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Candidates Balance Pro, Anti Trump Voters In 2nd Congressional District

Iowa’s sole Democrat in Congress is hoping to keep his seat in the southeast corner of the state. The 2nd Congressional District is thought to be reliably blue. And some progressives want Dave Loebsack to move further to the left. But after Donald Trump carried the district in 2016, he’s not taking anything for granted.

At a Lee County Democrats meeting in Fort Madison, dozens of party members are milling around, waiting to hear from their six-term congressman. Voter Mitzi Jessen says she’d like to see more women running for office, but she supports Loebsack.

"We could always have new blood in the system," Jessen said. "People that have been there for a while do things the same way and sometimes that new blood would help. But I think he’s proven himself to do what we want him to do."

Raised by a single mother, Loebsack is running on defending programs like Social Security and food stamps that he says helped him get out of poverty.

“I got out of that because of Democratic programs at the federal level, for the working class, for the middle class, and for those who want to get into the middle class, if only they are given the opportunity to pull themselves up and get out of it," Loebsack said.

The retired political science professor is facing Republican Christopher Peters for the second time. The Coralville surgeon lost in 2016, but carved out 46 percent of the vote. Both face Libertarian Mark Strauss and non-partisan Daniel Clark.

"I don't see him taking a strong stand against the Republicans. Maybe he's doing it and it's in a way I can't see, but I don't see it." - Lee County Voter Shirley Deck

In 2016 Donald Trump carried this district by four points, after Barack Obama won it twice. That leaves the candidates balancing voters who support the president and those who don’t.

Voter Shirley Deck is worried about the country under Republican control. She wants Loebsack to resist.  

"I don’t see him taking a strong stand against the Republicans," Deck said, "Maybe he’s doing it and it’s in a way I can’t see, but I don’t see it."

Loebsack told the crowd in Lee County he does feel some pressure from progressives.

“I do my best to disagree, and as they say, without being disagreeable. I know some people disagree with that," Loebsack said. "But we’ve got to make sure that we have a civil discourse.”

That’s part of the challenge of representing the whole district, which spans acres of farmland and animal feeding operations, dotted by some manufacturing sites and the deep-blue population centers of Iowa City and Davenport.

"I would argue that if Congressman Loebsack moved even further left as some want him to, it could potentially jeopardize his electability within the district." - Andrew Green, Central College Political Scientist

Central College political scientist Andrew Green says it’s a misconception that the 2nd District is ultra-progressive.

"It’s a safe Democratic seat. But I would argue it’s a safe Democratic seat because Congressman Loebsack does a good job of representing the entire district," Green said. "I would argue that if Congressman Loebsack moved even further left as some want him to, it could potentially jeopardize his electability within the district."

So Loebsack has to try to appeal to voters in places like Washington, Iowa, where farmer Keith Hora wants to cut certain government services.

"We pay enough taxes right now the way it is. And I think government needs to be more efficient," Hora said. "People need to find ways of doing for themselves or maybe volunteer organizations doing things that people are trying to rely on government to do for them."

Republican challenger Christopher Peters is counting on people like Hora. At a meet and greet in Washington he told voters Congress is dysfunctional.

"We could always have new blood in the system...But I think [Loebsack]'s proven himself to do what we want him to do." - Lee County Voter Mitzi Jessen

“Now I’m a business owner and if you don’t keep track of your budget you potentially are going to go and be into financial problems," Peters said. "So I think there’s a direct correlation behind the fact that  Congress hasn’t passed a budget in over 21 years and our debt has grown from $5 trillion to $21 trillion.”

His experience as a physician appeals to Hora, who’s worried about government oversight into healthcare. Voter Dan Stigers says he doesn’t need to know much more than Peters’ party affiliation.

"Not really," Stigers said. "I’ve always been Republican and that’s the way I vote pretty much most of the time."

But in an interview later, Peters says he would vote against the party and the president when it’s right for Iowans.

“If I think that he and his administration are doing something that I think is constitutional, good for the country and good for our constituents, I’m going to partner with him on that," Peters said. "If the administration is doing something which I think is not good for our constituents or good for the country, I’m going to try and push back on that as well.”

Still, Central College’s Andrew Green says the chance of Loebsack losing the race is pretty slim. Active Democrats outnumber active Republicans 33 percent to 29 percent. But no party affiliated voters outnumber both, with 36 percent. While non-partisans turn out at lower rates, they could still tip the scale.