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Rep. Loebsack's Retirement Opens Up Iowa Congressional Race For Both Parties

Clare Roth
IPR file
Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack retirement is opening up a race in a district conventionally thought to be reliably blue. But politics watchers say that may change with his departure.

The announcement that long-time 2nd District Congressman Dave Loebsackis retiring is opening up a race in a district thought to be reliably Democratic. But with the seven term representative's departure, some politicos say that may not remain the case.

Following the news that the Democrat Loebsack is leaving Congess, political news site Roll Call has changed its rating of Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District from Solid Democratic to Toss-up. Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and the Cook Political Report moved the IA-02 district race  from Likely Democratic to Toss-up. 

That's a marked shift for a district conventionally thought to be the most reliably blue corner of the state. But that reputation has been eroding in recent years. Though southeast Iowa is home to the liberal strongholds of Iowa City and Davenport, voters in the region have been swinging right: President Donald Trump won the district in 2016, after Barack Obama carried the district twicein 2008 and 2012.

In a statement released last Friday, Loebsack said he'll continue serving as a "check" on Trump's "worst impulses" and "set the stage" to put a Democrat back in the Oval Office in 2020.

But Central College political scientist Andrew Green says Loebsack’s retirement means the southeast corner of the state may not stay reliably Democratic.

“It has to be considered a toss-up district," Green said. "The fact that Congressman Loebsack won re-election on the same ballot when Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2nd District tells us about the dynamics of the district.”

Loebsack successfully fended off repeated Republican challenges after his initial surprise win against incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Leach in 2006. The former college political science professor took the office with a lead of 2.8 percent.

But Trump's success in the district in 2016confirmed shifting political dynamics in southeast Iowa, when he carried every county but Johnson and Scott, home of the major population centers of Iowa City and Davenport. Democrats' losses in 2016 were perhaps the most stark in the working-class manufacturing communities of Dubuque, Lee and Des Moines Counties on the Mississippi River, traditionally known for a strong liberal bent among union members, though Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell won back a majority in those counties in 2018. 

"It has to be considered a toss-up district [...] The fact that Congressman Loebsack won re-election on the same ballot when Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2nd District tells us about the dynamics of the district." - Andrew Green, Central College Political Scientist

Green says the next winning candidate in Iowa's 2nd will have to balance the interests of voters across the district, which spans dense, urban communities, manufacturing hubs and vast stretches of farmland. 

"Even though a lot of folks have looked at it as a safe Democratic seat, it really is a diverse district," Green said. "A candidate who is going to win that particular seat come November 2020 is going to have to be able to assemble that winning coalition."

A field of potential Democratic and Republican hopefuls is already taking shape, with a slate of contenders reportedly considering a run, including former Democratic State Senator and nominee for lieutenant governor, Rita Hart, first-term Democratic State Sen. Zach Wahls, and Loebsack's two-time Republican challenger,physician Chris Peters, as well as Republican State Sen. Mariannette Miller Meeks, who challenged Loebsack three times.

Loebsack's departure means Iowa will see a slate of competitive congressional races in 2020, and national party operatives will be watching closely, Green says.

“You could potentially see shifts in the number of seats held by the Democratic majority right now. And so for the folks who are running the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, they're going to be very, very interested in holding districts 1, 2, and 3.”

Green says he still considers northwest Iowa's 4th Congressional District to be an "unknown," saying a way forward for Democrats in the region may depend on the outcome of a contested Republican primary. Incumbent Rep. Steve King is facing challenges from State Sen. Randy Feenstra, businessman Bret Richards and teacher and former State Rep. Jeremy Taylor.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Rep. Loebsack's margin of victory in 2010. In fact he won by 5.1 percent that year.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter