June 13, 2014

Jim Mowrer's bid to wrest Iowa's 4th District seat away from GOP Rep. Steve King received a boost last week, when national Democrats added the political newcomer to the "red to blue" program that provides a mix of financial and other assistance to their most promising challengers.

Mowrer has been steadily outraising King: The challenger holds a better-than two-to-one cash-on-hand advantage over the incumbent, according to campaign finance reports showing Mowrer with $514,000 in the bank.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took notice and upgraded the 4th District seat to one of their most promising races in the country. They backed that up by reserving $440,000 in air time in the Des Moines market for the fall, according to published reports.

Republicans are scoffing at the moves and express absolutely no concern about King's ability to hold the seat.

Independent analysts tend to agree, dismissing the DCCC announcement as little more than a publicity stunt.

And yet, the national Democrats are spending real money, and the candidate keeps going to work in the morning with the sole intention of sending King into retirement in Kiron.

In a district where Republicans hold a substantial advantage in voter registration, the Mowrer campaign and the DCCC are emphasizing themes that appeal to independent voters and Republicans: fixing a broken Congress, service in war and reining in federal spending.

"This is the clearest indication yet that Jim is in a position to win this race," according to Mowrer campaign manager Ben Nesselhuf. "Iowans are tired of a do-nothing Congress and they recognize the need to send people to D.C. who actually want to work with others for the good of the country."

DCCC Chairman Steve Israel hit all the points in a statement.

"Jim Mowrer is showing Iowa voters that he shares their values, whether it's his powerful commitment to public service, his service in Iraq or his time working in the Pentagon to cut wasteful spending," Israel said. "Jim is a strong voice of commonsense to hold Congressman Steve King accountable for his out-of-touch views and wrong priorities, like stacking the deck for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of hard-working people."

How valuable is red to blue to a candidate?

"The DCCC's Red to Blue program highlights top Democratic campaigns across the country and offers them financial, communications, grassroots, and strategic support," according to the committee's website. "The program will introduce Democratic supporters to new, competitive candidates in order to help expand the fundraising base for these campaigns."

Still, the nonpartisan political analysts in the nation's capital aren't necessarily impressed.

The promotion "doesn't influence our thinking," said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. "These designations are largely D.C. gimmicks."

Wasserman has listed the race as "likely Republican," which is more competitive than "solid Republican" but signals a tough climb for the challenger.

The Rothenberg Political Report has the race as "solid Republican."

The DCCC has plenty of money to spend - over $43 million in the bank, according to a report filed last month with the Federal Election Commission. That's $11 million more than the House Republicans' campaign arm is holding.

But the Democrats have only a handful of true pickup opportunities, according to analysts such as Wasserman and Stuart Rothenberg, and virtually no chance of winning enough races to erase the Republicans' 17-seat advantage in the House.

Republicans say the national Democrats are focusing on Iowa - King's seat and the open 3rd District seat - because they have nowhere else to go.

"I think their addition of Mowrer is laughable," said Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Steve King has proven he can put together a winning campaign, like last cycle when he beat (Christie) Vilsack by eight in a presidential year."

Houlton pointed out that the district is rated as a "plus-5" for Republicans, meaning the GOP candidate usually performs 5 percentage points better than an average candidate nationally.

"Mowrer is going to have a difficult time distancing himself from the failed and unpopular policies of President Obama and the Democrat Party," Houlton added.

The desire to defeat King among Democrats and many Latino and progressive groups is so intense that it may be leading to a bit of wishful thinking in elevating this race into the category of top-tier challenges.

But the Democrats have money to burn, thanks to a finely calibrated fundraising machine.

And it was practically a necessity for them to put some of that cash into a campaign against King, who is seen as such an arch-villain to so many of their key constituency groups.

Democratic insiders say there's been one more twist: The DCCC's independent expenditure arm, which by law can't communicate with the Mowrer campaign, has reserved another $700,000 of air time for the last two weeks of the campaign.

That implies a level of seriousness about this race, and it ensures Mowrer of the opportunity to put his case before the district's voters.