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Iowa 2nd District Candidates Spar over Conservative Credentials

Katarina Sostaric/Iowa Public Radio file
Iowa's 2nd Congressional District is seeing its largest Republican primary in years, after longtime Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack announced his retirement.

The congressional district thought to be Iowa’s most reliably Democratic is seeing its largest Republican primary field in years. That’s after longtime Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack announced his retirement from the 2nd District

Ahead of the June 2 primary, candidates are sparring over conservative credentials as they vie for the open seat in southeast Iowa. Five Republican candidates have jumped into the race to replace seven-term Rep. Dave Loebsack.

The frontrunners are considered to be State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who’s run unsuccessfully for the seat three times before and former Illinois Congressman Bobby Schilling.

Also in the race are Tim Borchardt who works for a payday loan shop, electrician Steven Everly and vacuum salesman Rick Phillips.

Phillips has drawn fire for saying that Islam should not be protected under the First Amendment, a stance which a Republican Party of Iowa spokesman told the Des Moines Register is "not reflective of the views" of the RPI.

But the campaign has largely narrowed to Miller-Meeks and Schilling sparring over who would make a better ally to President Donald Trump. They both pledge to crack down on immigration, block regulations on gun rights and cut spending.

Miller-Meeks enlisted in the Army, put herself through school to become a nurse, then a doctor, and ultimately a former head of the Iowa Department of Public Health. In one campaign ad, she's described as a "conservative, veteran, pro-Trump doctor."

Bobby Schilling owns a string of pizzerias and served one term in Congress, representing a neighboring district in his native Illinois. He moved across the river to LeClaire in 2017.

“We need a voice in Washington that will stand up for babies, for the children, for the parents, for the families," Schilling said in a campaign ad.

He presents himself as a social conservative seeking refuge from higher taxes and a less friendly business environment in Illinois.

Miller-Meeks has labeled him a carpetbagger. And as the Quad City Times reported in 2012, during his time in Congress, Schilling ruffled some feathers because of his bipartisan collaboration with the Democrat he's now hoping to replace, Rep. Loebsack. 

Eight years later, Schilling has questioned Miller-Meeks' conservative credentials. His campaign found a tweet Miller-Meeks sent in October of 2016 criticizing Trump, and a video of her describing herself as pro-choice at a event held by the Ottumwa League of Women Voters in 2018.

“It's difficult as a woman to face this issue. I'm also Catholic, I am pro-choice, but it's a very sensitive issue," she said at the event.

Miller-Meeks went on to say that this should be an individual decision.

“Ultimately, as a doctor and a healthcare provider, I think these are decisions that are best left to providers, to doctors and to patients. I don't want the government in my health care decisions," she said.

She’s since said that she misspoke, and points to a voting record of supporting anti-abortion legislation. Still, this could be a sticking point with some white evangelicals, who make up a key voting bloc in the Repubican Party.

But Miller-Meeks has an edge in fundraising, and held on to endorsements from top Iowa Republicans, including Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sen. Joni Ernst.

Schilling got the endorsement of Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, a Trump ally, which he hopes sends a message to the president’s supporters.

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, these candidates have had to abandon in-person campaigning. And as more Iowans lose their jobs, fall sick and even die, the candidates are rethinking the role of government aid, at least somewhat.

Schilling advocated for more federal support for farmers and small business owners at a Republican debate held via Zoom.

“I think money has to come out there to help our small businesses and our farmers, especially. Look, farmers feed the world. We’ve got to keep them up and…rolling. Because without the American farmer we’re in a lot of trouble," Schilling said. "But I think the small businesses need to have as much help as possible."

Miller-Meeks has called for temporarily expanding eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits and SNAP, and defering student loan payments due to the pandemic. She argues her healthcare experience will help her address the crisis.

“It's important to get somebody in who will address the problems we have with healthcare. What we're going to do in the next pandemic, how we're going to respond to that, and how we're going to be able to grow our economy,” she said.

Less than two weeks before Election Day, there was another upheaval in the campaign, when Schilling announced he’d been diagnosed with cancer and would undergo surgery right away. Still, he is staying in the race.

All four of Iowa’s congressional districts are considered competitive this cycle. But flipping the district seen as the state’s most Democratic could send a particularly strong message.

Still, political scientist Andrew Green of Central College says Loebsack's winning streak belies some of the other demographic trends in southeast Iowa that he says arguably makes this a swing district. 

“If you control for Johnson County and Scott County this, this district looks an awful lot like Trump country. It’s rural. And as we know…Donald Trump did very well in rural Iowa in 2016," Green said.

Trump carried the 2nd District by 4 points in 2016. Green says the district presents a prime pickup seat for Republicans hoping to make inroads in the U.S. House.

"Republicans have voter registration advantages and 15 out of the 24 counties," Green said. "I think they look at this district and and they probably have to believe it's one of the best opportunities for them to pick up a seat in 2020." 

Whoever wins on June 2 is slated to face teacher, farmer and former State Sen. Rita Hart, who has cleared the field for the Democratic nomination.