WASHINGTON — After a long line of low-profile, foregone-conclusion U.S. House campaigns, western Iowa faces an intense battle between a leader of the Tea Party movement and a candidate with close ties to the Obama administration.
In one corner is five-term incumbent Republican Rep. Steve King, the conservative firebrand and national TV presence. In the other is Christie Vilsack, wife of the U.S. agriculture secretary and the state's former first lady, who is trying to become the first woman Iowa sends to Congress.
The two already have mixed it up on the campaign trail over such issues as health care, the economy and support for renewable energy. And their race has attracted attention from national groups and political observers.
King, first elected in 2002, hasn't faced this kind of big-name opponent with such a big-time bankroll. Even Sen. Chuck Grassley, a fellow Republican, says the congressman faces the “toughest race of his career.”
Campaign finance reports indicate both candidates have the resources to compete. Vilsack has raised nearly $1.6 million — about twice the combined total of what King's Democratic opponents have spent against him over the past decade. King, too, has ramped up his fundraising, besting Vilsack in the first quarter of 2012 and bringing his total campaign contributions for the race to nearly $1.3 million.
On the trail, Vilsack has focused on the economy, talking about creating a rural infrastructure bank and developing an energy policy that promotes bio-based products. A former teacher and librarian, education was her recent focus, as she sought to contrast her own ideas with King's support for GOP budget plans that include cuts.
Vilsack says she's trying to illustrate how communities can create layers of economic development, rather than simply enticing a large company to build a factory on the edge of town. Iowa's renewable energy industry helps foster opportunities for young people to stay closer to home, she said.
“I want to make sure people can live in small places if they want to and have an interesting job,” she said.
King, meanwhile, has begun an aggressive effort to fire up his traditional supporters and reach out to new ones. That outreach will be crucial, because about half of the redrawn 4th Congressional District has never seen his name on a ballot before.
The congressman recently held 23 town hall events over the course of a week, pushing his own economic message that emphasizes the need to balance the government's books. He says he learned how to do that as a self-made businessman.
Vilsack likes to tell people she would have a more local approach to serving in Congress than King, who is known for his appearances on cable news shows and at large Tea Party rallies.
“His focus has become about leading a national movement and advancing his own personal philosophy and his own job prospects,” she said.
King mocked Vilsack's charge and previewed a line of attack by describing Vilsack, who grew up in Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa, as a carpetbagger.
“ ‘I will move in there and become local — (and) even though Steve King has been born there, lived there all his life — he's not,' ” King said. “That's an example of liberal logic.”
King also defended his work on the national scene by saying that he has energy to spare and a desire to move other politicians in his conservative direction.
“I want the rest of the country to see the world the way we see it, and I think the majority of my constituents want that, too,” he said.
King's role in high-profile issues was evident this week when he held a Captol Hill press conference with former Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, the author of controversial state immigration legislation now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
King also has been at the forefront of efforts to repeal the health care overhaul law passed by Congress in 2010 and considered President Barack Obama's signature achievement.
Vilsack has praised certain provisions in the law, such as allowing children to stay on their parents' plans until age 26, but has stopped short of saying she would have voted for it.
King will likely try to tie Vilsack to both the president and the law. Vilsack's husband, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, serves in Obama's Cabinet.
King and Christie Vilsack also have scrapped over wind energy, an important topic in northwest Iowa, where turbines dot the landscape.
Vilsack says King's support for wind energy has been inconsistent, pointing to individual votes on which King opposed measures that would have helped the industry. For example, King voted against legislation in 2008 that would have extended tax credits for wind and other renewable energy. The bill also would have repealed $17.6 billion worth of tax credits and other provisions that benefit the oil and gas industry.
King's campaign said the votes are being taken out of context and tend to involve legislation where wind energy was only a part of legislation that was otherwise flawed. For example, King said his reason for voting against the 2008 bill was that raising taxes on the oil industry could have driven up gas prices.
His campaign also notes that he was recently awarded the “Champion of Wind” award by the American Wind Energy Association for his support of the industry.
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, said Vilsack faces an uphill battle against an incumbent with a strong base of support and a district that, though redrawn, remains solidly Republican.
The new district is 37 percent Republican, 27 percent Democrat and 36 percent no party. Iowa's old 5th District was 40 percent GOP, 25 percent Democrat and 35 percent no party.
Still, Goldford noted, Vilsack has a few factors in her favor, including that the first cycle after a significant redistricting is the best time to challenge an incumbent.
Vilsack starts with the positive name recognition that comes from having been Iowa's first lady. She also benefits from the fact that Democrats generally have more “marginal voters” who show up in higher numbers during presidential election years.
“That will help her,” Goldford said. “Will it help her enough? That's the question.”
King's push for debates is one indication of the contest's expected intensity. He shunned debates against previous challengers.
“That shows he knows he's vulnerable, because if you're not vulnerable, you don't raise the stature of your challenger by agreeing to debates,” Goldford said.
It also suggests that King won't be caught off-guard.
“This is the most substantial and well-known opponent he will have faced, so he'll be bringing his ‘A' game,” Goldford said.
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