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Miller-Meeks Hopes To Flip Open Seat In Fourth Bid For 2nd Congressional District

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Courtesy: Mariannette Miller-Meeks Campaign Facebook
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State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is running for the fourth time to win over the 2nd Congressional District. This cycle, it's an open seat and has been called a toss-up race.

State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is trying for the fourth time to win over the 2nd Congressional District, which Republicans see as a prime pickup opportunity. But she’s facing a different political climate this cycle, at a time when the GOP is losing support from female voters.

There are currently just 13 Republican women in the U.S. House. State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa wants to join them. She’s an ophthalmologist, a U.S. Army veteran and a former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health. On IPR’s River to River, she described leaving home at a young age and putting herself through school due to limited financial resources available in her large family.

"Without resources to help navigate that and discouragement from my parents, my form of rebellion and not looking to my parents was to leave home at 16, get a job, enroll in San Antonio Community College, enlist in the Army at age 18 and continue to work and go to school, until I ultimately spent 24 years in the military," Miller-Meeks said.

This year, Miller-Meeks is facing off against former State Sen. Rita Hart for the open seat. In past cycles, she had challenged the district's longtime Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack, who is retiring.

Even before COVID-19, health care was top of mind for many voters. In her 2014 bid for this seat, Miller-Meeks ran on her opposition to the Affordable Care Act. As public opinion has shifted, she’s changed her message. This cycle, one of Miller-Meeks’ pledges is to protect those with preexisting conditions, a key facet of the ACA.

Her campaign did not make her available for an interview for this story. But on IPR’s River to River, Miller-Meeks disputed the assertion that she wanted the ACA repealed.

"Well, having answered this question numerous times, I have always asked for reform of the Affordable Care Act, to make it affordable, give people choice, bring down premiums, and cover preexisting conditions, and adult children staying on their parents’ policies," Miller-Meeks said.

Citing her career as a physician and her time at the helm of the Iowa Department of Public Health, Miller-Meeks has cast herself as the public health expert in the race, ready to help steer the country out of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.

But she’s also continued to hold indoor campaign events across the district, even as the state sets new records for COVID-19 hospitalizations. She’s often seen speaking to groups of supporters without a mask, in stark contrast to public health recommendations.

Still, she argues she’s in a better position to negotiate more COVID relief funding and says she wants to reopen the economy safely.

"I think those negotiations need to continue to take place but I do think that we need to have unemployment coverage. At the time...same time as we're trying to get people back to work safely, soundly and in a way that they can feel secure that their health is not at risk," she said during a debate in September on Iowa PBS.

Miller-Meeks has also defined herself as a “pro-Trump conservative”, though she had criticized him before he was elected. In October of 2016, she tweeted that both Trump and then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were “liars & corrupt." Since then, Miller-Meeks, like many of her colleagues in the Republican Party, has largely united behind the president, though she’s split with him on issues like ethanol waivers for oil refiners.

For voter Mike Parr of Davenport, Miller-Meeks’ support of the president is part of what appeals to him.

"So I know Miller-Meeks is the Republican and she’ll be supporting the president with his issues. And I want to do, I want to take back the seat from this district into being a Republican as it once was," Parr said.

This seat had long been considered safe for Democrats during Loebsack's tenure and went for President Barack Obama both cycles. But the 2nd District went for Trump in 2016 by 4 points, while also re-electing Loebsack to his seventh term by 7 points. Since Loebsack's retirement announcement, some political analysts have rated the race a toss-up.

Central College political scientist Andrew Green says the nature of an open seat introduces more uncertainty into the race, which he calls "really competitive." Still, he says Miller-Meeks is in a tough position in this swing district.

"You see Mariannette Miller-Meeks also trying to toe the line here, too, and not alienating Trump supporters, not alienating really hardcore conservatives, but yet understanding that she needs to get some votes in Johnson County if, if she wants to be able to win this seat," Green said.

While Miller-Meeks hopes to align herself with the president and his supporters, recent polling suggests Trump is driving a key group away from Republican candidates: women. In 2018, a critical mass of women split with the Republican Party and helped send a record number of Democratic women to Congress, flipping the House. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, says those dynamics have not changed.

"We saw that in 2018, certainly. You saw that with all those House races in Iowa that flipped," Murray said. "And we don't see anything in 2020 that is shaking them from that decision that they made two years ago."

Murray’s latest poll shows Hart up by 13 points in a low turnout scenario. Either way, southeast Iowa will almost certainly be sending a woman to Congress for the first time. But which party she belongs to may be tied to how this district views President Trump.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter