CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — The politically savvy state of Iowa prides itself on purple voting, boasting a congressional delegation evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But this year, with a closely matched Senate race and three competitive House seats, the GOP sees an opportunity to turn the state a vibrant shade of red.
Big bucks and big-name politicians are helping the effort. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was in Cedar Falls Wednesday, stumping for Republican businessman Rod Blum, who is running against Democratic state lawmaker Pat Murphy in the 1st Congressional District, which includes parts of eastern and northeastern Iowa. The seat is open because Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley is running for Senate.
"I think we're going to do pretty well in this election," Paul told the crowd of about 200 gathered at the University of Northern Iowa, saying that the "wind was behind" Republicans this year.
Blum is getting advertising help from the National Republican Congressional Committee — which is spending $400,000 on television time. He has received a campaign visit from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and will have Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in next week. Democrats are now pumping money into the race as well to try and shore up a seat in what is typically a left-leaning district.
Republicans are also spending heavily in the state's 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts. In the 2nd, in southeast Iowa, incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack faces a challenge from Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a former state official and doctor. And in the open 3rd District, which includes Des Moines, there is a tight race between former Democratic state lawmaker Staci Appel and Republican David Young, a longtime aide to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. The 4th District in conservative western Iowa appears likely to stay with Republican Rep. Steve King, though he faces a Democratic challenge.
"There's a good Republican trend in Iowa. That's what we're seeing and that's why we're putting money in," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tyler Houlton said.
Republican strategist Doug Gross said a more Republican delegation could increase GOP participation in the 2016 presidential caucuses, perhaps easing the way for a more centrist candidate to win.
"I think it makes it a more robust process," Gross said.
But Democrats questioned how good the GOP chances really were of securing all four House seats. They say they are confident they can keep the 1st and 2nd Districts and have invested significant dollars to try and pick up the open 3rd District, where Republican Tom Latham is retiring. Obama won the district easily in 2012.
"I think it's a sign that they've got more money than they know what do with," said Democratic consultant Jeff Link, an adviser to the Braley campaign, noting that Braley had beaten back significant GOP spending in past congressional races.
A key factor for the makeup of the delegation will be the outcome of the closely fought Senate race between Braley and Republican Joni Ernst, a state lawmaker. That race to succeed retiring Democrat Tom Harkin could drive turnout on either side. If Ernst wins, the state will have two Republican senators after decades with a senator from each party.
Voter registration in Iowa is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, with a bigger number listed as independents. But this is shaping up as a potentially good year for the GOP for a number of reasons. Many voters are fed up with Democratic President Barack Obama and view Washington with distrust. It also is a mid-term year without a presidential election, a climate which tends to favor Republicans.
Still, in a state with non-partisan redistricting process and a closely divided electorate, it is unlikely the state's delegation will turn completely or permanently Republican.
"Nationally, Republicans have the wind at their back," said former Iowa Democratic Party chairman Tyler Olson. But he said things could be different in two years, during a presidential cycle. "I don't see a trend emerging."