DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – Driving across Iowa on a 60-degree day in late October, this might seem like any another autumn day. Hawks and even the occasional bald eagle can be spotted gliding on warm air currents against a cloudless sky. A soft breeze is barely enough to turn the huge blades on windmill towers, while harvesters chew through corn and soybean fields.
Yet a fresh crop of yard signs has sprouted across the state, planted by candidates for national, state and local office. And outside money is pouring into Iowa along with political bigfoots rallying their troops to help tip the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The 1st Congressional District in northeast Iowa is seen as an opportunity for the Democrats to knock off a vulnerable Republican incumbent. Congressman Rod Blum is fighting for his seat against a well-funded campaign waged by Abby Finkenauer, a 29-year-old state lawmaker with a $3 million war chest who has outspent Blum 3-to-1 as of September.
National political handicappers say the 1st District race leans Democratic, but Blum, 63, has defied the odds before. He wasn’t supposed to win his first election four years ago in the strongly Democratic district. And he fooled them again by getting re-elected two years ago, with an assist from Donald Trump, who moved Iowa from twice supporting Barack Obama into the Republican column. Blum is counting on the president to come through for him again.
On the Blum Campaign Trail
Heading toward Dubuque, yard signs are mostly for state and county candidates. One says “Vote morally: Oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.”
In downtown Dubuque nestled between the bluffs and the Mississippi River, old factories and breweries have been transformed into trendy shops and restaurants as the city’s working-class city economy has diversified.
Blum is hosting an event in one of those old factories, the Novelty Iron Works founded shortly after the Civil War to make machinery for saw mills and steam engines.
The event, which drew about 25 people ranging from 20-somethings to retirees, is billed as a discussion of term limits, sponsored by U.S. Term Limits, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group. Blum, who founded the Term Limits Caucus in the U.S. House, said career politicians have lost touch with the people.
Rather than “unilaterally disarm” by limiting his term on his own, however, Blum wants a constitutional amendment that affects all members of Congress – even veteran incumbents – with a limit of three terms in the House and one in the Senate.
“In 1900, the average term was 3½ years in the House and 6½ in the Senate,” Blum told the group. “What’s changed? Money: billions of dollars of dark money floating around the swamps of Washington, D.C.”
Before the event started, Dave Burggren, 69, a retired 3M salesman and Minnesota transplant who has lived in Dubuque for 22 years, talked about why he likes Blum.
“First off, I think he’s a straight-shooter. And, he gave, what was it, $400,000?” from his office budget back to the Treasury, Burggren said.
And President Trump?
“I like him. He shoots from the hip sometimes, but he is viewed as a businessman.”
Ed and Autumn Golden are sitting with three of their daughters. Autumn, 48, said they moved to Dubuque from Ohio because her husband took a job there in the agricultural chemical industry. They have been supporters of both Trump and Blum since they arrived in Iowa in 2016.
Is Trump still supported in Iowa?
“I sure hope so,” Ed, 51, responds.
“Because we need four more years” of his leadership, he says.
“The economy,” Autumn, 48, interjects.
“When we moved to Dubuque in 2016, there were tons of signs: hiring, hiring, hiring,” she said. “So we told our kids about the jobs” and four of their five children and their son-in-law followed them to Iowa.
On the way out, Blum stops for a brief interview and tells Courthouse News he agrees this election should be seen a referendum on Trump. If the Democrats take the House, he said it will be “non-stop investigations.” Blum said if he’s re-elected, he will work on health care, immigration, welfare, reducing federal spending, and “draining the swamp.”
Finkenauer Works a Union Crowd
A few days later, Democrats are gathering down the road in Anamosa at the AFSCME Local 2994 annual picnic, where Blum’s Democratic challenger is scheduled to drop by for a meet and greet.
Three union members are outside the union hall grilling burgers and hotdogs.
Brian Suthers, 46, a guard at the Gothic-revival State Penitentiary that commands a hill behind the Jones County Courthouse near downtown, said he sees the election as less about countering Trump than about getting Finkenauer elected.
“People are tired of Blum,” he said. “I think it’s more about her. She’s got a good head on her shoulders.”
Inside the hall, which is not much bigger than a two-car garage, Leo Gansen, 60, is chatting with folks who are fixing plates from roasters filled with barbequed meat and a dessert table groaning with homemade pies and pastries.
Asked whether this race is about Democrats controlling Congress or dumping Blum, Gansen said, “I think it’s more about proper representation. She is more in tune with the people. And she wouldn’t avoid talking to the people,” an allusion to criticism that Blum has avoided confrontational public events.
Shelley Annis is here with her husband, Scott, a penitentiary employee.
Shelley Annis, city administrator of nearby Central City, supports Finkenauer.
“I think she understands the working class,” she said. “She is young and vibrant. She saw how our parents struggle.”
Annis said it’s important that Finkenauer is a young woman because she can serve as a positive example for people like Annis’ daughter, who is in her 20s and attending Central College in Pella.
Annis’ husband, Scott, 49, said he sees this election as an opportunity to make a statement about treatment of women because of the “disrespect for women from the top leadership,” referring to Trump.
Shelley added: “Disrespect for both men and women.”
When Finkenauer arrives, she works the room, shaking hands and chatting with each of the 20-or-so union members and spouses before giving her stump speech: “We’ve been through one hell of a fight the last few years,” she said, referring to a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature gutting state employee union rights.
State employees watched that debate from the gallery overlooking the House chamber.
“I will never forget looking up into the gallery and seeing tears in their eyes. I remember thinking, ‘This is not how we treat people in our state and our country,’” the Democrat said.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Finkenauer is asked what she says to Trump supporters outside of friendly union environs.
“There’s some folks who voted for Trump in this room,” Finkenauer said. “They were sucked in by the message that he cared about jobs, infrastructure and health care.”
She recalls walking into a bar in her hometown of Sherrill and seeing her longtime friend Robby, who voted for Trump but now regrets his decision.
“It’s clear who they are looking out for,” Finkenauer said of the Trump administration, and she’s counting on disaffected Trump supporters like her friend Robby to support her in this election and give Blum an early term limit.