Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ames Democrat Christie Vilsack, a former middle school, high school and college instructor, is running not just against U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, in the November race for Iowa’s newly drawn 4th Congressional District.

She’s challenging math itself.

It’s hard to see how the numbers can add up for Vilsack — even though Iowa’s former first lady has been a fundraising machine and is the beneficiary of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recent designation of the 4th District race as one of 18 in the nation primed to go from red to blue, Republican to Democrat.

“She is one of our top-tier candidates across the country on the road to a Democratic majority that will protect Medicare and rebuild the middle class,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, R-N.Y., chairman of the DCC, on a conference call with The Daily Times Herald and other media.

Yes, the new district includes Story County and Cerro Gordo County, bringing in Mason City and Ames. As of Jan. 3, Story County had 17,095 Democrats to 15,636 Republicans. Meanwhile, Cerro Gordo had 9,556 Democrats to 8,038 Republicans.

Those numbers will help Vilsack’s cause, to be sure.

But the district includes much of King’s current turf, reliably Republican territory, places like Sioux County where Republicans outnumber Democrats 14,417 to 1,688 — with only 3,641 independents (who are probably Republicans in reality). Regardless, that’s a 12,700-vote deficit Vilsack has to make up someplace else. Unless Sioux County secedes from the Hawkeye State and joins Nebraska the road for any Democrat is challenging in the Big 4th.

Vilsack does have this going for her: the sweep of 39 counties that is the new 4th District is peopled by a plurality of independents — 37 percent (182,592).

Republicans make up 36 percent of the 4th’s electorate (177,130) and Democrats 27 percent (134,819) — again, using the most recent figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office and spread-sheeting the 39 counties into a 4th District as it would look right now.

So let’s say Republicans and Democrats hold their ranks — or that Republicans voting against Steve King for his provocative comments — and a budget vote that would have changed Medicare — cancel out Democrats voting against Christie Vilsack because she inhabits the same party as President Barack Obama or out of sheer anger over the economy. That would give Republicans a 42,320-vote margin in King’s race, which means Vilsack would need 73 percent of independents to go her way to defeat King.

Is that mathematically reasonable, possible?

“Yes it is,” Israel said. “It’s a new world. In every generic poll we are winning independents. Right now, Republicans are holding their own House Republicans responsible for the gridlock in Washington. So all the old rules and all the old calculations have become largely irrelevant.”

The above scenario presumes that registered Democrats active only in presidential years, ones who were swept up in the orbit of Battlestar Barack in 2008, won’t abandon the party by the time November rolls around. Are all these Democrats really Democrats? Or were they just there with Obama and the dramatics of hope and history.

Israel thinks there’s a game-changer in 2012: Medicare.

“The Republicans in that district don’t want to be represented by somebody who voted to end their Medicare,” Israel said.

In her western and central Iowa “listening tours,” Vilsack said, she heard concerns from many residents about a U.S. House-passed Republican budget that would transition Medicare into a voucher system.

“I firmly believe we can save Medicare without turning it into a voucher program,” Vilsack said.

The plan King supported never went into effect so it’s hard to see how instinctive older conservatives in Sioux County can be persuaded (or frightened) into viewing King as a ransacker of entitlements for the senior set.

For her part, Vilsack is trying to cast herself as the candidate of church potluck civility, someone who wants to stay in the lane of her central campaign theme: creating jobs to bring young people back to Iowa.

“That’s my sole reason for running for Congress,” she said in Willey the other day.

Hard to disagree with that. But I’ve gone from young (21) to middle-aged (42) listening to Iowa politicians at campaign events across the state pledge to recruit my educated Iowa-native friends back from Kansas City and Minneapolis and Seattle.

Vilsack has time. She has name ID, and that DCCC red-to-blue designation. It’s not impossible to see her becoming Iowa’s first female member of Congress.

Perhaps an anti-incumbent fever will catch in early November, sending King back to his hunting dogs and family construction business or a nice spot in talk radio simply because he’s a sitting member of Congress.

And maybe we should believe a teacher and her allies who tell us that 2+2 equals something else.