DES MOINES, Iowa — For a marquee congressional election, the race in central Iowa between Reps. Leonard Boswell and Tom Latham can seem downright boring. Unlike many of the contests around the country that get press for their outlandish comments and ideologue or neophyte candidates, this is between two old guys who have been in Congress for more than 30 years combined. On top of that, they are both generally liked in the area, have been good stewards for the agriculture industry, and come across as moderate and thoughtful.
But in an odd twist, it’s this boringness that makes the race interesting. It’s one of just two races in the country that pits a sitting Democrat against a sitting Republican (the other is between Reps. Betty Sutton and Jim Renacci, respectively, in Ohio). And the race couldn’t be closer. The newly drawn 3rd Congressional District—which includes both the most populous city in the state (Des Moines) and the least populous county (Adams)—is the very definition of a swing district in a swing state. It has a 11,289-voter registration lead for Republicans, and has the fewest registered independents in the state.
The question, then, is how does one candidate pull away from the other?
Both candidates will say that what really matters is their records. After all, it’s rare for two candidates to have extensive paper trails on where they stand on the issues. And for the most part, that’s true. Much of the election is about how Boswell, a Democrat, supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, cap and trade, and the Affordable Care Act, while the GOP’s Latham did not.
But when every vote counts, there’s got to be an “x factor.” For Boswell, it has meant aligning himself in various ways to President Obama’s reelection campaign. For Latham, it has essentially been about making his opponent seem too old to lead.
Sign of the Times
A sign hangs across the street from Boswell’s downtown Des Moines reelection office with two words that could make a Democrat squirm: Koch Brothers. No, this is not a satellite office for the billionaire brothers hell-bent on removing people like Boswell from office. But the otherwise-innocuous office-supply store is a constant reminder of the financial obstacles that Boswell’s campaign faces. At the end of the second quarter, he had only $472,000 on hand to Latham’s $2.1 million.
Latham “must feel like if his bucket runs empty, he can just refill it with [super PAC American] Crossroads, the Koch brothers, whoever,” Boswell said recently in his office. “Karl Rove and Crossroads spent over a million against us before last Christmas.”
For Boswell to win, he has decided he must follow the president’s path. His campaign is inextricably linked to Obama for America. He cannot compete financially with Latham, and when every vote counts, that means the get-out-the-vote effort is of the utmost importance. This means relying on the well-financed, well-organized ground game Obama has in place.
“Each of our campaigns matter to both of us, each way,” Boswell said. “I support the president without reservation. I don’t think he’s been perfect, but I don’t think Leonard Boswell has been perfect.”
It’s a different dynamic between the Latham and Mitt Romney camps. Where Boswell is hoping that the president can help raise him to reelection, the Latham campaign is really just hoping that Romney’s flailing campaign doesn’t bring them down. Sure, the campaigns share office space, but Latham has the money and the ground game to go it on his own.
“We’ll run our own operation,” he said. “They’re probably more tagging along with us, more tied to us, because we have the organization on the ground.”
Drawing Battle Lines
Boswell’s link to the president’s campaign goes beyond having Obama for America volunteers help drive the Democratic turnout at the polls. His campaign seems to have taken a page out of the president’s book when it comes to characterizing his opponent, who is close friends with House Speaker John Boehner, as a rich and out-of-touch Republican.
For example, in Boswell’s first negative television ad, a narrator accuses Latham of pulling off an “insider deal,” in which a bank whose stock he owned collected $2.4 million in TARP funds.
It doesn’t matter that Latham was no longer on the bank’s board when it happened, or that he voted against TARP. The hope is that voters associate Latham with collecting a big chunk of change when the country was struggling—in other words, for this bank, Green Circle Investments, to be a stand-in for Bain Capital. To further that theme, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been hitting Latham on votes to give government contracts to companies that outsource jobs overseas.
Latham finds these accusations to be preposterous. “The bank took a loan from the program, and he’s saying I cashed in,” Latham told National Journal at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Ankeny. “He voted for it, I voted against it. It’s irrational when you think about it.”
Latham has another approach, one that may seem just as irrational at first blush. His campaign has decided that portraying Boswell as a lifelong politician will play well in another year of anti-incumbency fervor. It’s a strategy that may seem a little odd, because Latham has actually been in Congress two years longer than Boswell.
Still, an ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee begins by saying that Boswell is in the “twilight of a 25-year career.” It then ends by saying, “It’s time to bring him home,” almost as if he’s a lost senior citizen wandering the streets of Des Moines. At 78 years old, and with a bit of a reputation as a grumpy old man (campaign staffers say he fires them with regularity, only to rehire them moments later), Boswell believes his opponent is making thinly veiled attacks on his age.
“He better be careful,” Boswell said of the attempt to make him look old. “His great friend is Senator [Chuck] Grassley. And Senator Grassley has been here longer than either one of us, and he’s a tad bit older than I am. And if he wonders about my vitality, just come follow me around for a day or two. I still fly airplanes. I still ski a little bit, and ride a bicycle to work on bicycle-to-work day.”
This article appears in the Oct. 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.