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Republican incumbent Miller-Meeks hopes to improve her margin in reelection campaign against Democratic challenger Bohannan

Democrat Christina Bohannan and Republican U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks are competing in the upcoming midterm elections.
Graphic by Madeleine King
Republican U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks won a race that was nearly too close to call. She’s hoping to build on that victory this November.

Republican U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks won a race that was nearly too close to call. She’s hoping to build on that victory this November. Incumbency is powerful. But it comes with a record that Democratic challenger Christina Bohannan is seizing on.

A Republican took back Iowa’s southeastern congressional district seat in 2020. For the better part of a decade, the district was considered “reliably blue.” But Republican U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks pulled ahead in the end.

It’s hard to over-emphasize just how messy the race for Iowa’s then-2nd Congressional District was that fall. Right after Election Day, the winner would change depending on when you looked. Iowa's Secretary of State called for recounts in Jasper and Lucas Counties. The Democratic candidate that year, Rita Hart, called for a full recount of the 24 counties and went as far as to appeal the result to Congress: a contest that never manifested.

Campaign representatives and lawyers flocked to county courthouses and argued with elections officials over whether Iowa Code requires recounts be done by hand or by machine or some hybrid of the two. The location of signatures, the glue sealing a ballot, the county auditor it was dropped off with: all became the fodder for weeks of coverage.

In the end, it came down to just six votes.

This was the narrowest margin of victory since 1985, in Indiana’s 8th Congressional District, known as the “Bloody Eighth.”

Not a year later, it all started again. U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks launched her reelection campaign.

“I know the concerns of business owners, working families, farmers and others who make their local communities what they are. And I have a special connection with so many people throughout the new first district,” Miller-Meeks said.

GOP Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks took office in January after the Iowa State Board of Canvassers certified her victory over Democratic candidate Rita Hart. She won by just six votes out of the nearly 400,000 total votes cast, following a recount of the entire district.
Republican U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks won a race that was nearly too close to call. She’s hoping to build on that victory this November.

With overall inflation at 8.2 percent, the Federal Reserve raising interest rates and President Joe Biden’s approval ratings still south of 50%, a midterm election is staged to reward Republicans. But that doesn’t mean this will be an easy run for Miller-Meeks against Democratic challenger state Rep. Christina Bohannan.

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“What we know about incumbency effects is that incumbency is very powerful. But the best time to unseat an incumbent legislator in the House of Representatives is the first time that they're running for reelection, which is the case with Miller-Meeks,” said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

Incumbency—while powerful—takes time to develop in the House of Representatives. Kedrowski said that junior representatives haven’t had the same chance to hold positions on powerful committees or bring home results for constituents.

Adding to the issue, the district has changed. A new Census means new congressional district maps. New maps have Miller-Meeks introducing herself to new constituents. Redistricting cut out a block of eight counties she won handily in 2020, including her home county of Wapello. She’s now claiming residence in Le Claire.

To secure her seat, Miller-Meeks has a long list of items she hits on at rallies: inflation and gas prices are too high. The southern border is being overrun. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster. Transgender girls need to be kept out of girls' sports.

“They want you to reap what they sow,” Miller-Meeks told a crowded banquet hall in Bettendorf. “And not only do they want you to pay for it with higher prices and higher taxes and less freedom, they want to blame you, too.”

“Everything's gone up,” said Bob Bousselot of Davenport. “I mean, it's not just a little bit. It's gone up tremendously. And, yeah, we forced the gas down for a little while, but it's going back up again now.”

Christina Bohannan 2022
Zachary Oren Smith/IPR News
Democratic challenger Christina Bohannan is hoping to take Iowa's southeastern congressional district back for Democrats. She spoke on a panel about abortion with religious leaders on Tuesday, Oct. 11 in at the Eastern Branch of Davenport Public Library.

Meanwhile, Democratic challenger state Rep. Christina Bohannan has gone after Miller-Meeks for voting against the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act. She is appealing directly to supporters of abortion access. The law professor from Iowa City said she’s personally studied the history of Iowans who lost access to abortion prior to Roe v. Wade.

“These were horrific situations,” Bohannan said at a roundtable on abortion in Davenport. “This was a time when abortion was illegal. So when we think about laws, we have to think about not just what we think are good or bad laws are right or wrong laws, but are they effective at addressing the issue that they are meant to address?”

For Bohannan, reinstating a national right to an abortion is the clearest way to give patients the autonomy they need to make the hard decision on whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. She’s attacked Miller-Meeks for supporting the Life at Conception Act, which would prevent anyone from aborting fertilized eggs. That bill lacked exceptions for abortions performed in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. But Miller-Meeks says she supports these exemptions.

Miller-Meeks campaign did not return questions from IPR News clarifying whether her support for the three exemptions means she would only support abortion restrictions that explicitly contain those.

Miller-Meeks supports U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks.

“Medicine is never black and white. So things like these proposed fifteen-week bans, six-week bans, for doctors, that's ludicrous,” said Carolyn Martin, a retired OBGYN who spoke on a panel with Bohannan in Davenport about abortion access. “Life and medicine are gray. It's like this beautiful gray territory. You can't make specific rules about it because there are exceptions all the time.”

Meanwhile, Dana Taylor of Bettendorf said she finds abortions “unconscionable,” but for her, Miller-Meeks' pro-life stance with exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother is a sensible compromise.

“There are all kinds of reasons why there should be exceptions, and there should be exceptions to almost every rule within common sense,” Taylor said.

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A Democratic challenger taking back a district that was recently held down by retired Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack might look easy on paper, but state Rep. Dennis Cohoon of Burlington explained while Mississippi River towns historically were places a Democrat could pick up votes, things have changed. Cohoon was a special education teacher and has served in the Iowa Legislature since 1986.

"We lost a lot of those labor jobs. Those were a lot of Democratic voters. And a lot of young people have left the area trying to find better-paying jobs over the years," Cohoon said. "Politically, I think it's changed. When I first started, people would not only answer the door, they would welcome you in. And now that seldom happens.

Chris Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa, said it was unsurprising to find a Republican incumbent going after Biden for inflation and a Democratic challenger going after the incumbent over abortion.

“These races get consumed by the national conversations,” he said.

For insight on which way the district might go, he said to look to Scott County. When Democrats like Fred Hubbell in 2018 and Rita Hart in 2020 do well, it tends to be a close election in Scott.

“Scott County … is sort of a bellwether for the state. When you look at the margins in Scott County, it tends to give you a sense of which way the state is going,” he said.

Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kauffmann said he wants to keep the district in hand and he, too, is looking to Scott County to wax his party’s power.

“I think Scott is going to be up for grabs from a Republican perspective,” Kauffmann said. “Scott is the greatest potential that Republicans have had. I believe that Mariannette (Miller-Meeks) can win just by not losing big in Scott County.”

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa