courts.

Now in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis, Democrats are making the case that theirs is the party of healthcare access.

Hart argues that this is where she really differs from her opponent, Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

“We've got a system in place that is popular with people, because it does what people need it to do, which is to cover those preexisting conditions and to keep their 26 year olds on the on their plan,” Hart said. “While we need to improve that, because we still have affordability issues, we should be building on it rather than taking it away.”

But this race may become less about these individual candidates and more of a referendum on Trump and the Republican Party, says Andrew Green, a political scientist at Central College.

“She wants to come across as reasonable to some of these voters who are turned off by the president,” Green said.

“You haven't seen the divisive rhetoric that we've seen in some of the other races,” he added. “There certainly are policy differences. But the rhetoric, particularly during the debates, in my view was a lot softer, if you will.”

Hart’s centrist approach appeals to Democrat Kristen Payne, a teacher from Ottumwa, who says Hart strikes her as “honest” and “conscientious”, at a time when she’s exhausted by the bickering in Washington.

“There’s just so much division and animosity between the two parties that it’s almost like rival football teams and it’s just getting to the point where it’s getting idiotic and no one’s getting anything done,” Payne said.

This cycle, Democrats in this district have a clear advantage they didn’t in past years: voter registration.

For the first House election since 2010, Democrats outnumber not only Republicans, but non-party affiliated voters.

They hope that edge can help Hart keep southeast Iowa in the Democratic column.