Majority In House Could Hinge On Key Iowa Race

If the presidential race and the battle for control of the House could be boiled down to one district, it might be Iowa's 3rd. There, two current members, Republican Tom Latham and Democrat Leonard Boswell, face off after redistricting put them in the same district. Outside money is pouring in, and this rare incumbent face-off could help determine who rules the House next year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In Iowa, two long-time members of the House of Representatives are waging a nasty reelection battle that will leave one of them out of a job come January. Both had their districts redrawn into one new district after Iowa lost a seat through reapportionment. NPR's David Welna reports on this rare incumbent face-off.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Iowa's new third congressional district stretches from populist Democratic-leaning Des Moines to conservative rural counties bordering Missouri and Nebraska, which may be why both congressmen vying to represent it are playing up their rural roots. Seventy-eight year old Leonard Boswell is an eight-term Democrat.

REPRESENTATIVE LEONARD BOSWELL: I was born in a tenet farmhouse. That's where I come from.

WELNA: Boswell is earthy and snowy-haired. His 64-year-old opponent is Republican Tom Latham. He wears tasseled loafers and has the air of a business executive. Yet, after nine terms in Congress, Latham still touts his ties to his family's seed company.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM LATHAM: I'm a farmer, small business person, someone who's actually had, you know, signed the front side of a paycheck and tried to grow a business.

WELNA: Latham is close to House Speaker John Boehner, but he's also a GOP moderate. And while Boswell embraces President Obama, he's voted, at times, with Republicans. Des Moines Register political columnist Kathy Obradovich moderated two of their recent debates.

KATHY OBRADOVICH: They're not very theatrical or entertaining or dynamic. The debates have been kind of boring.

WELNA: The same cannot be said for this race's barrage of nasty ads. Outside groups sponsor many that favor Latham. Here's one from Crossroads GPS painting Leonard Boswell as a heartless congressional big spender.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Almost 300,000 to Texas to study weather. While here in Iowa, over 32,000 have lost their jobs. Boswell should have been helping Iowa. It's time for Leonard Boswell to lose his job.

WELNA: Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford says considering who's running, this race has been remarkably unedifying.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: They're two relative heavyweights in Iowa politics. They've both been in Congress for a long time and they're really the first significant opposition that either one has had in all the time that they've been in the House.

WELNA: Bowell says he was left with no other option than to go negative on Latham as well.

BOSWELL: I've always had positive ads in my campaigns. Every campaign, every one time. And this one may have yet, but taken those kind of hits, you know, you got to respond. And I had one of those if I have to fight back, I will.

WELNA: One of Boswell's ads faults Latham for touting his vote against the 2008 bank bailout, even though a bank owned by Latham's family received more than $2 million in bailout funds, which have yet to be repaid.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: It's true. Latham and his family bank cashed in your tax dollars. What's worse, cashing in your tax dollars from the bailout or Tom Latham's hypocrisy?

WELNA: Latham says Boswell's become desperate.

LATHAM: The only personal attacks have come from Congressman Boswell, attacking me because he knows that if his record is exposed in this district, he can't win.

WELNA: Drake University's Goldford says this race is about more than two incumbents. Democrats want to regain control of the House. To do that, they'll need to win at least 25 seats held by Republicans and likely, even more.

GOLDFORD: Most people think it's not very likely that the Democrats will retake the control of the U.S. House of Representatives, but every particular seat matters.

WELNA: And Des Moines Democrat Joe Flynn fears Boswell's seat could be in danger.

JOE FLYNN: You know, it'll certainly would be more difficult, it's probably the most difficult election that he's had, but I'm hoping that he can still carry those districts. I know that some more conservative areas, I think, have moved in, so it will be tough.

WELNA: In the end, says the Des Moines Register's Obradovich, the fate of both congressmen is tied to the coattails of those topping their tickets.

OBRADOVICH: I would be very surprised if Romney won and Tom Latham lost or Obama won and Leonard Boswell lost.

WELNA: Still, Latham has five times more money than Boswell left to spend, most likely on more ads. David Welna, NPR News, Des Moines.

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