Ever since Scott and Clinton counties were added to Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District last year, Rep. Dave Loebsack has been a regular visitor. His staff figures he has held more than 100 events in Scott County since last year.
They have ranged from high-profile appearances with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to a stop at the Home Depot in Bettendorf to discuss energy-efficient lightbulbs.
With the Quad-Cities the biggest population area in the newly drawn 24-county 2nd Congressional District, that type of travel schedule only makes sense to prepare for the general election. What Loebsack didn’t expect was that new territory, where he’s been well-received by longtime party activists, would yield a primary challenger.
Iowa Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, stunned political types in Iowa by pursuing a primary bid against the three-term incumbent.
So far, there’s been little sign of outward campaign activity. Seng said last week he hadn’t been making many public appearances but had reached out to people via email. He also plans to send out some mail pieces. He did appear at a forum in rural Davis County on Tuesday night, he said this week.
Seng has raised little money. He hadn’t filed a report with the Federal Election Commission, which is required of any candidate raising or spending more than $5,000. Through the end of March, Loebsack had raised $786,000.
Loebsack is a former college professor who was long active in Democratic politics before he won an upset victory over Davenport native Jim Leach in 2006. He grew up in Sioux City, the son of an impoverished mother with mental health problems.
In introducing himself, he often speaks about that background.
“It drives me in so many ways,” he said, noting it’s impressed upon him the importance of an education, and of community. That he could become a congressman, he says, is proof that “the American Dream is alive.”
In his six years in office, Loesback has pointed to his work responding to the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids, providing mental health and educational assistance for National Guard troops and seeking to improve Medicare’s low reimbursement rates for Iowa.
He doesn’t immediately mention the Affordable Care Act, but he doesn’t shrink from defending its constitutionality or its impact. He said he’s open to compromise but not on providing quality care or addressing the imbalance in Medicare payments to providers.
Seng, too, is supportive of the health care act. But in an interview, he said he has “mixed emotions” about the requirement that individuals buy insurance, which is at the center of the legal challenge to its constitutionality.
Seng, a 65-year-old veterinarian, is well-known— and, by and large, well-liked — in Scott County Democratic circles, where he has been on the ballot since 1993. For nearly all that time, he’s been a sure-fire winner, in part, many say, because of his charitable work.
He has long been involved in the Marquette Academy, a small, private school in central Davenport, where he is board chairman.
On Friday nights, he has played the accordion at a small nightclub he owns in Davenport to help raise money for it.
Seng said he’s running on a platform of seeking balanced budgets and a more effective energy policy. He also is trying to appeal to people who are opposed to abortion rights and are unhappy with the Obama administration’s recent rule on requiring religious organizations to provide insurance coverage for contraception.
Several Catholic organizations, as well as others, are challenging the rule in court.
“This was sort of a wakeup call on religious liberty,” said Seng, a Catholic. He said rumors he was put up to his bid by the church, or by particular parish priests, are untrue, although he said he consulted with Bishop Martin Amos of the Diocese of Davenport before launching his campaign.
“I went to them and told them my intention,” he said.
Seng’s anti-abortion stance has led to some improbable allies. Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative who is disliked by many Democrats, praised him in an email for votes in the state Senate to cut off public funding for abortions and for organizations that provide them. Both amendments failed.
Seng stood by both of his votes, but he noted that even though his view didn’t prevail, he still voted for the underlying health and human services funding legislation. “The common good,” he said, is served by the spending in the legislation. He said he expects his anti-abortion views to appeal to like-minded Democrats and independents.
Seng, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been critical of Loebsack for opposing trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. He said trade helps agriculture.
He also said more attention needs to be paid to the debt. He said the government needs to be more efficient and should do what the state Legislature did two years ago when it approved a large reorganization bill.
He also says he would lean toward more defense cuts in paring spending than leaning on Medicare and Medicaid.
Loebsack says the 2012 election is about fighting for the middle class.
Unemployment in Iowa is higher than usual (albeit lower than the national jobless rate), but the Iowa City Democrat says the economy is on the path to recovery.
“It’s slow. It’s painfully slow, but I do think we are on the right path,” he said. “We are beginning to turn the corner.”
He said he has talked to business owners, and they’ve told him customer demand is coming back.
At a recent event in Davenport celebrating community block grant investments in the city, Loebsack told a group of small business owners their efforts are vital to the economy.
“This is really critical stuff,” he said.
The Democrat said taking the path his Republican rivals suggest would be like turning back the clock on the economy.
“People understand, implicitly, that’s how we got into this mess in the first place,” he said.
Loebsack’s campaign has not overtly engaged Seng, but it used the praise from Vander Plaats in a fundraising solicitation recently.
Loebsack has defended his trade votes, saying the deals actually would cost jobs.
He also has made it a point to work across the congressional aisle with Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., a partnership both have highlighted frequently. They’ve pushed for legislation to help the Rock Island Arsenal. And, lately, they’ve expanded their partnership to seek funding to replace the Interstate 74 bridge.
At a time when gridlock in Washington, D.C., is seen as a major problem, this has allowed both lawmakers to tout bipartisan work for their constituencies.
“We have common interests. We have things we need to work on together,” Loebsack said a couple of weeks ago at a news conference under the I-74 bridge, where he and Schilling welcomed LaHood to the area.
When it comes to the nation’s debt, Loebsack joined other lawmakers last year in urging President Barack Obama and congressional leadership to “go big” and seek $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. He said can’t say whether he would have supported the outlines of that deal because no final language was released. Some of the spending cuts would have affected entitlement programs.
Loebsack said the fault for failing to come to resolve the issue lies with leaders in both parties.
“That’s really the basic problem: A lack of seriousness, especially on the part of leadership here in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Loebsack echoes other Democrats in saying there needs to be balance in dealing with the country’s budget challenges.
“Anyone who says that revenues should be off the table is not approaching this in a balanced way,” he said. “I think that’s what we have to do.”