Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack has formed an exploratory committee for a possible Democratic congressional bid in the newly drawn 4th District where, barring any surprises in a primary, she would face U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron.

“Today’s she’s announcing an exploratory committee,” said Matt Paul, a family friend of Christie Vilsack, and her husband, Tom, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Democratic governor of Iowa.

In a phone interview with the Daily Times Herald this morning, Paul said Vilsack has no “hard-and-fast” date for announcing a campaign.

The Vilsacks have said they will move to Ames, although no transactions have been logged as of late this morning with the Story County Recorder’s Office. The new 4th District includes Carroll County and stretches from the Missouri River east to Story County. It is strongly Republican territory in which King has held a decade-long political stranglehold and used as a base to build a national conservative brand. But registered independents are a force as well.

For his part, Paul sent out a news release for Vilsack with letterhead saying: “Christie Vilsack for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District.”

 “Serving Iowa is both a privilege and a responsibility,” Christie Vilsack said in the statement. “The decision to run for Congress deserves serious consideration.  Next month, I will move to Ames and continue to explore the possibility of representing Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’s important to listen to Iowa families about the issues they want addressed in Congress.  Hearing directly from citizens about their concerns and ideas is very important to me.  Too often in campaigns, it’s the other way around.  More than anything, this should be a discussion about Iowa values — the value of work, the value of opportunity and the value of community.   Input from fellow Iowans will help me make the best decision and will give our state a campaign focused on collaboration and results, encouraging a new way to do business in Washington.”

Speculation has raged for weeks since Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency’s late March release of new congressional and Statehouse district lines, officially signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad Tuesday, that Christie Vilsack would run for Congress — somewhere in Iowa.

Some analysts had suggested she would challenge incumbent Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack in the 2nd District, one to which both candidate would have to move. In that race Vilsack could have run from her hometown of Mount Pleasant.

Regardless of the district Vilsack  must also challenge history itself.

Iowans have never sent a woman to Washington, D.C., vested with the authority to vote in the halls of Congress. Only Iowa and Mississippi have not elected a woman to the U.S. House, U.S. Senate or as a governor.

“The problem is that older Iowans don’t vote for women,” said Steffen Schmidt, a veteran Iowa State University political science professor. “They still think that politics is a guys’ world, that you have to beat people up.”

What’s more, Schmidt said, he’s been less than impressed with the campaigns of most women in Iowa for higher offices.

“The women who have run in Iowa have run crappy campaigns run, in my opinion, by incompetent campaign managers,” Schmidt said.

This isn’t to say Christie Vilsack doesn’t have an opening, he said. Because of her profile in the state, and national connections, she can build a formidable war chest, Schmidt said.

On the issues, Schmidt said Vilsack should quickly take the offensive and attack the Congressional Republican budget and deficit-cutting strategies, led by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman from Wisconsin, that put serious changes for entitlement programs like Medicare on the table.

“People don’t want those programs cut,” Schmidt said.

Additionally, Vilsack can challenge congressional Republicans on proposed sweeping changes to farm and rural assistance programs, Schmidt said. Many rural newspapers and farm-oriented publications are focused heavily on these issues now, he said.

“They don’t like the budget cuts for agriculture that are proposed by Republicans,” Schmidt said.

Vilsack will also be aided by the fact that she brings statewide name recognition to the race and will have her husband to help her remain current and conversant on agricultural topics. Her entry into what Schmidt terms “an uphill battle” could endear her to Democrats eager to see a strong candidate face King. Vilsack could energize Democrats, pull independents and some moderate Republicans in a presidential election year, helping President Obama in the western part of a swing state — even if she loses her own race.

In coming weeks, Schmidt said he will be closely eyeing whether Vilsack sinks into a traditional deferential campaign style for women in Iowa or takes the initiative with a strong message.

“If I don’t see that happening, I’m going to start investing in the political futures market for Steve King, not her,” Schmidt said.