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Democrats gear up early for another crack at Latham
Of all of Iowa’s U.S. House races in 2008, the 4th Congressional District was supposed to be the most hotly contested. But when the dust settled and the votes were counted, incumbent Republican Tom Latham of Ames coasted to a 20-point victory and carried all 28 counties in the sprawling district that stretches from the outskirts of Des Moines to the Minnesota border.
The overwhelming defeat left many observers scratching their heads and wondering what happened. President Obama won the district by 8 points and carried all but one of the counties. Twelve of the district’s 20 state House members are Democrats, along with eight of its 10 state senators.
“This is a Democratic district,” said Tom Harrington, chairman of the 4th District Democratic Central Committee.
At the end of the day, the race came down to money and organization, two things the campaign of Democratic candidate Becky Greenwald didn’t have. But going into 2010, Democrats are working to avoid repeating mistakes from years past.
The district’s Democratic central committee has formed a task force charged with finding a Democrat who can make a strong run against Latham in 2010. Co-chaired by two former candidates for Congress, Selden Spencer and Kurt Meyer, the group is actively recruiting candidates and attempting to lay the groundwork for a successful campaign.
“We haven’t had this type of work being done this early in the last three cycles,” Harrington said. “We’re hoping that by organizing early, helping find good candidates and having this infrastructure in place for them that it will be a big leg up over what past candidates have had.”
Meyer, who placed second in the district’s 2008 primary, said the task force’s organizing and fundraising goals will build off of each other.
“We want to find the best possible candidate and we want to make the nomination worth having by putting together an organization and a fundraising pool that someone could step into right away,” he said. “I think both of these goals make the other easier, meaning a good candidate will motivate people to come out and get involved and an organized party will help draw out the best candidates.”
Rather than spending time “ferreting out possible campaign donors or volunteers,” whomever the party nominates will be able to jump right into the race to unseat Latham, Meyer said.
“That keeps the candidate from spending months doing the things that are necessary but mundane,” he said. “The party organization in the 4th district traditionally has been a county-by-county organization. There has not been a lot of coordination. This year, we have put more emphasis on thinking earlier in the game about what we can and should do to advance a successful congressional campaign.”
The party isn’t trying to avoid a primary, Harrington said. In fact, he expects there to be a hotly contested race for the party’s nomination.
“We’re just here to encourage all the best candidates to get into the race,” he said. “The party will remain neutral until we have a candidate.”
The goal is also to avoid mistakes that have been made in the past, Harrington said. Democrats have been slow to jump into the race in previous years, something that hurt them in the general election.
“I’d love to see someone jump in by late summer or early fall,” he said.
Another mistake, Meyer said, is focusing too much on whether the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will get involved in the race. In the past, he said, candidates have made decisions that were not based on how to win an election but rather on how to coax the DCCC into spending money in the district.
“I personally think we have to go about our business in a way that says if the DCCC jumps in, that’s great,” Meyer said. “But I think it can lead to what amounts to some peculiar thought patterns. You end up thinking you have to make the DCCC happy so that they will jump into the race. We have to rely on ourselves. No one from outside the district is going to ride in over the hill and pull our chestnuts out of the fire. We have to take care of our own destiny.”
While he didn’t mention Greenwald’s candidacy in 2008 specifically, many observers point to her campaign’s decision to spend a considerable amount of money on an early television advertising campaign to introduce herself to voters as a mistake. Most believe the move was designed to improve her polling numbers in an attempt to convince the DCCC the race was close enough to warrant their attention.
The plan didn’t work, the DCCC’s support never materialized, and while Greenwald was able to purchase a 60-second television ad the night of Barack Obama’s 30-minute national address, her campaign was left with no money in the final weeks of the race.
According to paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission just before the election, Latham had $775,000 cash on hand compared to a little more than $25,000 for Greenwald, despite the fact that the Democrat outraised Latham in July, August and September.
As of March 31, Latham has $113,944 cash on hand for his 2010 campaign.
“We are going to set our own course,” Meyer said. “If we do our job then it makes it more appealing for the DCCC to get involved, rather than sitting around crossing our fingers and devising a strategy to lure them into getting involved.”
Raising money in the 4th Congressional District has proven difficult in the past, Harrington said, since it is mostly made up of rural counties. That is why the party will be holding three fundraisers this August around the district in order to help support the congressional candidate for the 2010 fight.
“We really haven’t had the coordination across the district, which could help in a lot of ways, including fundraising,” he said. “Starting in August, we are holding three regional fundraisers for the south and central part in Ames, for the northwestern part of the district in Estherville and then the northeastern part in Decorah.”
Both Meyer, who ran in the 2008 Democratic primary, and Greenwald said they have not ruled out another run, but have not decided whether they will jump into the race again. But Meyer said his candidacy is not why he got involved in the task force, saying he just wants the best candidate to step forward.
“I think there are some really good candidates out there,” he said. “I really hope some of them would be interested in running. I think we will find the strongest possible candidate.”