April 22, 2014



Jim Mowrer really has two opponents in his 4th District race against Rep. Steve King: the Republican incumbent, of course, and a common wisdom that's proving difficult to shake in Washington, D.C.

The top nonpartisan analysts in the nation's capital say the district, and the current election cycle, are simply too Republican for Mowrer to have any chance of victory in November.

Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report and David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report say this race is King's to lose, regardless of Mowrer's impressive fundraising totals.

But that merely produces a shrug in Mowrer's camp.

"I don't fault them for thinking that way, because they're not on the ground here," said Ben Nesselhuf, who resigned as chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party to manage Mowrer's first run for office.

Further, Mowrer's success in raising money continues to challenge the assumption that the 4th District congressional seat is beyond the reach of any Democrat.

For the third-consecutive reporting period, Mowrer has outraised King, most recently by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

Mowrer's totals for the first quarter of 2014, reported last week to the Federal Election Commission, included $300,000 in contributions from individuals. That, Nesselhuf said, would be "a very good haul for an incumbent," not to mention a first-time candidate.

The willingness to write a check to Mowrer's campaign suggests there are plenty of people in the district and elsewhere who don't buy the common wisdom about this race, and who desperately want to see King defeated.

"We're pretty excited about the numbers," Nesselhuf said. "First, Jim is incredibly hard-working and he has a great story to tell, and people see that."

Mowrer was raised on a farm in Boone, served his country in Iraq and worked for a spell at the Pentagon before returning to the district and launching what some see as a quixotic campaign against King.

Beyond that, Nesselhuf said, "We constantly hear that Congress is broken, and King is a big part of the problem."

While people are hungry for solutions, Nesselhuf said, "King says he wishes he could be a better obstructionist."

Nesselhuf acknowledged the reality of the GOP's advantage in registered voters in the 4th District - a 50,000-voter cushion in the last election cycle.

But he said Mowrer's record of military service and message of government reform resonate with moderate Republicans and even some conservatives.

The analysts say that won't be enough.

After raising piles of cash to beat Christie Vilsack in 2012, "King knows that he doesn't have to raise $3.7 million this time," Rothenberg said. "He's raising what he needs."

Rothenberg is emphatic that this race is "not worth a second look."

"I don't see the race getting more competitive just because of the fundraising benchmarks," the Cook Report's Wasserman said. "I think Mowrer is doing everything that could be asked of him as a candidate, but this may be a combination of a district that's too Republican and a year that's too Republican."

At the national level, Wasserman said, Democrats "would be lucky" to hold their net loss of House seats under five in the coming election. He believes "a lot of voters in the 4th District want to send a message to the Obama administration" with a vote for King.

But Wasserman suggested one of Mowrer's supposed disadvantages - that he has neither the name nor connections of Christie Vilsack - is actually an advantage.

"Mowrer has some positives: He's a veteran and he's not married to a member of the Obama administration," Wasserman said, pointing to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Nesselhuf, Mowrer's campaign manager, took the point a step further and said the 4th District is one of a handful around the country where Republican turnout declines more than Democratic turnout in an off-year election.

That would mean President Obama's presence on the top of the ticket in 2012 inspired more Republican voters to go to the polls - and to cast ballots against Democrats up and down the ticket - than it inspired new Democratic voters.

Sure, it's a positive spin on a daunting situation for the Democratic challenger.

But negatives seem to bounce off of Mowrer and his campaign.

In 61/2 months, the voters rather than the analysts will have their say on Election Day.